You’re probably aware by now of this newsletter’s basic premise: that human culture can sometimes benefit biodiversity – directly or indirectly. Think of artists celebrating nature or communities who share in protecting their local environment and this may seem relatively unproblematic.
But what about beliefs or traditions that clearly harm nature? What if a fear or superstition leads to the killing of, say, an animal classed as endangered?
This happens all over the world, from time to time. But one example can be found in the lush forests of Madagascar, where an elusive and enigmatic lemur lives. The aye-aye is sometimes called the strangest primate on Earth. It is, certainly, the largest nocturnal primate around and only sighted very occasionally. And its appearance is most unusual. Aye-ayes have wiry black hair, huge eyes and weirdly long, skinny middle fingers.
That finger is actually an incredible tool. These lemurs tap tree trunks and branches with it, using echolocation to detect the presence of the insects they feed on. The bugs often scurry out of sight, inside the tree or beneath its bark.
But for some local people in Madagascar, the aye-aye is a terrible omen. A harbinger of death, even. Stories passed down through many generations suggest that, should you encounter an aye-aye, then one of your relatives will soon die, or your crops will fail.
Over the years, researchers have collected reports of people killing aye-ayes and even leaving their carcasses decaying in the road. A sad fate for an animal that is on the decline and whose habitat has greatly diminished in recent decades. There are likely fewer than 10,000 individual aye-ayes left in the wild. However, the consequences of superstitions about aye-ayes vary. Some people in Madagascar treat killing or eating aye-ayes as fady, or taboo, and so they leave the lemurs well alone.
Before going any further, I should say that this article is not intended as an exercise in criticising people in the developing world while failing to mention our own infractions. Many of us in the West arguably do far more damage to the environment, via our much larger carbon footprint alone, than those in Madagascar. Plus, as I’ll explain, new research is revealing that our Western understanding of aye-aye superstitions may actually be somewhat skewed.
I do think the aye-aye story is a fascinating case study. For one thing, it raises the tricky question of how you, as an outsider, might attempt to change environmentally damaging attitudes and opinions. A given community could, after all, have held such opinions for a very long time.
It’s this question that Dominik Schüßler at the University of Hildesheim in Germany, and colleagues, have tackled lately. When they combed through the available academic literature on attitudes towards aye-ayes in Madagascar, they found, almost exclusively, reports about Malagasy villagers harbouring negative views or superstitions.
But when Schüßler and his colleagues interviewed dozens of people from 11 villages in northeast Madagascar, they discovered a surprisingly broad range of opinions about aye-ayes – not blanket paranoia.
“Almost everybody farms cloves – 97% in our sample of 83 households – and some farmers discovered that the aye-aye feeds [on] pest insects from clove flowers,” he explains. This means the farmers don’t have to do as much manual pest control, which is good because that can lead to a reduced harvest.
Farmers in the study who recognised this benefit felt appreciation towards aye-ayes because they could see how the lemurs provided a useful service within the ecosystem.
Schüßler and his colleagues also found some villagers who had more or less neutral feelings about aye-ayes. These people, rather than fearing the lemurs, were curious about their habits and mentioned that they sometimes casually observe aye-ayes from a distance whenever they clamber on rooftops, searching for insects.
In total, 47% of interviewees expressed negative views about aye-ayes while the rest had neutral or positive views. Nearly a fifth of the total sample held a positive perception, in fact.
The team also found that people who lived in the same village generally shared the same opinion about aye-ayes. The full results were published in a paper in March, in the journal People and Nature.
Here are some examples of things Malagasy people had to say about these lemurs:
“The aye-aye does scary things to people.”
“Aye-aye is helpful, it eats larvae from clove trees.”
“We rarely see it.”
“When it comes to the village, it has to be killed and the dead body should be brought away to the next village.”
Schüßler argues that this tapestry of diverse views presents an opportunity: conservationists seeking to defuse superstitions about aye-ayes could potentially do so by spreading the word about these primates’ contributions to local ecology.
When working with communities whose livelihoods depend on subsistence farming, any interventions ought to be relevant to their daily lives, he adds.
The same could apply to conservation outreach programmes more broadly. When speaking to certain people, emphasising the benefits of ecosystem restoration in terms of access to cleaner air and water may be quite appealing, for example, whereas, “forest conservation because of CO2 storage is way too abstract,” says Schüßler.
He says the next step is to develop educational programmes that challenge the bad press that aye-ayes get in some villages, specifically through emphasising their positive role in local ecosystems.
I should note that there are lots of examples of other educational efforts aimed at softening attitudes towards these unusual lemurs.
Notably, there is a colourful children’s book called Ako the Aye-aye, which describes an interaction between a young aye-aye and his mother. “She looked like a silver ghost running along in the moonlight,” one poetic line goes. A separate team of researchers published a paper in 2010 in which they described how the book had provoked warm responses among a sample of young readers in Madagascar.
There remains much to learn about Malagasy perceptions of aye-ayes, and the aye-aye itself, which, thanks to its elusiveness, has not been studied in as much depth as many other primates. But this new research demonstrates how important it is to understand a culture before attempting to tinker with it.
Currently, billions of people around the world are being told they must change their habits and their expectations in order to fight climate change and safeguard biodiversity. But those promoting altered behaviour are surely going to have to take into consideration the views of their target audience, and think about how to appeal to them.
That could be one of the broader lessons from this work in Madagascar. As Schüßler says, “Locally rooted, culturally adapted interventions are the best.”
Some links for you
The rise of feral boar in Europe has provoked much discussion lately (as I have reported elsewhere, this is partly because they sometimes spread a deadly pig disease called African Swine Fever) but nowhere have I read as captivating a piece about them as Nick Hunt’s essay in Emergence Magazine last week.
While recounting his own search for wild boar in the Forest of Dean in England, Hunt makes fascinating observations about history, mythology and people’s attitudes towards these animals. The writing leaves you with a strong sense of the boars’ strength and aloofness. “The night belongs to the boar,” writes Hunt, evocatively.
After chancing upon them, he reflects, “It feels like an England I know but don’t know, familiar and yet unfamiliarly charged, unfamiliarly alive.”
Also, check out this piece by Jim Robbins at Yale Environment 360 about how authorities in the United States are currently returning huge tracts of land to Native American communities, bolstering indigenous management of such areas.
This doesn’t always lead to an improved situation for wildlife but there are signs that supporting an indigenous world view can yield environmental rewards:
“The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal management of natural resources has been highly praised. They created the nation’s first tribal wilderness area, the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, and annually close off 10,000 acres of it to humans to allow grizzly bears — a spirit animal — to feed on a summer bonanza of lady bugs and army cutworm moths high in the mountains.”
Finally, don’t miss this charming map by the artist known as Tiny Potager. It charts the countryside where her family walks – and labels various places using the names her daughter has given them, from “crow hills” to “the lichen tree”.
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