Lemur Island - Yes or No?

Harriet Reeves

25 Jul 2017

My Views on Lemur Island

During my recent trip to Madagascar (it is amazing, you should go!), I made time to go to the contentious ‘Lemur Island’ located in the Vakona Forest just outside the village of Andasibe (about 4 hours east of Antananarivo).

I must admit, I was in two minds about going. My background is in wildlife research, having completed my masters in conservation biology at the University of Bristol and spent over two years researching cheetahs and other large carnivores in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, plus a stint in the jungles of Borneo, habituating elephants for wildlife research. I have always appreciated the use of captive wildlife facilities, in educating the public (I’m well aware that I am in the minority in being able to experience these animals truly wild), but I have always tried to avoid them wherever possible myself. This is particularly true when it comes to captive wildlife facilities that allow you to physically interact with the animals rather than just observe.

So, when it was suggested that we visit the Lemur Island, it was with some trepidation that I agreed. 

Lemur Island is a project borne from the Vakona Forest Lodge, a comfortable lodge surrounded by the rainforest. The story goes that the lemurs on this small river island are individuals rescued from the captive wildlife trade, and as they had been in the presence of humans so much, they could not be fully released into the wild. This could be true, but is it not better to euthanise the animal than keep it in an environment of stress for the rest of its life? These were my thoughts to start with anyway. We do occasionally have clients request to visit the island however, so I thought I would take a look and see for myself, so that I can better advise NWS travellers.

So, go I did. To be honest, on the face of it, it didn’t seem awful. The lemurs are on a small island, probably a hectare or two (though I do not know the exact measurements), which is far smaller than their natural ranges would be if they were fully wild. But they appear healthy enough – their coats are clean, eyes are bright and their belly’s full (though possibly a little too full – obesity is a welfare issue just as much as malnutrition).

The lemurs, of which there are eastern grey bamboo, black and white ruffed, and red-bellied brown lemurs, are free to roam on the island and other similar islands as they wish, foraging for leaves and living a generally normal life, if a little restricted in acreage and close to other species. The issue comes when you add tourists into the mix. Yep, us. The thing is, animals cost a lot to keep in captivity, and the island is not so large as to be able to sustain these animals completely, in addition to providing healthcare etc. So that’s where tourism comes in. 

By opening the island to the paying public, the proprietors can earn an income to sustain this population of lemurs. But, by opening the island to the public, the lemurs are getting excessive and unnatural interaction with humans that makes them anything but wild.

To encourage the lemurs down from the trees to interact with the paying guests, the ‘guides’ lure them in the form of a nice banana. Bananas are great, they are natural, but they are highly calorific and not the lemurs primary diet – particularly the bamboo lemur who feeds on less than nutritious bamboo! So, the lemurs are a little on the chubby side. Using the banana, the guides encourage the lemurs on to the heads and backs of the tourists for a photo opportunity or ten. They are for want of a better word, photo props.

The use of animals as photo props for tourists has come under heavy criticism over recent years and understandably so, as snakes, monkeys and bears among almost every other species, are taken from their mothers in the wild and kept in cramped conditions in the centre of busy tourist sites, waiting for a paying tourist to wrap the snake around its shoulders and smile for the camera. I still remember the prolific use of these in the main square of Marrakech – thousands of people milling around, noise, unusual smells and terrified young monkeys and baskets of snakes of all shapes and sizes. Not the best relic from my holiday.

So, animals as photo props is bad, so Lemur Island is bad, right? Well, maybe, but this is where the area starts to get grey. 

Lemur Island is quiet, it is located within a rainforest environment, the number of visitors is regulated, and as they are so habituated, they seem relatively relaxed about the whole thing. They’re being given the lemur equivalent of candy, so I suspect a wildlife vet may take issue to their diet, but to the uneducated eye they seem alright. So, the negative welfare implications are far less obvious here than in, say, Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech. But what about the hidden welfare issues? Wild animals show stress in many different ways, and often don’t show this outwardly at all – it might end up in them being someone else’s dinner after all. I would be interested to put my scientist hat on and study the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the Lemur Island lemurs compared to truly wild individuals, to see if there are major differences.

Despite my concerns, there is unavoidably something wonderful about having a lemur sit on your head. And as much as my brain and years in conservation research were screaming at me to not partake in this experience, the endorphins gained from it were undeniable. I don’t know what primitive reason this is due to, but I can’t hold my hand up and say I didn’t have a fleeting moment of enjoyment in having two or three lemurs sit on my shoulders and head. 

So I get it. It is fun and exciting and a rush to interact with these beautiful wild animals. But at what cost to the individual’s welfare and the general lessons that are taken away by tourists and locals alike, that it is okay to have such unnatural interactions with wildlife? This is a difficult, grey issue, and I still struggle to work out where I stand. Hopefully my ramblings might at least open up the issues for and against to you, so that you can make your own decisions regarding this contentious location.

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