Lemurs Headed Towards Extinction

By Amir Khan on July 15, 2012 10:19 PM EDT

Lemur
Lemurs, a primate endemic to the island of Madagascar, may be far more endangered than previously thought, according to new research conducted by the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). (Photo: Creative Commons)

Lemurs, a primate endemic to the island of Madagascar, may be far more endangered than previously thought, according to new research conducted by the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Illegal logging and increased hunting of lemurs has brought them to the brink of extinction, according to the report.

Madagascar is the only location lemurs are found in the wild, and a recent survey to assess where they belong on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species found that more than 90 percent of the 103 species should be on the list. Twenty-three species have numbers low enough to be considered "critically endangered"-- the highest class. Another 52 are classified as endangered and 19 are vulnerable.

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There are a number of ways for a species to be put on the red list, but to be listed as critically endangered, there needs to be less than 50 mature adults or the population needs to have shrunk by 80 percent in 10 years.

"That means that 91 percent of all lemurs are assessed as being in one of the Red List threatened categories, which is far and away the largest proportion of any group of mammals," Russ Mittermeier, chairman of the specialist group and president of Conservation International, told BBC News.

The previous study on lemurs, published in 2008, listed 8 species as critically endangered. So what's bringing the lemur close to extinction? Deforestation and hunting, the likes of which have never been seen before in Madagascar.

"Several national parks have been invaded, but of greater concern is the breakdown in control and enforcement," Dr. Mittermeier told BBC News."There's just no government enforcement capacity, so forests are being invaded for timber, and inevitably that brings hunting as well."

Andry Rajoelina, the president of Madagascar, seized power in a 2009 coup and has promised elections for some time. However, the promised dates have long passed. With no governmental oversight, logging and lemur-hunting has become rampant.

"In previous years, when you had students working in a forest fragment, you could be certain there would be no illegal acts going on because they knew we'd report them," Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at the UK's Bristol Zoo, told BBC News. "Now, my assistants find people doing illegal logging and they don't care, they just carry on and it doesn't matter because there's no law enforcement."

Schwitzer, who runs a lemur conservation program, said the findings are extremely alarming.

"I used to be very optimistic, I thought the project was really going somewhere and the local communities were on our side," he said."But from 2009 onwards, it just deteriorated markedly. Now we see local people hunting lemurs, even blue-eyed black and sportive lemurs which we never saw before."

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