As conservation geneticist Ed Louis and his team made their way into Madagascar's Andasibe National Park, all eyes were on a pillowcase slung over the shoulder of one of the local volunteers. Every once in a while, it shifted ever so slightly -- the only sign that one of the rarest animals on the planet was awake inside.
In a country this poor, the animal could easily be dinner. But these men are also a rare breed. They believe that a lemur in a tree is infinitely more valuable than a lemur in a pot, and they took great pains to move this one from a devastated forest to a protected one. The pillowcase was just one sign of their concern: When lemurs are moved in cages, aware of their surroundings, they become alarmed, so Louis and his team carried this one in a soft, warm cloth to ease his journey home.
About a half mile into the forest, they stopped along the trail and released the lemur. His head popped from the bag just long enough for his eyes to adjust to the light, before he bounded up the trunk of a nearby tree.
This is the kind of labor of love that just might save Madagascar if it's not already too late.
Spend a week in this place, and it's easy to see why conservationists put it at the top of their list of the world's most precious lands. Limestone deposits erode naturally in Madgascar, creating spectacular spear-tipped formations called tsingy. Giant baobab trees look as if they've been planted headfirst into the ground, with tall, wide trunks and short stubby tops. Madagascar is like another planet, with creatures to match.
The most famous creatures here are the lemurs: nearly 100 species of them in all. Madagascar's largest carnivore is a fierce cat called the fossa that prowls the forest in search of prey. Its favorite meal is the lemur, and like something out of a horror movie, the fossa eats only the lemur's insides.
Chameleons grab lunch like whip-tongued snipers, but the geckos are better at camouflage, like the leaf gecko, with its papery brown skin, or another species that you'd swear was made from tree bark.
The largest of the lemurs is the indri, and it is one of this country's many national symbols. On a spectrum of cuteness, they are equal parts panda, koala and monkey. The black-and-white indri howl like whales and can leap as far as 30 feet at a time from treetop to treetop.
"It can only be seen here," said primatologist Russ Mittermeier, head of the nonprofit organization Conservation International. "That's the amazing thing -- it's not kept in captivity anywhere. So if you want to see the indri, you've gotta come to Madagascar."
In fact, most of the precious species on this island live nowhere else. Nearly 90 percent of Madagascar's plants and wildlife are endemic -- meaning they are found here and only here. But on this Noah's Ark, the humans are both the savior and the threat.
"Our biggest challenge for conservation is poverty. If you don't solve the poverty issue, you won't solve the conservation issue," said Serge Rajaobelina, founder of Madagascar's premier NGO, Fanamby.