Where lemurs and humans are prey

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

Rural Madagascar. Photo: Kate Thompson

Today we are sitting in front of an ox-less ox-cart. Cows are getting rarer and rarer here. Cattle-thieves came through our village August 2017 and took everything. A key means of life savings and financial stability, cows are also quite a liability these days. They are blood in turbid water. When we arrived, the president of our village said it was safe from a repeat attack, because there were simply no cows left to steal.

Today we are sitting in front of an ox-less ox-cart, under the shade of a large leafy tree. The men crouch on one side and the women, wailing, huddle around the other. Wordlessly, my translators and I sit in the back of the crowd. On the bed of the ox-cart is a tented coffin. It looks almost boat-like: a floral and striped sheet stretched over the planks like a downed sail. A black back-pack is nested on one side. The faty–the dead one–has a long way to go.

Our neighbor, the victim’s cousin, tells us the boy was 18 and died after he injured his back carrying home an injured friend. They came across cattle-thieves in the forest and the boy’s friend, an older man, was shot. The boy hauled him home and got a “sickness in his back.” He was sick for hela be, a long time, in bed unable to walk. They say he saw a doctor, but it didn’t help. He died yesterday morning. I’m not sure what sickness nestled in the junction of his ribs and spine. Before I know the story, I know he must have died recently. Because the coffin is merely tented, the breeze is slight, and the air is hot.

As part of my research, I’m looking at how violent crime affects people’s choices to hunt wildlife, to hide in the forests, and to overcome unbelievable adversity. People show me doors scarred with machete marks, and empty paddocks where their prize cattle used to live. We talk about how they feel, and how they cope. When villages are attacked, people normally disperse into the forests in search of sanctuary. What does that mean for the animals who live there? Does Madagascar’s last wildlife refugia have room for more refugees?

The declining political situation in Madagascar, which has been fraught with years of turmoil, has led to a decreased and largely ineffective police presence. In the region where we work theft, kidnappings and murders are growing more frequent. “I think it’s the poverty,” says my translator. “There’s no corn, no work, no rain.” A neighbor shrugs, “Tsy maintsy.” There is no other option.

The community we live in was formerly dependent on corn. “We don’t bother planting anything now,” says another of our neighbors. “There’s no rain, and even if we could the dahalo would come and pull out our crops before we can harvest them. The bandits eat the vegetables before they’re even ripe.” She leans against a fence post and looks at the ground. “We can’t go out to our lasy to farm,” adds her husband. “The fields are far and there aren’t any genderme to protect us, if we planted corn in our fields. We have to live there all season while we till the soil and everything we with bring us there would get stolen or worse” he says gravely. “The police never come with us,” his wife replies. “No one cares.”

How does crime interrupt the flow of food in a rural community? If you’re to afraid to go to the market (the nearest town is a four-hour-long walk on foot), where do you buy your groceries? If you can’t bring your crops to that same market to sell, where does your income from? “All that’s left is the wood,” one man says in a focal group discussion. “No rain. No crops. Nothing but trees from the forest to cut and sell.” As crime escalates, does dependency on forest resources increase as well?

Gun ownership appears to be rising. Men buy guns for personal protection. Guns provide a sense of security on the open road and a means of arming the local colon, or militia, that keeps watch during the night. Focal groups suggest the most common way to hunt sifaka is with a slingshot. “You can get the grandpa lemur, the dad lemur, the son lemur all at once because they live in big families,” said a man last year. “Sifakas like especially some few trees–the same we use for the making boards and beams for houses,” a teen in our most recent hunter-group explains. “So we know where they will be going.”

When you add in guns, what happens then? When selling timber and other forest products becomes increasing important as an economic life-line in the local economy, then what? Where do any of us, lemur, human or otherwise, find refuge then?

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