By Richard Lough
Endangered lemur species found only in Madagascar are being slaughtered and served up in local restaurants as poachers take advantage of a security vacuum on the island after a coup earlier this year.
Pictures of the blackened remains of scores of crowned lemurs and golden crowned sifakas, smoked in preparation for transport, have been released by the environmental protection group Conservation International.
James Mackinnon, technical director at the group's Madagascar office, said gangs were pillaging the forests of precious hardwoods and trapping rare animals for Asia's pet market, unwinding hard-fought conservation gains on the island.
"Lemurs have always been hunted on a small, subsistence scale. This is bigger, more organized and systematic and it's typical of what we've been seeing with the breakdown in law and order," he told Reuters on Friday.
Conservationists say biodiversity on the world's fourth largest island is being wiped out on a shocking scale.
Foreign donors, who provided the bulk of funding for the country's national parks and environmental programs, suspended aid after Andry Rajoelina toppled the island's president with the help of renegade troops in March.
Operating on a shoestring budget, the authorities have been unable to control the surge in criminal activity.
The Indian Ocean island, isolated from other land masses for more than 160 million years, is a biodiversity "hotspot" home to hundreds of exotic species found nowhere else in the world.
Poachers are using slingshots and traps to hunt the lemurs in Daraina, a newly-protected region in the far north of Madagascar. Only 8,000 golden crowned sifaka, found only in Daraina, remain in the wild and risk being wiped out in weeks.
"More than anything else, these poachers are killing the goose that laid the golden egg," said Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International.
"(They are) wiping out the very animals that people most want to see and undercutting the country and especially local communities by robbing them of future eco-tourism revenue."
The island's wildlife was popularized in the 2005 DreamWorks animated movie Madagascar and its 2008 sequel, voiced by stars including Ben Stiller and Sacha Baron Cohen as the lemur king.
Eco-tourism is the backbone of Madagascar's $390 million-a-year tourism industry, which has been wrecked by months of political turmoil.
Decades of logging, mining and slash-and-burn farming have destroyed up to 90 percent of the island's natural ecology.
Ousted leader Marc Ravalomanana was credited by conservationists with increasing the number of national parks and protected areas, backed by donors including the World Bank and the United States.
Conservation International described the move to cut environmental aid as a "knee-jerk reaction." To deny conservation funding was counter-productive, it said, as it simply encouraged poor governance of natural resources.
Mackinnon warned of impending environmental catastrophe, saying there was a real danger parks would be forced to lay off rangers and cease to function before the end of the year.
"It's very hard to turn the clock back once criminal activities have become ingrained," he said.