10/16/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Living With Lemurs


In the mid-nineties I lived under the canopy of a forest in Madagascar where the melodies of lemurs woke us every morning and soothed us to sleep every evening. To me, their music was harmonious, a nightly concert like a distant New Age choir. Yet it was the children of Madagascar, no older than five or six, who entertained and educated me by identifying the sound each different lemur made, knowing each species by name and distant song. Just as Malagasy children learned to walk and talk, by living in the forests they learned, too, the rich biodiversity that surrounded them. By the time they grew into their teens, they could compete for low-waged jobs as eco-tourist guides, while some could even guide the scientists, showing them where to find the lemurs and other endangered species.

Their knowledge wasn't motivated by a desire to hunt and kill the species that surrounded them. If anything, the lemurs in Madagascar exist today not despite the people who live there, but because of them. To kill a lemur in Madagascar is fady, taboo. Lemurs and people coexist in Madagascar, and it is only in recent years that those who live with them have been vilified as "poachers" and separated from the animals that they have lived with since humans settled on the island in the sixth century A.D.

So when Huffington Post recently reported that the International Union for Conservation of Nature had released a report indicating that 25 primate species are on the brink of extinction and six of them are lemurs, I took note of the comments. Most readers wisely noted that losing these species to extinction would be a global tragedy. Yet the view that those who live with the lemurs are the ones in need of extinction was a thread that ran through many of the comments, leaving me troubled to realize that for all the work that anthropologists have done to bring attention to the concerns of the people living in Madagascar and other biodiversity "hotspots" of the world, little has changed to raise social awareness, much less social concern.

"People?" an animal asks in the DreamWorks movie Madagascar, "If there were people on this island, why then it wouldn't be wild." Sadly, despite a population of22 million people, that sentiment continues to characterize those who have created the ecosystems of Madagascar. For it is only through swidden agriculture which burns the forest cover and returns the nutrients to the forest floor for rapid regrowth, that the rich biodiversity of Madagascar's forests have survived. It is only through teaching their children the songs of the lemurs and the fady against killing them, that the lemurs and other interdependent species have survived. And it is only through returning their dead to the forest caves that the Malagasy have come to revere the forests as not only their future, but as their sacred, ancestral lands.

Yet as I wrote in my book, Endangered Species: Health, Illness and Death Among Madagascar's People of the Forest, (Carolina Academic Press, 2002) these lands have been ruled by outsiders for centuries, whether outsiders from Madagascar's own highlands, or the French colonialists who seized lands, instituted forced labor, ensured a continuing supply of labor by taxing people who did not marry early and have several children, and compelling people to shift from multi-crop subsistence farming to mono-crop production for export. And when the colonialists left, the environmentalists arrived. As they say in Madagascar, lasa ny momba, fa misosoka ny voay (the crocodiles have gone but the alligators have arrived).

Like the colonialists, the expat environmentalists perceive their goals as noble. And for the most part, I share those goals. But as I watched parades of tourists, scientists, consultants and development workers pour into the forests to protect the lemurs, I also watched as ten percent of the people in my village died. Most did not die in beds, but on Madagascar's reddened earth. They died on floors made of mud, in homes made of mud. They died from malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis and other treatable diseases. Parents buried child after child, while cut off from the subsistence lands they once controlled, while Structural Adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank devalued their currency, sent prices of goods sky-rocketing, and inequality soared. Few outsiders showed concern for the children--or their parents--who were dying prematurely. Yet for a single lemur to be wounded, a call to action would be sounded--and the press and their photographers ushered in.

If people are killing lemurs in Madagascar, it is indeed a tragedy. Yet how much more tragic if those killings are a response to the astounding indifference so much of the western world has shown to those who have lived among the lemurs for centuries. And while some defend the costs of human lives as some sort of "collateral damage" if it brings with it greater protection for the lemurs, I have yet to meet a westerner who would give their own child's life, for that of a lemur.

Let us not forget that we are, ourselves, primates, and for all the destruction our consumer-driven lives have brought to the ecosystems in which we live, we are as much creators of those ecosystems, as we are their destroyers. It is high time we honor those who created lemur habitats, the indigenous Malagasy, and stop demonizing them for that habitat's destruction. A family of twelve in Madagascar does not consume as many resources annually as does a family of four in the United States, or as a single SUV half-full of well-meaning conservationists. So next time you think about the tragedy of the lemurs, look to your own patterns of consumption that lay waste to our globe. Not a one of us is off the hook on this one.

Photo by Janice Harper of Malagasy girl learning to prepare rice her family has grown in the forests of Madagascar.