SAVA REGION, Madagascar — Two of Madagascar’s senior wildlife officials have separately confirmed that lemur meat is served in hotels in their region, despite ongoing efforts to end the illegal bushmeat trade and protect the world’s most endangered group of vertebrates.

Another conservationist said local Malagasy people use a code to order lemur meat in restaurants without saying the animal’s name.

Lemurs are found in the wild only in Madagascar and the neighboring Comoros islands, and more than 90 percent of the 111 remaining species are threatened, according to the Red List of Threatened Species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The list identifies 24 species as “Critically Endangered,” 49 as “Endangered,” and another 20 as “Vulnerable.” In 2012, conservationists in a workshop for the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission concluded that lemurs are probably more endangered than any other group of vertebrates.

The animals have historically been hunted and eaten by local people living around Madagascar’s rainforests, many of whom live in poverty. In some parts of the country, certain species of lemurs are protected by fady, or cultural taboo, but elsewhere, lemur meat has traditionally been a source of protein for people who may otherwise go hungry. Reports of lemur consumption in urban restaurants sprang up after the country’s 2009 coup d’état, but have since died down.

Jean André Mboly, director of Marojejy National Park in the northeastern Sava region, said the bushmeat trade is still a “big problem” in his area. “Local people still enjoy eating bushmeat,” he said, through a translator.

He said that most of the illegal lemur hunting happens in unprotected forests, far from the tourist trail.

“I’m sure that all the lemurs available in the bigger towns are not from Marojejy. But there are still lots of forests that are not protected, so the hunters go there and then come back to the bigger towns to sell the meat,” he said.

In the regional capital Sambava, not far from Marojejy, the regional director of forestry, Arsonina Bera, also told Mongabay that lemur meat is served in hotels in urban areas.

“We try to manage it but it is an issue we have,” he said. “It happens at hotel level, in Sambava, because that is where the money is. And we have a few people who are making money from this.”

One of the highest-profile nongovernmental organizations in the area, Duke Lemur Center, also keeps a close eye on the bushmeat trade.

Its project manager in Sava, Lanto Andrianandrasana, grew up in a different part of Madagascar and said he was surprised when he moved to the northeast and discovered that most people he asked told him they had previously eaten lemur meat.

“I was a little bit shocked, asking people around this town, that there are still Malagasy restaurants that serve lemurs,” he said. “But it’s only for people who they know. It’s not for everyone, and there is like a code between them, like a password, to say that they want lemur.”

Andrianandrasana said he went on to try to find out for himself why people wanted to eat lemur meat.

“I asked people to see if there is a difference between chicken and lemur, and they said no. Chicken is more delicious than lemur, [according to what] they said. ‘So why do you eat lemur instead of just chicken?’ And they said, just to taste it, to say that they have eaten lemur,” he said. “So it’s like a fantasy or something like that, just to have it.”

A silky sifaka lemur (Propithecus candidus) in Marojejy National Park. Scientists estimate only 250 adults of the species remain. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

In search of silky sifakas

On a mountainside some 800 meters (2,625 feet) above sea level, two men walked together through the rainforest without speaking, some distance away from the well-kept trail.

The older one was barefoot, having left his flip-flops behind to move more quickly through the undergrowth of leaves, vines and tree roots. Both men had raincoats tied around them, ready for the next heavy storm.

These men, uncle and nephew, are professional lemur trackers, and in Marojejy National Park they were following one of the country’s most iconic and rare species: the silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus).

“Following the silky sifaka is difficult, but we are used to the search, we are experienced in finding them. After you get used to where they live, it is easy,” said the younger man, Janvier.

These animals, known locally as simpona, are distinctive, with long, white, silky fur. They live in small family groups, high up in the trees, and they are notoriously slow to breed because they mate just one day a year.

There are now believed to be fewer than 250 mature adults, and all live in this northeastern region of Madagascar. Unlike other lemur species, silky sifakas are not found in zoos anywhere in the world. It is impossible to keep them in captivity because they require a highly varied, rich diet of more than 100 plant species’ leaves, seeds, fruits and flowers, and even soil, all found in the rainforest.

The two trackers make a living by showing tourists where to find them. Visitors to Marojejy can walk for up to two days to reach the area inhabited by silky sifakas, and when they get there, they pay the trackers to see the lemurs for a few minutes.

