Madagascar's 101 lemur species are "the most threatened mammal group on Earth," according to a new policy paper published last week in Science. The famous primates have suffered over the past five years, since the start of the country's political crisis and resulting wave of violent unrest and environmental crime.

"Since the 2009 political crisis the situation on the ground has been grim for the Malagasy people, but also for the lemurs, especially in terms of habitat loss," co-author Mitch Irwin of Northern Illinois University said in a press release. "If things don't turn around, lemur extinctions will start happening." The 19 authors of the Science paper warn that 90 of the 101 known lemur species on the island nation are threatened with extinction, including 22 that are critically endangered. One species, the northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis), is down to its last 18 individuals.

Lemurs face threats on numerous fronts: Throughout the poverty-stricken nation forests have been chopped or burned down to make room for crops. Many other trees have been cut down to feed the illegal hardwood trade. Lemurs have also been hunted for their meat, something that rarely occurred in past decades. Madagascar's political turmoil has left existing environmental laws that would have protected forests and wildlife unenforced, and the international community has withdrawn most of its funding for conservation programs.

Amid all of these dangers "we risk losing a species of lemur for the first time since our records began," Bristol Zoo Gardens primatologist Christoph Schwitzer and lead author of the paper said in another press release last week. Any lemur disappearance, he warned, could trigger "extinction cascades" in their habitats, as "lemurs have important ecological and economic roles, and are essential to maintaining Madagascar's unique forests through seed dispersal and attracting income through ecotourism."

So what can be done to protect lemurs? This past December the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group and other organizations published a massive lemur conservation strategy (pdf) that addresses emergency actions necessary over the next three years. The plan identifies 30 priority sites essential for lemur conservation and calls for local management of key protected areas as well as more long-term research in critical lemur habitats. The conservation plan and Science paper also advocate a renewal of ecotourism in Madagascar—which nearly faded to nothing five years ago because of the unrest—to help fund conservation efforts. The paper says $7.6 million in international funding and revenue from ecotourism could help stem the tide of lemur population declines.

Most important of all is treating the Malagasy people as partners in conservation, Irwin said. "Nothing will be secure unless you make life better for the people who rely on the forest."

Schwitzer, meanwhile, said there is a great deal of hope for the future of lemurs. "Past successes demonstrate that collaboration between local communities, nongovernmental organizations and researchers can protect imperiled primate species," he said, while also praising the recent democratic election of the country's new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who took office at the end of January.

Schwitzer did acknowledge that ecotourism comes with risks. "There's always a trade-off between the destruction caused by too many tourists and the money they bring to the country that can be used for wildlife conservation," he told the BBC. "This balance for Madagascar is still very positive for conservation and it's a long way until it may tip over."

Photo: A black-and-white ruffled lemur (Varecia variegata), © and courtesy of Conservation International. Photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

Previously in Extinction Countdown: