Would you eat this lemur?

MAROJEJY NATIONAL PARK, Madagascar — Bit by bit, the natural resources of Madagascar — a biodiversity hotspot known for its unique vegetation and wildlife — are being plundered.

The island’s current political chaos has caused lax law enforcement and illegal loggers are taking advantage of the situation by venturing deep into the country’s national parks to cut scores of rare trees in search of precious wood such as ebony and rosewood. The wood is exported mostly to China, but some of it finds its way on American and European markets, particularly the makers of fine guitars.

At the same time, the illegal loggers are hunting Madagascar’s iconic lemurs for for their meat. The problems are compounded by the island's chronic poverty that forces many to join the pillagers just to put food on the table.

“When the money is rare it’s always the natural resources that suffer first,” said Sebastien Wohlhauser of Fanamby, a local environmental NGO.

Madagascar's endangered lemurs are being illegally hunted for their meat.
A Ring Tail lemur in Madagascar.
(Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

The current environmental crisis is partly to blame on the previous government. In January, it issued a decree authorizing the exportation of already constituted stocks of rosewood felled by a cyclone several years earlier. The measure was meant to give economic relief to the local population but it turned instead into an incentive to pillage protected areas and raid government warehouses for more precious wood.

The overthrow of President Marc Ravalomanana in March aggravated the situation as it left local police forces busy with riots in the capital and unconcerned by the looting taking place in parks and reserves. To make things worse, most international donors suspended non-humanitarian funding, leaving anti-logging efforts vastly underfunded.

Illegal logging has grown to such an extent that a coalition of environmental groups including Conservation International and the World Wide Fund for Nature to send a letter to Madagascar’s transitional government in October, saying that “Madagascar's forests have long suffered from the abusive exploitation of precious woods, most particularly rosewoods and ebonies, but the country's recent political problems have resulted in a dramatic increase in their exploitation. This activity now represents a serious threat to those who rely on the forest for goods and services and for the country's rich, unique and highly endangered flora and fauna.”

At Marojejy National Park, a park located in the northern part of the country that is home to the rare Silky Sifaka lemur, things got so out of hand earlier this year that the park was closed to visitors for a couple of months.

“At the time of the rosewood logging we didn’t go into the forest because they had rifles,” said Fostin Behova, the park’s ecotourism manager.

When the loggers first descended on the local village of Mandena near the entrance of the park, local villagers saw business opportunities. The newcomers were buying local food at inflated prices, paying five times the going price for a chicken. Herve Bakarizafy, the park director, also said that 20 percent to 30 percent of the villagers were directly involved in logging activities.

But soon things went awry. Loggers dragged tree trunks through the villagers’ fields, destroying valuable rice and vanilla plantations. They threatened those who refused to cooperate and even burned one of the villagers’ house to the ground.

“They didn’t only deal in rosewood,” Bakarizafy said. “They stole chickens. They stole manioc. It was complete chaos.”

Bakarizafy saw an opportunity in the villagers’ mounting anger toward the outsiders. He reminded locals of the park system’s past and future investments in the community, from building irrigation dams to a new roof for the local school, and provided some with a stipend to patrol alongside the park’s 14 rangers. Bakarizafy credits the mixed patrols with putting an end — for now — to illegal logging in the park.

While the illegal activity seems to have subsided at Marojejy, it is still going strong at Masoala National Park, a vast expanse of coastal forest that is only accessible by foot or by boat. There, one of the country’s largest protected areas, hundreds of loggers dump felled rosewood logs in the rivers flowing toward the ocean where they’re rounded up and taken to a nearby port for export.

“In Masoala it’s very difficult because the park is very big, and we have only 30 rangers,” said Charles Alfred Rakotondrainibe, deputy head of Madagascar’s park system.

Trees haven’t been the only casualties. Observers say loggers regularly hunt lemurs for meat while they work in the forests, and the lemurs, primates that are unique to Madagascar, have also been sold to restaurants.

“What is happening to the biodiversity of Madagascar is truly appalling, and the slaughter (of) these delightful, gentle, and unique animals is simply unacceptable,” said Russ Mittermeier, Conservation International’s president and a renowned lemur expert. “These poachers are killing the goose that laid the golden egg, wiping out the very animals that people most want to see, and undercutting the country and especially local communities by robbing them of future ecotourism revenue.”

Following months of wrangling, Madagascar's political rivals agreed in early November to form a power-sharing government headed by Andry Rajoelina until elections are held in 2010. Until Madagascar returns to political stability, conservationists fear the island's rich and unique environment and wildlife will suffer.