Why Keeping Exotic Animals as Pets Threatens the Survival of One of the World’s Most Endangered Species

There may be more than 28,000 pet lemurs in Madagascar—animals that could mean the difference between survival and extinction of the primates.

(Photo: Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

Jan 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Most Americans know lemurs as the bright-eyed animal stars of TV nature shows. The small primates, found on the island nation of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa, are recognized as the most threatened group of vertebrates on earth—94 percent of all lemur species face extinction.

Which is why biologist Kim Reuter was surprised when she first observed that many Malagasy kept lemurs as pets. All kinds of lemurs, all over the place—at fancy hotels, in cities, and in villages.

Reuter began to wonder, to herself and to colleagues, whether the practice of keeping pet lemurs was harming efforts to protect and conserve endangered species? Captive lemurs were living in isolation from potential mates in the wild, for one thing, reducing the pool of genetic diversity. These animals might themselves need protection from poor care or other dangers.

“After one too many of these conversations about pet lemurs, I decided to take on the project myself” of figuring that out, said Reuter, a doctoral student at Temple University.

Reuter teamed up with local researchers to survey a representative sample of Madagascar households and came up with a shocking number: 1.1 percent of the population, or around 230,000 people, have kept pet lemurs.

It might not sound like a big number, but according to Reuter, 15 species of lemur are down to populations that number fewer than 10,000 individuals. She estimates that since 2010, more than 28,253 lemurs have been kept as pets in Madagascar. The results of the study were published this week in the journal Oryx.

“That still sounds like a lot, but when you think about 30,000 lemurs kept as pets, those numbers easily bring down a lemur species [to] the point of no return,” she said. “I worry that in 50 or 60 years, my kids will never get to see this species alive.”

Lemurs are not the only wild animals whose survival is threatened by private ownership. A booming global demand for exotic pets has put even more pressure on already endangered ploughshare tortoises and radiated tortoises (both native to Madagascar, like the lemur), while a loophole in U.S. federal law allows continued private ownership of endangered tigers.

Lemurs are kept as a potential food source in rural places but as a status symbol in urban areas. Most people who reported having lemurs as pets caught the animals instead of buying them, Reuter found.

While it’s technically illegal to keep an endangered species as a pet in Madagascar, there has been little enforcement of the laws, Reuter said. “There just isn’t the infrastructure to take these captive lemurs away from pet owners.”

But that may be changing.

In 2013, primate experts came out with a $7 million action plan for lemur conservation. Since then, some nongovernmental organizations have been working to create housing for confiscated lemurs. Reuter works with the Lemur Conservation Network, a project that plans to highlight the plight of lemurs as well as promote efforts to save them from extinction.

Reuter and her coauthors suggest that lemur pet ownership may have a silver lining. Through programs aimed at the reintroduction of threatened lemur species, pet lemurs could play a role in conservation efforts by maintaining genetic diversity in species whose wild populations are disappearing.

Of course, that would rely on a strong enforcement and permitting process—which may be difficult to achieve in Madagascar.