Ring-tailed lemurs and the local pet trade

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For many, the King Julien character in the popular movie Madagascar taught us all we know about ring-tailed lemurs, but there are quite a few inaccuracies when it comes to the information portrayed on the big screen. Ring-tailed lemurs actually live in a matriarchal society – no kings, only queens.

These important pollinators in the forests of southern Madagascar are under severe threat. “There are likely less than 5 000 ring-tailed lemurs left in the wild and the population is declining rapidly,” says Dr Marni LaFleur, founder of Lemur Love. Habitat destruction, climate change, the bushmeat trade, and the illegal pet trade all contribute to the ring-tailed lemur’s demise.

Photo; Marni LaFleur

Unlike many lemur species that are specialist feeders, the ring-tailed lemur is a generalist feeder, gorging on seasonal fruits, flowers, young leaves and insects. Their adaptable nature and varied diet is both a blessing and a curse. “Many lemur species cannot survive captivity because they are specialists,”
says LaFleur.

Why lemurs make bad pets

Photo; Marni LaFleur

Lemurs make terrible pets and it takes thousands of years to domesticate an animal. “We cannot adequately meet their complex social needs, and adult lemurs cannot conform to our idea of what makes a good pet,” explains LaFleur. Lemurs reach sexual maturity at about three years and often become aggressive. They are very scent-orientated, using their anogenital scent glands to mark their territories.

“Ring-tailed lemurs are the number one most reported pet lemur in Madagascar,” LaFleur adds. Lemur poaching generally increases in November in preparation for the influx of tourists in December. The ring-tailed lemur spends a great deal of time on the ground, and babies are caught here because they are slower than the group. “This is problematic as infants only start to wean late-January,” she explains. Therefore it is likely the baby will die from malnutrition.

There is no evidence that the lemurs captured in Madagascar are exported for the international pet trade. “All pet lemurs outside Madagascar are descendants of animals imported from the 1960s to 1980s,” LaFleur adds.

ring-tailed lemur

Photo; Marni LaFleur

Many countries prohibit primates as pets because they can spread disease, but in the American states of Texas and Florida the laws are lax. “In America, people often try to give unruly pet lemurs to zoos, but zoos don’t want poorly behaved pets that don’t positively contribute to the captive gene pool.” Poorly behaved lemurs suffer in captivity. “In Madagascar we know of animals that have had fingers and tails amputated for poor behaviour, and some pets have been eaten after they’ve become aggressive,” says LaFleur.

Unmanageable pets may also be released back into the wild, which is a death sentence, as the lemur has not learned to fend for itself. The ring-tailed lemur’s resilient attitude means it can bounce
back. “As long as there are animals remaining and a habitat for them to live in, there is hope.”

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Written by Georgina Lockwood

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