Travis Steffens is working on a project that likely has the backing of plenty of young fans of the Disney movie Madagascar, but so far lacks the support it needs in the country where it matters most.
Steffens, a Beach resident and primatologist working on his PhD, is currently in the midst of crowdfunding for an educational movie to help save lemurs in their native Madagascar, the only place in the world the fascinating primates are found.
The main problem the film will tackle is the practice of clearing land with fire. It can easily – and often does – get out of hand, endangering lemur habitat.
Enlisting some of those people in his fight to help preserve lemurs and their habitat is key to what he hopes will be the success of the film. One of the goals is to instill some pride in rural villagers for lemurs, which are not found anywhere else on the planet, but are often seen as unremarkable at best.
One of the reasons locals don’t see the pressing need to preserve animal habitat is the familiarity of lemurs.
“They kind of see them like squirrels and raccoons. There are people in other countries who would love to see a raccoon or a squirrel, but that’s the last thing a Torontonian wants to see on their vacation,” explained Steffens.
But the animals are a key component of the forest ecosystem, which is in turn important to the freshwater supply in Madagascar.
“Lemurs are the big dispersers of seeds in the forest, so without lemurs, there is no forest,” Steffens said.
That leads to the two competing sides to the story. On the Planet Madagascar indiegogo.com site, organizers write that lemurs are the most endangered mammals in the world: 94 per cent of lemur species are threatened with extinction, largely due to lost habitat.
On the other hand, they write, “it’s complicated: 92% of the people in Madagascar live on less than $2 a day and their survival is intrinsically linked to the exploitation of natural resources … Our broader goal is to find ways of helping people improve their livelihoods while saving lemurs and their habitat.”
Steffens hopes that presenting the film through the voice of a primatologist born and raised in rural Madagascar will help encourage people to listen to what he has to say.
Mamy Razafitsalama is the host and the face of the Planet Madagascar organization on the ground. After growing up in a tiny village on the east coast of the island, he finished his education as a primatologist and now runs Planet Madagascar’s education programs.
The film would be another tool for Razafitsalama to spread the word about habitat preservation and the danger of over-exploiting the environment.
Steffens says once the film is ready, a projector and generator will be hauled from village to village on an ox cart, in order to spread the word to every corner of the country.
Director Chris Scarffe is an experienced environmental filmmaker familiar with Madagascar, and the $15,000 Steffens is hoping to raise will go toward covering filming and editing costs. Scarffe could possibly expand the footage into a documentary for outsiders after the educational film is finished as well.
Steffens first travelled to Madagascar alongside his now wife, Keriann McGoogan, to study fauna. He fell in love with the country, and he’s spent nearly three of the last ten years there in separate trips.
“In 2007 we went to Madagascar, a place I’ve wanted to go since I was a boy,” said Steffens. “It’s an incredible place, everything there is unique.”
“You go to Madagascar because of the lemurs, and the fossa, and all these strange animals that you never know about out in this part of the world, but you end up going back because of the people.”
To find out how to help, find Planet Madagascar online at planetmadagascar.com, at facebook.com/PlanetMadagascar, or on Twitter @PlanetMada. The crowdfunding campaign is at igg.me/at/planetmadagascar.