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Lemurs, Rare Forests Threatened by Madagascar Strife

Updated with new images and text 


Photo of silky sifakas in Marojejy National Park by Jeff Gibbs/courtesy Erik Patel

Looters are invading Madagascar’s protected wildlife sanctuaries, harvesting trees and threatening critically endangered lemurs and other species, conservationists said today.

Marojejy National Park in the northern part of the African island country has been closed to tourism. Rangers are abandoning their posts in other parks, according to reports.

Madagascar-map.jpgThe trouble is linked to turmoil that culminated in a coup d’etat that ousted President Marc Ravalomanana last week. Looters have taken advantage of government paralysis and lawlessness in some parts of the country. Some protected conservation areas are being invaded by organized criminals intent on cutting down valuable rosewood trees and extracting other protected resources, according to conservationists in Madagascar.

The closure of Marojejy National Park was “deemed necessary by park management due to the lawlessness that has descended over the … region during this time of political unrest in Madagascar, and the resultant looting and destruction which is currently occurring within the park,” according to a notice posted on the park’s Web site.

Satellite image courtesy NASA

“In particular, gangs of armed men (led primarily by foreign profiteers in conjunction with the rich local mafia) are plundering the rainforests of Marojejy for the extremely valuable rosewood that grows there,” the notice continues.

The crisis in Marojejy has serious implications on several fronts, states the notice on the park’s Web site.

madagascar-map-2.jpg“First, of course, is the extremely detrimental impact it is having on the park’s unique flora and fauna. While old-growth rosewood trees may be the primary objective of the armed gangs, such destructive, unregulated use of the forest will certainly have an adverse effect on everything else in the park.

“Most worrisome is the well-being of the highly endangered silky sifaka, a lemur found only in the rainforests of Marojejy and the surrounding area.”

Map courtesy Marojejy National Park

“But the crisis is also having a devastating effect outside the boundaries of the park itself. With armed militia descending on local villages and death threats being issued, people live in fear; communities are divided, and families are pitted one against the other. Many local people who depend on tourism — guides, porters, shopkeepers, hotel and restaurant personnel – -now live in limbo.

Marojejy-Facts.jpg“With no other means of support, some turn to the lucrative rosewood trade,” the notice said.

Erik Patel is a PhD candidate at Cornell University who has been studying the silky sifaka since 2001 and has recently published the first article about illegal precious wood logging in Madagascar. (See a quote from his paper in the side bar below.)

“Illegal logging of precious wood has emerged as one of the most severe threats to Madagascar’s dwindling northeastern
rainforests,” Patel said in an email.



Rosewood logged illegally in Marojejy National Park in 2005

Photo courtesy Erik Patel


Cornell University PhD Candidate Erik Patel has been studying the silky sifaka since 2001.

Photo of silky sifaka by Andrew Ritchie. Photo of Patel by Abigail Derby/courtesy Erik Patel

The video clip above features Erik Patel and his work in Marojejy National Park. It is from “Angels of the Forest, ” a documentary film by Sharon Pieczenik chronicling the science and conservation efforts surrounding the silky sifaka.

Over the past few years, thousands of logs, worth millions of dollars, have been confiscated at ports of Vohémar, Antalaha, and Toamasina, Patel said. “Most of this critically endangered rosewood and ebony is known to have come from Marojejy National Park and Masoala National Park.” 

Marojejy-Facts-1a.jpgIn the face of rich, armed, and politically connected criminals (believed to have ties to elements in China), the parks simply lack the resources to stop this, he added.

“The impacts of such selective logging include violating local taboos as well as ecological consequences such as increased likehood of fire, invasive species, impaired habitat, and loss in genetic diversity.” 

Patel said that a key cause of the logging now being seen was the recent (January, 2009) termination of the law prohibiting export of rosewood and ebony from Madagascar. 

The laws prohibiting such exportation must be reinstated as soon as possible,” he said. “It is unprecedented for a national park in Madagacar to be closed to tourism because of illegal logging!”

Patricia Wright and Mireya Mayor, conservationists who have done extensive research on lemurs in the wild, spoke to me at length about the crisis in Madagascar. Both had heard from their contacts in Madagascar that rangers were abandoning their posts in a number of parks because of concerns about personal safety.

