Some of the world's top experts in lemurs sounded the alarm on Thursday about an imminent extinction threat to these primitive primates that live only in Madagascar and unveiled a three-year plan to try to prevent them from disappearing altogether.
Lemurs are now the world's most threatened mammal group.
Habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by illegal slash-and-burn farming, logging of rosewood and ebony trees and mining are major threats to lemurs, as is bushmeat hunting by impoverished local people, the scientists said.
A five-year political crisis in Madagascar and a broad breakdown of environmental law enforcement have worsened the situation for the roughly 100 species of lemurs, they said.
"Extinctions could begin very soon if nothing is done," said Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at the Bristol Zoological Society in Britain who led a team of 19 scientists that drafted the emergency lemur preservation plan.
The rarest species, the northern sportive lemur, is down to 50 individuals in one or two tiny forest fragments, he said.
"One cyclone or other natural event could wipe out the entire population. In fact, anybody who decides to go out lemur hunting could tip the species over the edge," Schwitzer added.
Their plan identifies 30 priority sites for lemur conservation. It calls for management of protected areas at the local level and a long-term research presence in key locations, and it advocates an expansion of ecotourism focused on lemurs to attract money to the cause.
The scientists, who presented their plan in the journal Science, argue that a significant amount of habitat could be preserved for a relatively small sum in international aid — $7.6 million — and that ecotourism could help pay for the cost.
The scientists said they are appealing to foreign governments and private sources to fund the preservation bid.