Both men said they have been struck over the years by how similarly the lemurs behave to humans. “The silky sifakas have many human characteristics,” said Nestor, the older tracker, through a translator. “We notice it especially when it comes to the way they care for their young. They look after them just like we look after babies.

“It makes us interested in protecting them, when we see how much like humans they are. And we know that this species is special. You can’t find them in any other parks,” he added.

The two trackers communicate over long distances using animal-like calls instead of shouting, to avoid frightening the wildlife.

Nestor and Janvier are from a large village at the base of a mountain just outside the park where there is no taboo against eating lemurs. Poachers looking for bushmeat target even these rare silky sifakas.

But Janvier said the local population is developing a respect for the animals. “We enjoy watching them, and we respect each other. We respect the lemurs and they respect us,” he said in Malagasy. “These silky sifakas live in just 44 hectares [109 acres] of this national park, so we all do what we can to protect them.”

A critically endangered diademed sifaka lemur (Propithecus diadema) in eastern Madagascar's Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

Destruction of natural habitat

Back in Sambava, Bera talked about another problem exacerbating the effects of hunting, which could threaten the future survival of lemur species.

Across Sava, forests are being destroyed by illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, in which farmers cut down and set alight trees and other vegetation to clear large open fields for rice cultivation. In other parts of the country, people cut the forests for charcoal or to make space for livestock grazing.

“The forest is the issue for lemurs. [It’s being] depleted time after time,” Bera said. “The killers, the hunters, they are a problem, but we do not think they alone are a risk to the survival of the species.”

The combined problems are leaving many lemur species on the edge of extinction, which could have significant consequences for the habitats where they have lived for the last 60 million years. Lemurs act as seed dispersers for numerous plants, supporting the diversity of the forest.

And at a commercial level, lemurs are what the IUCN has called “Madagascar’s most distinctive brand.” More than quarter of a million tourists arrived in 2016, up by 20 percent from the year before and generating 2 million, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Many of them came to see lemurs, and the country, the 10th poorest in the world, needs their money.

One tour guide, who did not want to be named, gave Mongabay a photograph of a shot lemur he found while leading a group through the Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve, also in northeastern Madagascar.

He said the group heard gunshots about 500 meters (1,640 feet) from their camp and upon going to investigate, found the injured animal hidden in a rice bag attached to a bicycle. They also saw a man with a rifle, who left after the guide confronted him. The guide said he reported the incident and gave the injured animal to authorities, but the hunter was never caught.

Local and international conservation groups are attempting to help local people protect lemurs. Much of their work is focused on education and awareness: for example, the Lemur Conservation Foundation brings schoolchildren into Marojejy National Park to teach the next generation about the dangers facing lemurs and their habitat.

Other projects help people living around protected areas find new ways to make a living without harming forests or hunting wild animals. Duke Lemur Center helps communities set up fish farms to provide an alternative protein source to bushmeat and a new way to earn money.

But law enforcement is still patchy. Few poachers are caught or prosecuted, and hotels and restaurants are rarely found in the act of serving lemur or other illegal wild meat.

Research published in 2016 detailed the extent to which bushmeat is being transported to urban areas. Kim Reuter, now with the NGO Conservation International in Botswana, and her colleagues interviewed 2,000 people in 21 cities and villages in Madagascar, and concluded that city-dwellers consumed twice as much wild meat as their rural counterparts, and were willing to pay higher prices for it.

They found that bushmeat was transported up to 166 kilometers (103 miles) and “often sold through well-known market stalls and restaurants.” However, they did not find evidence that this open trade involved lemurs. They could not locate any restaurants selling lemur meat and found that most such reports “were at least five years old.” They concluded that the current threat to lemurs was from the informal meat trade.

Duke Lemur Center warns that one-third of lemur species have already been wiped out since humans first settled Madagascar roughly 2,000 years ago. But the group’s regional project manager, Andrianandrasana, said he feels optimistic about the future for lemurs.

“More people are more aware of how important are lemurs in Madagascar, and also many organizations work to protect these lemurs. So I am optimistic that lemurs can survive more than a hundred years from now, if we give help to the local communities,” he said.”

Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor are East Africa correspondents for the global news agency Feature Story News, based in Tanzania. Their investigations into wildlife trafficking, the ivory trade, poaching and blast fishing have been published by numerous international channels, and their work has previously been nominated for Royal Television Society and One World Media awards. Follow them on Twitter: @danielashby and @lucytaylor.