Environment

Island of Lemurs

A new IMAX documentary tells the story of Madagascar’s endangered primate species

April 04, 2014
DREW FELLMAN—WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC

Mouse lemurs, like all lemurs, are native to Madagascar. They are some of the smallest primates in the world.

Madagascar is a unique and spectacular place. The island nation is located off the eastern coast of southern Africa, in the Indian Ocean. Its landscape is expansive and lush, and it is home to some of Earth’s most precious primates—lemurs.

Lemurs landed on Madagascar as castaways more than 60 million years ago. Scientists believe that a small group of lemurs was washed out to sea during a storm, and drifted to Madagascar on a floating piece of vegetation. When the critters arrived on the island, they took over and grew into hundreds of different species.

Unfortunately, only a few lemur species are left in Madagascar. More than 90% of the island’s forests have been destroyed, and the number of lemur species has been reduced to less than 20. Because these creatures are so close to extinction, humans must step in to help. (For more on threatened and endangered animals, view TFK's Disappearing Animals slide show.)

A new 3D IMAX documentary called “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” hopes to create awareness about this important issue. Directed by David Douglas and written and produced by Drew Fellman, the film follows the work of Dr. Patricia Wright, a primatologist and scientist dedicated to preserving lemurs and their natural habitat. With stunning aerial shots of the island and a close-up look at the lives of these peculiar little creatures, the movie takes viewers along on Dr. Wright’s amazing exploration.

TFK spoke with Dr. Wright about how she fell in love with lemurs, her first journey to Madagascar, and her tireless efforts to protect these precious primates.

Dr. Wright stands surrounded by some of her lemur pals while studying in Madagascar.

DREW FELLMAN—WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC
Dr. Wright stands surrounded by some of her lemur pals while studying in Madagascar.

TFK:

Before you began as a primatologist, you were a social worker. How did you make the transition from helping humans to helping lemurs?

DR. PATRICIA WRIGHT:

Originally, I was always an animal lover. I learned many things about people while doing social work. It was later that I became intrigued with a little monkey I saw at a pet store. This was at a time where you could buy monkeys as pets, which you cannot do anymore. But now, working in Madagascar, having that social-work background has been very helpful. I love working with the people and villages around the park. It’s been very rewarding not only to work with the lemurs of Madagascar, but with the people of Madagascar.

TFK:

Was the primate you saw in a pet store that day a lemur?

WRIGHT:

It wasn’t a lemur at all! It was a little monkey from South America.

TFK:

There are hundreds of different species of primates. What made you interested in lemurs?

WRIGHT:

I became very fascinated with the lifestyle of the monkey I saw at the pet store, and I ended up going to graduate school for primatology. First, I studied in the Amazon. But when I went to Madagascar for the first time, and saw lemurs and followed them around, I just fell in love with them. They’re wonderful, wonderful animals. And that was about 28 years ago! So I’ve been in Madagascar studying lemurs for a long time.

TFK:

You’ve taken a special interest in a species of lemur called the greater bamboo lemur. Why?

WRIGHT:

When I first found out about the greater bamboo lemur, I was looking at a skull found in a cave way up north. They are part of a group of lemurs that had gone extinct maybe 500 years ago, so we didn’t know whether this one was extinct or not. So I came to Madagascar to try and search for them, and see whether or not they were alive. It was a wonderful day when I saw my first greater bamboo lemur alive. At first I was drawn to them just because I was searching for animals I wanted to make sure weren’t extinct, but once I began to know them, and really follow them and see their personalities, I found they are extraordinary and spunky creatures. And they talk all the time between each other! They love bamboo and sometimes they fight over bamboo stalks. It’s just amusing, great fun to watch.

TFK:

Did it take a while for them to acclimate to your presence?

WRIGHT:

It took months and years to get to the point where I could watch them. They are very shy and difficult to see, because they can disappear and stand absolutely still for hours hiding. You think they must have gone, but they are actually there! It’s a hide-and-seek game. Once they decided we weren’t the enemy, it became much easier.

TFK:

How did it feel when you got to hold one for the first time?

WRIGHT:

They are such beautiful animals, and to watch them for so long and then suddenly have them in your arms is a wonderful feeling.

A ring-tailed lemur perches on a tree branch.

DREW FELLMAN—WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.
A ring-tailed lemur perches on a tree branch.

TFK:

What is Madagascar like?

WRIGHT:

It’s the fourth largest island in the world! It’s about 1,000 miles long and about 350 miles wide. The people are like nowhere else either—their ancestors came from Asia and Africa, and they are all Malagasy and make up one country for one big island.

TFK:

When are you returning to Madagascar next? What will you be studying?

WRIGHT:

I’m back at the end of the May. I’m a professor at Stony Brook University, in Long Island, New York, until then. I’ll be returning to study the bamboo lemur more, and also to study sifakas, another species of lemur.  I’m very involved with local villagers, and currently am working with conservation clubs in 50 different schools.

TFK:

Lemurs are close to extinction. How do the island’s residents interact with and help the lemurs?

WRIGHT:

In the old days, the lemurs were very sacred. The village elders said it was taboo to hunt lemurs because they’re very much like us. They have many human qualities, like their faces and their hands. So, in the early days there was no hunting. But recently, I think the old traditions have broken down.

The other problem has to do with agriculture. Because the soils are very poor, the people need to slash and burn forests to produce ash. The ashes are fertilizer for their crops and help them grow. What the Malagasy people don’t realize is that by destroying the forest, they’re destroying a lot of their heritage that is so important. They sort of take lemurs for granted, or many of them don’t know lemurs are so special and not found anywhere else in the world.


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