Review of Gangs of Lemur Island (2019)

Seen in 2020.

Four months in the lives of ring-tailed lemurs around a museum on the Berenty Reserve, Madagascar, compressed into five hours. The reserve contains about half the world population of the species, as well as a few small-toothed weasel lemurs, brown lemurs, sifakas and other wildlife.

It’s not exactly Gangs of New York (2002), but it’s a lovely in-depth portrait of mostly-vegetarian primates in a semi-natural state. There are varying degrees of hierarchy and harmony in the various troupes, there are some real characters (particularly Morris the mook and Erica the 16-year-old deposed leader), and although it’s clear that some of the narrative had to be assembled in the cutting room, the intimacy and sincerity are very good. Some of the camera work is ambitious, as when the operator starts running right into an ongoing fight with the high-speed camera hanging at lemur level.

The matriarchal ring-tailed lemurs live in a state of constant tribal competition for resources of various types. The most obvious of these are the “tortoise pen” where human staff leave scraps of tourists’ food, and a sisal field on a local farm. Their competition is described by the narrator as constant warfare, but the females fight while carrying their young on their backs, no adults are killed in the series, and as the narrator says in the last episode, “In the subtle, fragrant world of lemur skirmishes, a victory never lasts long.” This was once true of our hominin ancestors.

The sifakas, I must say, are adorable. They are shown occasionally bounding and bouncing from tree to tree after having lost, as a species, the ability to walk. They are so orthogonal to the lower-altitude competitions of their distant cousins that the ring-tailed lemurs simply ignore them. Ecology at work.

References here: Faktafel på SVT Play.

moving picture nature non-fiction series