IMAGE: RESEARCHER WITH FOSSA
Courtesy of Luke Dollar
Duke University researcher Luke Dollar poses with a fossa during his research on Madagascar.
msnbc.com
updated 6/2/2005 12:11:37 PM ET 2005-06-02T16:11:37

Time may be running out for the real-life counterparts of the lemurs, fossas and other endangered animals featured in the animated comedy "Madagascar," experts are warning.

"Right now, the sword of Damocles is hanging over Madagascar," Duke University conservation scientist Luke Dollar said in a statement.

Virgin forests that are home to many of the island nation's species are being burned for charcoal or cleared for subsistence farming by islanders driven by extreme poverty, he noted.

"If you stop the clearing, you consign the islanders to a life of even greater poverty," Dollar said. "If you don't stop it, you consign some of the world's rarest species to extinction."

Some logging is also lucrative business. Just this week, Madgascar announced it had intercepted a shipment of more than 500 tons of hardwood cut from protected rainforests and destined for Asia.

Spotlight on lemurs as well
Cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Brannon, another Duke researcher, hoped the movie will highlight the island's lemurs.

She's carried out experiments using touch-screens, Plexiglas boxes holding raisins and buckets hiding grapes to show that ringtail and mongoose lemurs have a surprising ability to learn sequences of pictures and to discriminate quantities.

"We've only been studying ringtails and mongoose lemurs so far," she said. "But our hope is to study many different prosimian species."

Dollar noted that 85 percent of the country's plants and animals are endemic to Madagascar, in other words they can't be found in the wild anywhere else on Earth.

Some could be lost within five years if the clearing continues at the current pace, said Dollar, who has spent five of the last 10 years in Madagascar tracking the island's top predator, the fossa.

An elusive relative of the mongoose, fossas have been known to kill and eat bush pigs three times their size. Today, only about 2,500 of the cat-like creatures survive.

'Free Willy' effect sought
Dollar said he hoped the movie "Madagascar" will increase public interest in fossas and the island's other rare species.

"We're hoping for a 'Free Willy' phenomenon," Dollar said, referring to the 1993 movie that sparked broad public interest in protecting whales. "If moviegoers leave the theater thinking, 'Madagascar — what a wild place, we need to save it,' then we might be able to start generating more support to turn things around."

Dollar added that Madagascar would make a great eco-tourism destination, given its pro-environment government and tropical beaches.

"This is one of the 10 places everyone should see before they die," he said. "It's one of the strangest, most endangered ecosystems on Earth — the only place where we're still discovering and describing new species nearly every month."

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