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Madagascar's wildlife -- including some newly discovered species -- imperiled by unrest, WWF says

June 7, 2011 | 10:36 am

Ring-tailed lemurs

JOHANNESBURG — From giant palm trees to mouse-sized lemurs, unique plants and animals are threatened on Madagascar as political deadlock drags on after a 2009 coup.

The World Wildlife Fund conservation group drew attention to the Indian Ocean island's natural wealth in a report released Monday that looks at the more than 600 new species discovered on the island between 1999 and 2010. Many of the new finds are already endangered, the group said, in large part because deforestation is destroying their habitat.

"We as a species, the human race, we don't understand the complexities of the natural world around us," Richard Hughes, the WWF's Madagascar-based regional director, said in a telephone interview. Yet "we people are the one species with the most power to destroy or protect what's there."

Madagascar's rain forests, with their precious rosewood and other timber, were pillaged amid the instability and political and economic isolation that followed the 2009 coup, the WWF said in its report "Treasure Island: New biodiversity in Madagascar." The killing of forest animals, including lemurs, for food also increased, as did poverty as the crucial tourism trade suffered, the environmental group said.

Others have raised similar concerns. Shortly after the coup, Conservation International reported a "massive upsurge" in the illegal hunting of lemurs.

Russell Mittermeier, Conservation International's president, is a lemur expert, but said it's not just lemurs that are threatened. He has seen endangered tortoises from Madagascar offered for sale as pets on Chinese websites. Since the coup, Mittermeier said by telephone, "poaching of endangered species is rampant."

Mittermeier, who was not involved in the WWF report, called on international donors who have cut all but humanitarian aid in protest of the coup to resume support for environmental projects, through private development groups if not through the government. By the time the political crisis is resolved, the natural resources that draw tourists and drive the economy will have disappeared without the support, he said.

Since independence from France in 1960, stability and democracy have eluded Madagascar. Street protests toppled the first president two months into his second term, and the army has been deeply involved in politics.

In 2009, Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey then 34 years old -- too young to be president under a constitution he has since rewritten -- seized power with the army's backing.

Before taking over Rajoelina had led street protests for months accusing the democratically elected president, Marc Ravalomanana, of doing too little to help the impoverished majority. At one stage, Rajoelina supporters set fire to several buildings. Scores of people were killed. Days later, soldiers opened fire on antigovernment protesters, killing at least 25. The incident cost Ravalomanana much of the support of the military.

Ravalomanana has fled to exile in South Africa, and Rajoelina has resisted efforts by regional leader South Africa and other neighbors to restore democracy.

Hughes, of the WWF, said Madagascar's international isolation was understandable, but with dire environmental consequences.

The WWF has continued to work with government officials and local communities, trying to expand protected areas. But Hughes said the challenge has increased as the economy deteriorates.

Monday's WWF report describes recently discovered plants such as the massive Tahina palm, each of which produces just one spectacular flower before dying. The WWF says the Berthe's mouse lemur, discovered on Madagascar in 2000, weighs just 30 grams (about an ounce) and resembles a character in the DreamWorks cartoon "Madagascar."

A snake was discovered in Makira National Park but illegal logging may have reduced its population, the WWF said. Scientists also discovered a gecko that can quickly change its skin color from a subtle brown to a bright blue during courtship.

Mittermeier of Conservation International said his first survey of lemurs in 1994 identified 50 kinds found nowhere but Madagascar. His most recent survey identified 101.

"In spite of all the destruction, we're continuing to discover new species hand over fist," he said.

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-- Donna Bryson, Associated Press

Photo: Ring-tailed lemurs, a species native to Madagascar, huddle next to a man-made baobab tree at the Expedition Madagascar exhibit at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in 2010. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press

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