Endangered lemurs have become luxury items on the menus of some Madagascar restaurants, reports Conservation International (CI) and its local partner, the environmental nonprofit Fanamby.

The Indian Ocean island nation has experienced political upheaval in recent months, with its president stepping down in March under intense pressure. The unrest has resulted in Madagascar's suspension from the African Union and the withdrawal of international support that has long helped to fund environmental and conservation efforts in the nation.

The political breakdown in Madagascar, home to up to 5 percent of the world's biodiversity, has created a boom market for environmental crime, ranging from illegal logging to the collection of animals for the pet trade, CI reports. Now, poaching of two endangered lemur species has started occurring in regions that were once protected and where poaching has not been observed for years.

The Sava region in the northern area of Madagascar "hasn't had significant lemur poaching in the last few years because there's been a major conservation effort there," says Russ Mittermeier, CI's president and one of the world's leading authorities on lemurs.

"This is a major consequence of the breakdown in Madagascar. As soon as you have political breakdown, the local mafias come in for timber, then go after whatever else they can get," Mittermeier says. "They rip off natural resources as quickly as possible."

Fanamby has uncovered evidence of lemurs illegally killed by poachers to be sold to restaurants as a luxury product. They include the crowned lemur (Eulemur coronatus), a species classified as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and the golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli), which is listed as endangered.

Both species only exist on the northern tip of Madagascar. The crowned lemur has an increasingly fragmented habitat and a distribution of less than 20,000 square kilometers. The golden-crowned sifaka has an even smaller range—5,000 square kilometers. And according to the Red List (to which Mittermeier contributed core research), only 10 populations of the golden-crowned sifaka are large enough for long-term genetic viability.

So far, 15 people have been arrested for selling poached lemurs, Fanamby secretary general, Serge Rajaobelina says. "The middlemen pay about 1,000 ariary [53 cents] [per lemur] and they sell them for 8,000 ariary [$4.20] to the restaurants and markets in the region," Rajaobelina says.

Despite the arrests, Mittermeier fears there is little incentive in Madagascar to end the poaching. "These types of criminals tend to just get slaps on the wrist," he said.

To help protect these species and end other environmental crimes in Madagascar, CI has called on the international community to resume funding for the country's conservation and development efforts. "The world community must act now to support the dedicated local wildlife authorities who are battling to prevent this globally important resource from being destroyed," Mittermeier said in a prepared statement.

"Whenever there's a political problem like this, major donor agencies cut off all support, which punishes people in poor areas and wildlife," Mittermeier told Scientific American. "We need other ways to implement political pressure other than cutting off all support. It hurts the people and it also hurts the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that are on the ground doing the work."

There are 100 known lemur species and subspecies, all of which are endemic to Madagascar. Seven species are listed as critically endangered, 19 as endangered and 41 as threatened.

Talks between Madagascar's feuding political powers are set to resume next week in Mozambique.

Image: Conservation International