Adorable but Endangered: Lemurs Face Possible Extinction

Lemurs fall victim to political upheaval in Madagascar.

July 21, 2009— -- If there were a contest for cutest animal on the planet, the lemur would be a strong contender. But cuteness alone can't save the creatures from the political forces threatening their existence, especially not the illegal loggers destroying the lemurs' precious rainforest habitat.

Lemurs are small primates that are endemic to Madagascar and are not found living in nature outside the island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa.

There are nearly 100 different species of lemurs, including the black and white lemur, the ring-tail lemur, the tiny mouse lemur and even the mischievous dancing lemur.

"Nightline's" Dan Harris visited a lemur park about 15 miles outside Antananarivo, the capital city, where he got to know these impish little animals and saw, firsthand, the emerging threats to their survival.

Watch "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 ET for the full story.

A recent military coup in the impoverished, unstable country left a power vacuum that has allowed heavily armed illegal loggers, known as the "timber mafia," to pillage the lemur's natural habitat.

One of the forests is the Marojejy National Park, a towering, dauntingly beautiful landscape reminiscent of a set from "Jurassic Park." A few weeks ago, the forest in northeastern Madagascar had largely been taken over by looters and had to be shut down.

Marojejy is also home to one of the most rare and beautiful lemurs of all, the silky sifaka. Between 100 to 1,000 of these animals are left on earth.

White as snow, the sifakas look like cotton balls with tails. Humans who want to see the sifakas in the wild must make a long, slippery trek through humid, leech-infested forests.

Their remote forest habitat keeps them safe from natural predators, but it offers little protection from the more dire threat of human encroachment.

Madagascar's Precious Wilderness at 'Risk Every Day,' Conservationist Says

Niall O'Connor, who works for The World Wildlife Fund, which has been on red alert for the lemurs since the coup in March, said lemurs' survival is completely dependent on the survival of the forest.

If the forests disappear, he said, "That's it, they're gone. And that's why we have to protect them."

And it's not just the silky sifakas that are in danger. The coup also created an opening for what has been described as "open and organized plundering" of other animals, including Madagascar's endangered tortoises, which have been poached and illegally sold into the pet trade.

There are 11,000 species of animals and plants that exist only in Madagascar, and could be in danger if their habitats are depleted. Madagascar broke off of continental Africa about 160 million years ago, and the geographic isolation has led to extraordinary wildlife, from rare tree frogs to huge millipedes to brilliantly camouflaged lizards.

"It is just simply one of those unique places on earth," O'Connor said. "It's at risk every day."

After the coup in March, the timber mafia, long influential in Madagascar, went into overdrive, exacerbating the long-running problem of illegal logging. Conservation groups say that gangs of organized criminals intimidated forest guards, burned down government offices and built roads deep into national parks to extract rosewood trees. This wood is used to make expensive furniture and musical instruments, and conservationists suspect much of it is going to China.

The poaching got so bad that the looters actually solicited workers on the radio.

"They were saying that we'll be in such and such a place, in such and such a time and if you have timber we'll buy it, or if you know where there's more timber, let us know. ... It was very brazen," O'Connor said.

Sources in the conservation and diplomatic communities say they suspect that government officials may actually be taking bribes to help the timber mafia.

The government denies this claim, saying it has sent in troops to crack down on illegal loggers.

In recent weeks, the pace of the illegal logging has slowed somewhat, but as long as the political situation remains uncertain, so does the future of the lemurs.

Among conservationists, there's still real fear that this most rare and beautiful primate will disappear in the not too distant future ... another victim of the most dangerous primate on earth: man.