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Unfortunately, most of Madagascar’s spectacular fauna and flora is endangered, mainly, once again, because of forest destruction. Although human beings arrived on Madagascar only some 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, human activity has resulted in the loss of some 80% of Madagascar’s forests, and the major remaining forest formations are being chipped away for firewood and charcoal and for slash-and-burn agriculture. Hunting is a problem as well, especially with the breakdown of local cultures, which formerly included many taboos against the hunting of primates and other wildlife.
Lest anyone believe that extinctions are a figment of the conservationist’s imagination, he or she need only look at what has already been lost on Madagascar over the past 2,000 years. Among the species that have disappeared are the elephant birds (Aepyornis spp.), which were the largest birds that ever lived, a pygmy hippopotamus, an aardvark, and fully six genera of lemurs, representing one-third of all known Malagasy lemur species. Included among the species lost are animals like Megaladapis (Figure 16–1), which moved like a huge koala and grew to be as large as a female gorilla (Sussman et al., 1985).
Almost all the species that have already disappeared were diurnal and larger than the surviving species. If this trend continues, the next in line would be the indri, which is the largest, and the sifakas (Propithecus spp.), which are next in size. In fact, several of these are already endangered. One, the black sifaka (Propithecus diadema perrieri) from northeastern Madagascar, is now down to only about 100 individuals and must be considered on the verge of extinction.
FIGURE 16–1 Above: The extinct giant lemur Megaladapis from Madagascar, as reconstructed by Stephen D.Nash. Left: An extant ring-tailed lemur in Madagascar.