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.
The average annual income here is $200, meaning most of the 17 million Malagasy live on less than a dollar a day; they are too poor to understand, or care about, their nation's ecological suicide. A large bag of charcoal sells for $30 in the markets of the capital of Antananarivo, and that is incentive enough for many locals to cut down trees to burn for fuel. Millions of others practice an ancient form of slash and burn farming to clear forests for farmland.
As a result, 90 percent of the original forest has been destroyed, leaving hills that quickly erode without a living root structure to hold the earth in place. Large swaths of the land here look like lunar landscapes -- as though someone has taken a spoon to the ground and scooped out large chunks of the dry red earth. When the rains come, it turns rivers here the color of blood.
As the head of Conservation International, Mittermeier spent years watching this country self-destruct. But when Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy tycoon, won a tight presidential election a few years ago, he floated a bold idea to the new man in charge. Take what little forest that remains and save it for tourists.
"We suggested to him, 'Why don't you think about doubling the protected area?'" Mittermaier said. "And he said, 'Double it? I'll triple it!'"
The president has made good on his promise, setting aside millions of acres. But getting people to come visit, and getting their money to locals, are much bigger challenges, and there is constant pressure to sell off the precious commodities that come from this land.
The Chinese have already left their footprints here, looking for natural resources that may help sustain the country's explosive growth. They built a road that passes through the town of Moramanga, and an Asian gazebo remains as testament to their presence here. Sri Lankan gem dealers, famous for their skill in stonecutting, have staked their claim on Madagascar's gems. Some of the world's best are found here: sapphires, rubies, topaz and opals, to name a few. Exxon Mobil and other multinational corporations believe there may also be oil here.
Even the local currency provides a subtle hint on this land in the balance. The 10,000 ariary bill is etched with a likeness of a mine. It's worth ten times more than the one with an etching of a lemur.
But the government insists that its policies will protect this delicate balance -- that it can both develop its economy and preserve the ecosystem here. "The most important thing for Madagascar is very clear," said Prime Minister Charles Rabemananjara. "Growing economic sectors require an environmental policy."
At Fort Dauphin, on the southeastern tip of the country, the mining company Rio Tinto is building an ilmenite mine. The mineral is used to make sunscreen, house paint and car dashboards, and over the next 50 years, Rio Tinto plans to mine $4 billion worth. But they are also planting trees and they promise to leave the land in better shape than they found it.
"You come in, you devastate and you leave -- you can't do that anymore," said Guy Larin, resident director of Rio Tinto's Madagascar mining operations. "Stockholders are people and people care about the environment."
So Rio Tinto has spent 20 years funding ecological research -- cataloguing native flora and fauna, building a library of rare seeds and planting saplings to transplant into deforested areas. They have even hired a team of conservationists to oversee their work. Manon Vincelette is a forest engineer who left her job at Conservation International in order to help Rio Tinto set up shop, and she says that the country can be developed in a "socially and environmentally responsible" manner.
"Even if you love forest and conservation, you should never fight development I think this country needs development. I mean, it has the potential. It has resources," said Vincelette.
Rajaobelina puts it this way: "We want to make sure they invest, but we want to make sure they understand the challenge of conservation and how the two can work together."
As Louis' team leave this forest, they each turn to the creature in the tree and say farewell: "Veloma." Literally, it means "May you live." As this country continues to try to weigh the needs of its people against its remarkable range of native species, ultimately, it will be the people who decide whether saving their forests means saving themselves.