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Would you eat this lemur?

Madagascar's rare primates are illegally hunted and sold for their meat.

A Coquerel's Sifaka lemur sits on bamboo inside the Lemurs Park, a private eco-tourism enterprise which hosts 9 of 49 known lemur species, outside the island's capital of Antananarivo on December 5, 2006. The endangered lemurs, which are found only on Madagascar, are being illegally hunted for their meat. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

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.