By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - 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.
Madagascar, an Indian Ocean island off the coast of Africa that is know for its unique wildlife, has been in political turmoil for five years.
A new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, took office in January, a month after winning the first election since a 2009 coup that plunged Madagascar into a crisis that sharply slowed economic growth and deepened poverty.
FOREST HABITAT BEING ELIMINATED
Lemurs are one of the most primitive types of primate, less advanced than monkeys, apes and humans. They range in size from the one-ounce (30 gram) Madame Berthe's mouse lemur - the smallest living primate - to the 20-pound (9 kg) indri.
Arboreal creatures, they eat leaves, fruits and bugs and have long limbs, flexible toes and fingers and long noses.
They appeared early in primate evolution, about 62 million years ago, not long after the dinosaurs went extinct. More advanced primates never made it to Madagascar, allowing lemurs to thrive and evolve into many different species.
But most of Madagascar's forest land has been eliminated and 94 percent of lemur species are now considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.
"I would certainly not want to tell my children in 10 or 20 years time, when they are old enough to travel to Madagascar, 'Look, this island was once inhabited by creatures called lemurs, but they have gone extinct because your dad, along with many others, was unable to avert their extinction at the time," Schwitzer said.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)