Aside from the animated movie “Madagascar” with its singing, dancing lemurs and quirky King Julien (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen), most people know little about the primates or their exotic island home. But that’s about to change.
On April 4, the 3-D IMAX documentary “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” gets up close with these unique creatures like no film has before.
Directed by David Douglas and written and produced by Drew Fellman, who collaborated on the elephants and orangutans documentary “Born to Be Wild,” and narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film begins with an origin story. About 60 million years ago, the earliest lemurs were storm-tossed castaways that crossed the Indian Ocean and landed on remote Madagascar. In the absence of predators, they flourished. But in modern times, lemurs have become endangered from habitat loss due to human deforestation, and with 90 percent of the forests gone, many species have become extinct or are in jeopardy.
“There’s just over 100 species and approximately 75 percent of them are endangered,” says Fellman, who drives that point home in the film by spotlighting the work of primatologist Dr. Patricia C. Wright and her efforts to save lemurs. In 1991, Wright was instrumental in establishing Ranomafana National Park, home to 15 species of lemurs, and she introduced the last surviving great bamboo lemurs in Ranomafana to a pair of newcomers in the hope that they will reproduce.
“It was a key part of our movie and where this really important conservation project came together at the same time. It felt like not only were we making a movie, but we were making a concrete contribution to the survival of the species,” says Fellman, adding that in Madagascar, “Like most places in the world, habitat loss is the leading threat to wildlife. Hunting, logging, pollution all contribute to the problem. Traditionally, the Madagascar people have supported themselves through slash-and-burn agriculture. But, now, so much of the island has been destroyed that agricultural areas are colliding with lemur habitat. So, the solution is to shift to more sustainable farming methods that don’t require converting new land, but increasing the yield of the land that’s being used.” Alternative sources of income like trades and eco-tourism are also being instituted.
In addition to the rare great bamboo lemur — of which there are only 300 in existence — the film also shows tiny mouse lemurs, which have been microchipped to aid in their study; the Indri, which communicate with a haunting, wailing call; the arboreal, acrobatic Sifakas (Fellman’s favorite); and the ring-tailed lemur, the most recognizable of the species. The filmmakers spent two years on the film, including four months in Madagascar dealing with numerous logistical obstacles. “Madagascar has very basic infrastructure and sometimes a storm can totally wipe out roads and bridges. So, getting around the country was always a challenge,” notes Fellman. “Sometimes we even had to build the bridges as we tried to cross them.”
Another challenge was the subjects themselves. “Lemurs are very hard to film, they’re small, fast and live up in the trees. We had to come up with many different ways to try to film them close up,” explains Fellman. “We brought towers and cranes and even a balloon to take the huge IMAX cameras into the lemur’s world.”
The results were worth the effort, of course. “Lemurs are our oldest ancestors and the more we learn about them, the more we know about our primate origins,” Fellman says. “Awareness is the first step toward conservation. If people don’t know anything about lemurs then there’s no motivation to save them. This film will be many people’s first introduction to lemurs, and we hope that they’ll fall in love with them as much as we have.” After all, he asks, “Who wouldn’t want to know the true story about King Julien?”