Since splitting from Africa and India, the island of Madagascar has been geographically distinct for about 70 million years. This has put it on a different evolutionary course resulting in an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, much of it unique to the island. But this biodiversity is under threat. The island's population has increased rapidly, and its central plateau is now a moonscape of scorched earth due to the slash-and-burn cultivation practised by maize farmers. Though always living precariously on the 10% of forest that has not been cut down for timber and farming, the country's lemurs now appear to be much more endangered than previously thought according to a new report published by the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
While a total of 40 of the world's 103 known species of lemurs were on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species in 2008, a worrying 94 species (or 91%) are now deemed to be either "critically endangered", "endangered" or "vulnerable". This makes the lemur, which only occurs in the Madagascar in the wild, the most endangered group of mammals on the planet.
One of the reasons for the spike in the figures is thought to be the 2009 coup, orchestrated by Andry Rajoelina, a media tycoon and former mayor of Antananarivo, the capital, who denounced former president Marc Ravalomanana's administration for its ineffectiveness and managed to convince the armed forces to back him as the head of a "High Transitional Authority", thus forcing Ravalomanana's resignation.
The coup seems to have caused a level of lawlessness in Madagascar's few remaining forests where illegal logging is shrinking the lemurs' already much reduced natural habitat and actual hunting of the animals is on the rise.
Chris de Bode travelled with scientists from Germany to the Kirindy Forest, a dry deciduous forest on the west coast of the island, which is home to many unique species, including dozens of species of lemurs and the world's smallest primate, the dwarf mouse maki. International donors such as Conservation International and Durrell Wildlife are working with local people to prevent further deforestation.