Lemurs Hunted, Eaten Amid Civil Unrest, Group Says

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There were vast increases in protected areas and ecotourism under the nation's now deposed leaders, Mittermeier said.

But valuable hardwoods, once protected by law in national parklands, began falling to the blades of illegal loggers earlier this year—further denuding a landscape that has already seen staggering deforestation.

Now lemurs are being targeted for the table. (See a ring-tailed lemur photo.)

"It's really scary to think of an Africa-type bush-meat trade getting started in Madagascar," said Charlie Welch, conservation manager at the Duke University Lemur Center.

"That's something that hasn't really existed in Madagascar up till now. The bottom line is that an opportunity exists now that wasn't there before."

Ecotourism Sabotage

Conservation International's Mittermeier stressed that the few hunters making money on the lemur trade are sabotaging a growing ecotourism industry that may be the country's greatest competitive advantage.

"People go to Madagascar first and foremost to see lemurs," he said.

If the poachers "are shooting them to make a few bucks, they are undercutting the future of the country as a whole."

Mittermeier also said that international donors trying to punish a few politicians involved in a power grab are doing serious damage to Madagascar's irreplaceable resources.

"If you pull the funding for these agencies, they have no way to patrol or control [areas like national parks]," he said.

"These guys benefiting from the breakdown of law and order do have some money, and they can pay illegal loggers or pay hunters to kill lemurs."

Community Backing

But Rajaobelina, the Malagasy nonprofit director, said that the domestic situation may be improving.

He's working with the new government, which has already fired several environmental and forestry officials in response to the crisis.

"They have reacted to what we've been saying and have really become involved in conservation efforts. We have seen some changes," he said.

Rajaobelina said that local villagers who had benefited from an ecotourism economy oppose poachers plundering their forests.

"People in the communities were scared [of violence against them]," he said.

"But since we arrested a few [poachers] some of the [local people] have started to talk. These communities are really committed to stopping people from outside coming in and killing the animals.

"It's a little bit dangerous," Rajaobelina admits of his current anti-poaching efforts.

But "as long as we have the communities behind us, we're actually more protected by them than by the police."

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