Feature: Turmoil in Madagascar throws PAs, wildlife into crisis

MAROJEJY NATIONAL PARK, Madagascar -- A political crisis in this African island nation has triggered a pillage of its mythical wildlife and forests, and conservation groups fear that the peril will worsen as donors suspend funding to punish coup leaders running the country.

Conservationists say the problem is particularly distressing in Madagascar, because it is a land like no other. After the island broke off mainland Africa 160 million years ago, Indian Ocean isolation created a biological laboratory that spawned thousands of plants and animals -- massive moths, brawny baobabs, a hundred species of furry lemurs -- that exist nowhere else.

Security in Madagascar has broken down since a coup in March, and traffickers have smuggled out record numbers of Ploughshare tortoises, one of the world's rarest, for sale to Asian and European collectors, environmentalists said. A nature organization has exposed a lemur-poaching racket providing scores of the rare primates, roasted, to restaurants in port cities.

Most troubling, activists said, is a brazen plunder of protected forests by armed bands of illegal loggers who, by threatening park rangers, loot prized hardwoods for a "timber mafia" that exports them to lucrative furniture markets in Asia and the United States.

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