Lemurs in the garbage

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad Fellow”

When I lift my travel mug to sip my coffee, it’s covered in a fine layer of red dust. On the lid, under the tab, on the ridges inside the cup. I take my sweat-dampened handkerchief and attempt to wipe off the dirt but I know it’s a futile effort.

Well, I think, we would all use a little more grit I suppose. It’s noon and 102 degrees Fahrenheit. My translator and I are off to visit households for an afternoon of interviews. In the last year, how many times did you eat a tenrec? In the last year, how many times did you buy a tenrec? Did you eat the tenrec you bought, or did you give it to someone else? Did you then eat it with them at their house? The work gets tedious for everyone involved, including some very indulgent, very patient villagers.

Villager interview. Photo: Kate Thompson

Little tombotriky, a tenrec like creature. Photo: Kate Thompson

Madagascar is often referred to as “the Red Island.” And the rusty earth is everywhere. We live in a village of earthern houses and barren floors; my team and I live in a thatch-and-earth house that we’ve refitted with desks and rice-sack wallpaper, and a luxurious amount of reed-mat floor coverings called tsias. The dust drifts down from the rafters and settles over notebooks and specimen bags. I back-wash the filter daily to flush the sediment from our water. In the shower, red soil streams off my face and feet with each cup of water. (Proof that I’m not getting tan, just dirt-coated).

I believe that major insights to conservation are also buried in the earth of this place. Waiting to be sieved out, dusted off, lifted into the glint of the subequatorial sun, and asked their stories. Bones are useful like that. They tell the histories of human diets, even when the humans themselves are less forthcoming.

Bones pulled from dirt and garbage piles in Madagascar. Photo: Kate Thompson

I research wildlife hunting and consumption. Besides conducting interviews, my team and I also examine the trash from local households for animal remains. We do this dumpster-diving for two reasons.

1. People are notoriously bad estimators of their own resource consumption1 (How many cups of coffee have YOU drank in the past year? Any clue? My response would simple be: uhh… a lot).

And 2. People lie. Wouldn’t you? In Madagascar, hunting can be illegal depending on the species, time of year, and equipment used. If we’re talking lemurs, of which 94% of known species are threatened with extinction, hunting is always illegal. Across the world, people often underreport or intentionally deny illegal activities. Or even just the consumption of stigmatized goods. According to a long-term study in Tucson, Arizona, people consistently underreported alcohol and fast-food consumption and over-reported recycling. While we might be shy or have a shoddy memory, our trash has no such inhibitions. Therefore, with consent and plenty of chuckles, I’ve become the trash-picking local of this rural Malagasy town.

My project is only a month old, but we’ve already unearthed some interesting findings. Yesterday, the dirt yielded a set of jaw bones belonging to an unlucky Red-tailed Sportive Lemur, locally known as boenga. Our cook, peeking over my shoulder as I sorted bone after bone, picked out what she’s pretty sure is a bone fragment from a Verreauxi’s sifaka. She would know, she eats them after all.

Boenga jawbone. Photo: Kate Thompson

Photo: Kate Thompson

Depending on funding (which is hard to come by in this political climate) my project will run for about six months, stretching over the arch of the lean season. According to focal group data I’ve collected January, February, and March have the highest prevalence of household food insecurity. Crops are planted before the onset of the rains in December. It’s a long and soggy three months before anything edible comes up from the ground. Could it be that wildlife hunting and consumption peaks during these times? I’ll also examine how childhood malnutrition, household income, household size and personal dietary preferences all effect how likely a person is to hunt and eat wildlife.

The longer I can run the project, the better information I can get about how hunting pressure overlaps with times of economic stress and the behavioral traits of wildlife. How intense is hunting pressure during breeding seasons for specific lemurs? We simply don’t know here. And in order to implement effective conservation policies and aid programs that help people when they need it most, we need to know. Only time—and trash—will tell.

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