“I’m gutted and at a loss to describe how bad this situation is,” said Mayor, a primatologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer who has done field work in Marojejy. (Watch the video about her work below.) “Thirty years of successful conservation initiatives is now at risk of being totally destroyed,” she said in the interview.

Mireya Mayor working with both the silky sifaka in Marojejy and Perrier’s sifaka in Analamera.

National Geographic Video

Loggers who invaded the parks to extract rosewood would destroy habitat, set up camps, and eat the wildlife, including the lemurs, Mayor predicted. “The lemurs will not be able to withstand this.”

“This crisis has had a compelling effect on me personally because of the immediate threat to Perrier’s sifaka and the silky sifaka,” Mayor said.

Mayor did groundbreaking research on these two critically endangered primates, leading the first expeditions to capture, collar and study some of the animals in remote areas of Madagascar a decade ago. Her work was showcased on National Geographic Television. The work was used to elevate the silky sifaka and Perrier’s sifaka from subspecies of lemur to full species. “I feel personally vested in this ‘war,’” she said. 

“I have worked extensively in the northern forests and with those villagers whose kindness and generosity got me through many an expedition and whose lives are now being threatened. I am anxious about them too,” Mayor said. 

Photo of silky sifakas by Jeff Gibbs/courtesy Erik Patel


Posts Abandoned

Patricia Wright said she had received reports that rangers were abandoning their posts in a number of other parks because of fears for their safety.

“What’s happening in the north is very worrying, because that is the home of two of the most endangered primates in the world, the silky sifaka and the Perrier’s sifaka,” she said.

Wright, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and former member of National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration, said she had been on the phone to her contacts in the region yesterday and was told that heavy rain had been falling in the far north of the country for days, making the roads nearly impassable. That could be a good thing because it could inhibit timber exploitation, she said.

The trouble appeared to be confined for the moment to parks in Madagascar’s northern areas, Wright said. However, she was concerned that it could spread if the country’s political situation was not quickly resolved.

Both Wright and Mayor were at a loss about what could be done to alleviate the crisis in the short term. “One thing we can do is create awareness about this,” Mayor said.

pat-wright-and-mireya-mayor-picture.jpgWright said she was trying to contact foundations and agencies that sponsor conservation in Madagascar. “A big worry is that funding dries up for conservation because of the coup. That will leave the national parks without resources and completely exposed to exploitation.”

Both Mayor and Wright are also concerned about the long-term future of conservation in Madagascar.

Patricia Wright (left) and Mireya Mayor photo courtesy Mireya Mayor

Former President Ravalomanana had committed the Madagascar government to increasing protected areas on the island and had demonstrated a willingness to work with conservationists. “Now, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mayor said.

Erik Patel sent the photos below — “three of our best Marojejy National park landscape photos” — which I am adding to show readers the majestic beauty of the habitat, closed temporarily to tourism.

Below the photos are links for additional information and related National Geographic News stories about Marojejy, lemurs, Madagascar, and more. 



The three photos above are by Inaki Relanzon/courtesy Erik Patel

Additional Information:

Marojejy in Crisis (Marojejy National Park Web site)

“Cross Dressing” Lemurs Appear Male to Avoid Conflict (National Geographic News)

Flying Lemurs With “Backpacks” Reveal Gliding Secrets (National Geographic News)

Photo: Three New Lemurs Discovered, Add to Madagascar’s Diversity (National Geographic News)

Threatened Lemurs’ Diet Key to Conservation Efforts, Researchers Say (National Geographic News)

Lemur Logic May Provide Clues to Primate Intellect Evolution (National Geographic News)

Rainfall Helps Baby Lemurs Survive, Tooth Study Shows (National Geographic News)

African Trees May Be Tied to Lemurs’ Fate (National Geographic News)

Madagascar Creates Millions of Acres of New Protected Areas (National Geographic News)

Rare Animals Make Africa Island Park True Hot Spot (National Geographic News)

TV News Feature: Madagascar Ecotourism (National Geographic News)

Monkeys and Lemurs Videos (National Geographic)

Map of Madagascar (National Geographic)


Related News From the Web

A happy ending for Madagascar? (BBC Earth Watch blog)

Conservationists see trouble in Madagascar conflict (Nature’s Great Beyond blog)

Madagascar Scientists Struggle With Military Coup (ScienceInsider blog)