Lemurs are among the most endangered of all animals, with ninety percent of species on the verge of extinction, according to a new study. This makes them the most threatened of all groups of mammals.

More than 100 species of lemur live throughout Madagascar, off the eastern coast of southern Africa. Declines in lemur populations are being driven by an increase in poaching. Conservation efforts in Madagascar are also being hampered by political instability, which rocked the nation until recently. This resulted in a drop in donations, and made it more difficult to bring assistance to the animals.

Bristol Zoo Gardens in southwest England undertook a study of population trends among the highly-social animals.

"Fact is that if we don't act now, we risk losing a species of lemur for the first time since our records began. Lemurs have important ecological and economic roles and are essential to maintaining Madagascar's unique forests, through seed dispersal and attracting income through ecotourism. Their loss would likely trigger extinction cascades. The importance of the action plan cannot be overstated," Christoph Schwitzer, research head at Bristol Zoo Gardens, said.

Researchers believe there is still hope for lemurs, as a group, to survive. The study underlined the importance of a three-year action plan for lemurs developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That proposal was published by Schwitzer, along with other lemurs. Thirty conservation zones are recommended in the action plan, and funding mechanisms are drafted for various projects. Schwitzer and his group recommended better enforcement of protected areas, the creation of additional reserves, along with long-term research stations.

Patricia Wright, a co-author of the study, is a professor of biological anthropology at Stony Brook University. She has devoted considerable research to the lives of the animals. Wright is also the subject of a new film, IMAX Island of Lemurs Madagascar, opening in select theaters on 4 April. Fortunes for lemurs may soon depend on the fortunes of human politics.

"After the Presidential election in December, I am optimistic about lemur conservation for the first time in four years. Political stability has returned to Madagascar. That means that laws will be enforced and eco-tourists will return to Madagascar to see lemurs and help fuel the economy. After four catastrophic years of lawlessness, hunting and exploitation, hopefully we will be able to save the remaining lemurs and expand on protected areas," Wright stated in a press release.

This study of lemur population trends was published in the journal Science.

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