Lemurs kept illegally as pets in Madagascar are threatening this species' survival, the world's most endangered primate, according to new research.

For the last three years, a staggering 28,000 or so lemurs have been living in thousands of urban households across the country, flying under the radar. There are at least 14 lemur species with populations numbering at less than 10,000, but the pet trade might be undermining efforts to help this species recover.

"We've been spending millions of dollars on lemur conservation in Madagascar, but despite spending all this money, no one has ever quantified the threat from the in-country pet lemur trade," Kim Reuter of Temple University, who led the study, said in a statement. "If we're spending these millions of dollars there to preserve these species, we should actually examine all the threats facing lemurs."

The owning of lemurs as pets is indeed illegal, but enforcing this law is lax and almost non-existent.

"You see it everywhere; even government officials and the people who are supposed to be enforcing the ban on pet lemurs own them," Reuter explained.

Also, conservationists tend to focus their efforts on more obvious threats to lemurs like deforestation and hunting.

"Now that we know that lemur pet ownership is happening, and happening at this scale, it's an issue that we can't ignore anymore," the researcher added. "If people are going to keep lemurs as pets, then more outreach, regulation and enforcement is needed to ensure healthier captivity for the lemurs."

Hunting by humans in the past has largely been blamed for the downfall of this species. But a recent study of giant lemurs, which are now extinct, suggests that naturally small population size may also have something to do with it. This provides insight for scientists looking to tackle threats to modern lemurs.

The findings were published in the international conservation journal, Oryx.

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