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By Bryan Walsh / Andasibe Thursday, Sep. 25, 2008

When you're on the lookout for lemurs — the unusually cute and endangered group of primates found only on the African island of Madagascar — it helps to have good eyes (lemurs are small), sharp ears (they rustle the trees) and a keen nose (they have an unmistakable smell).


It's hard to say how long the indri itself will stay with us. Madagascar's native plants and animals evolved in isolation for some 80 million years; as a result, the 587,000-sq-km country, which sits just off the coast of southeastern Africa, has perhaps the highest level of biodiversity per capita in the world. It's what conservationists call a "hotspot" — one of about 25 places on Earth that have suffered massive habitat loss and account for less than 2% of the planet's land surface, but are home to about half the world's plant species and a third of vertebrate animals. Because the vast majority of Madagascar's 2,300 species are found nowhere else on Earth, if a species is lost on Madagascar, it is lost forever. Yet rampant deforestation, a swelling human population and the early effects of climate change have already pushed countless species out of existence. Of the surviving 71 lemur species and subspecies on Madagascar, 63% are endangered. "Madagascar is the hottest of hotspots," says Russell Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International (CI) and a renowned primatologist. If we care about saving our wild cousins from extinction, Madagascar is the place to start.


Near Andasibe, CI and its partners are working on a project that will hire local villagers to plant new trees on land that had been cleared. The benefit is two-fold: The new forests will earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, since the trees will sequester carbon dioxide that would otherwise warm the atmosphere, and eventually the forests will help rebuild the disappearing habitat for species like the indri. What's more, the project employs job-hungry villagers and gives them a financial stake in the new forests, which is key if conservation is going to work. To save the animals, you need to save the trees, and to save the trees, you need to save the people. "We're bringing back the shelter of the forests, and we don't have to cut trees for charcoal," says Herve Tahirimalala, 28, who is paid about $100 a month to work the plantation — a decent wage in one of the poorest nations on Earth. Poverty and habitat loss go hand in hand in Madagascar and in much of the developing world, and only win-win solutions will work for conservation.