Madagascar, Lemurs and Spies

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Natural World, 2011-2012 Episode 10 of 13

Duration: 1 hour

Pure white lemurs called silky sifaka live in the remote rainforests of Madagascar. They are one of the rarest animals in the world. Now a passionate scientist joins forces with an undercover detective to investigate whether there is a link between these endangered lemurs, illegal logging and expensive guitars in the USA.

  • A word from the producer/director, Tuppence Stone

    This was a film that revealed itself slowly.

    I spent many muddy, exhausting weeks with Erik and his fabulous team in Madagascar filming the Silkies and got to see the sun rise over Mount Marojejy above the rainforest – a truly magical moment.

    To see William as an irrepressible little Sifaka, bouncing around high up in the canopy and his mum taking no notice of his antics reminded me of my kids back home.

    But after meeting Erik, it was his commitment beyond his research to activism which made for a really strong story.

    I was impressed by his role to make sure illegal logging got noticed, and the realisation he was not alone.

    In Madagascar there are many unsung heroes who helped us, taking risks to try to change the world.

    When Erik introduced me to Sascha I knew we had a film that suddenly was global – reaching into our lives as consumers, and the choices we make.

    When we got into the congressional offices in Washington DC to film with Sascha in the corridors of power, the contrast with the rainforest couldn’t have been more extreme.

    I have learnt a lot - I now know more about the guitar woods, trade import data and Madagascan law than I ever imagined, but doing the interview with Gibson’s CEO was intense, but has given me an appetite for investigative stories.

    But if you think this is a Panorama, it’s not. It still has the beauty and fragility of the Silky Sifaka lemurs and their world at it’s heart, so you never forget what Erik and Sascha are ultimately fighting to save.

  • About the editor, Angela Maddick

    Angela edits everything from Human Planet, to X Factor, but is also no stranger to the Natural World.

    She’s cut films about Snow Monkeys in Japan and the Ant Queen of the Arizonan desert.

    But Madagascar, Lemurs and Spies was her most challenging task yet – to weave together the two worlds of a passionate scientist and an undercover detective.

  • Sascha Von Bismarck

    Sascha Von Bismarck

    Sascha is a Harvard Graduate and ex-marine who runs the Environmental Investigation Agency in Washington DC.

    He is passionate about defending the environment and making corporations and governments take responsibility for their actions.

    Sascha spent six years lobbying to get the Lacey Act Amendment passed into US law and believes strongly that it is the way forward.

    In his view, it has the potential to revolutionise world trade – when for the first time the companies who create the demand for precious wood – like Madagascan ebony and rosewood, are held to account if they have imported illegal wood.

    But he has no illusions about the mountain still to climb. Even if the music industry is a small part of the problem compared the China, it can become the spearhead of the solution.

    With the Lacey Act behind him, Sascha is continuing his battles to save the World’s forests.

  • Erik Patel

    Erik Patel

    Dr. Erik R. Patel is a primatologist who earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University and his Masters from the University of California at Berkeley. He has worked in Madagascar every year since 2001 studying the behavioral biology and conservation of one of the most critically endangered primates in the world, the silky sifaka lemur (Propithecus candidus) both in Marojejy National Park and the Makira Natural Park.

    His comments about being involved in the film:

    I'm amazed we all made it out in one piece! From the icy summit of the Marojejy massif at dawn to undercover filming of rosewood stockpiles and a leading rosewood gangster; a lot more could have gone wrong than busted cameras, aching knees, and severe weight loss. Filming silky sifakas in mountainous rainforest takes incredible patience and extreme tolerance to nasty weather, bad food, and perpetually wet, filthy clothing. I have never seen anyone work harder than Tuppence Stone (Producer) and John Brown (Cameraman) who were absolutely tireless in their work, dawn to dusk for months. More than any film team I have ever been with, they behaved with such class, sincerity, and kindness towards our Malagasy collaborators.

  • Erik's Team

    Erik Patel has worked in the mountainous rainforest of Marojejy National Park for the past ten years.

    His challenge is to find out as much as he can about the endangered silky sifaka lemurs to save them from extinction.

    To do this he needs a specialist Malagasy team.

    Desire Rabary has been with Erik from the start. He knows the lemur troop like his own family. He can summon the lemurs by imitating their call.

    Jean Cris is the botanist – able to name and distinguish the 150 plants of the forest that the silkies eat.

    Nestor is the supreme tracker – always staying with the troop til dusk and finding them before dawn.

    Guy is the note-taker and the poop collector. Spending every day for a year out with the Silky troop and recording behaviours, where they are, what’s happening. It’s this detail which always adds to Erik’s depth of understanding.

    Jackson is the surveyor. Accompanying Erik on remote surveys, his gift is to talk to local villagers and get them onside, so they have the best chance of finding new silkies. And he’s a great singer and joker.

    Dr Robert Schopler (Bobby) is the vet, who also plays a mean harmonica.

    Ed Louis works for the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s worked in Madagascar for years, and was the geneticist who put silkies on the map.

    His work meant Silky Sifakas were recognised as a separate species for the first time.

    His team have over a decade of experience darting much of Madagascar’s extraordinary wildlife.

    They darted and collared Erik’s original troop in Marojejy and he was with Erik again in Makira to dart the troop to help Erik understand how Silkies cope in a disturbed forest.

    When his liquid nitrogen cylinder got damaged in the hike into the forest, the Malagasy solution was to carry a fridge through the mountainous jungle to our camp. It meant not only did we have cold samples, but cold drinks as well.

  • Cameraman John Brown shares his experience

    With some films you can clearly see all the effort that went into making them up on the screen, with this film, unless you were there, it’s difficult to appreciate quite how challenging working in Madagascar’s rainforests can be.

    Most of the time we couldn’t see more than the tip of a tail of the Sifakas, and that would only be a half glimpse through 40m of foliage.

    Typically once we’d manoeuvered the camera and tripod into position, our ‘stars’, with a couple of leaps, would have disappeared off to the other side of some death-trap ravine which would take us half an hour of slithering and cursing to cross.

    Every now and again they would take pity on us and co-operate, and we’d be rewarded with beautiful behaviour that would make us forget the misery and revel in the privilege of spending time with one of the planet’s rarest and most engaging primates.

    This was a true team-effort of a film; in the field our amazing family of porters, guides and scientists where united by the shared joys of tropical fieldwork (wet smelly clothes that seem to rot as you are wearing them and leeches in places they have to right to be) and all of us were energised by Erik and Sascha’s passion to raise awareness of the tragedy of illegal logging in Madagascar.

    This is a beautiful and uplifting conservation story, and a film we are all very proud to have been part of.

  • The film dream team

    The film dream team

    Babazy – Mr Camera Extraordinaire
    Dorice – Mr Tripod Formidable
    Janvier – Mr Assistant Supreme
    They were fabulous carrying the team's kit through slippery jungle, steep ravines and wading rivers.

    They were also the fastest domino players producer, Tuppence, has ever seen, slapping down the tiles for extra effect.

    By helping us, they got to travel by plane for the first time and see their own country from the air. And they loved to borrow our ipod.
    (Pictured here with cameraman, John Brown, on the left)

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