A University of Western Ontario professor has joined an international effort to help the survival of lemurs, the primates of Madagascar that are currently the planet’s most critically endangered mammals.

Ian Colquhoun, a London, Ont.-based primatologist and professor of anthropology, is one of several academics studying lemurs in an effort to prevent their extinction.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list, 94 per cent of the lemur species are threatened, up from 74 per cent in 2008.

“As a group, Madagascar’s lemurs look like they are the ones that are most in trouble, together,” Colquhoun said. “You’ve got deforestation issues, you’ve got hunting, so it’s just a bad scenario all the way around.”

Portrayed in popular culture films and shows like DreamWorks’s “Madagascar,” and “Zoboomafoo,” the furry, wide-eyed creatures are found nowhere else in the world but on Madagascar, an island nation located in the Indian Ocean.

This year, Hollywood is again turning the lens on the primates’ plight, with the upcoming release of “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” an IMAX documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman.

It’s that attention that Colquhoun is hoping will drive sustained conservation efforts of the approximately 100 species of lemurs on Madagascar.

According to an article co-authored by Colquhoun and recently published in the journal “Science,” human disturbance of lemurs’ natural forest habitat has gravely threatened their survival.

Heightening the risk of extinction is protracted political instability on the island nation just off Africa’s southeastern coast.

During an uprising in 2009, then-president Marc Ravalomanana resigned, leaving the country with a non-functioning government and without recognition as a nation from the international community, Colquhoun said. The absence of political leadership resulted in dire consequences for conservation efforts.

“There was no oversight, there was no jurisdiction for protected areas, national parks, so you’re getting illegal logging, there was poaching, bush meat hunting --- all manner of stuff that was not good for the longer term conservation picture,” Colquhoun said.

However, Colquhoun believes there is reason to be optimistic. In late 2013, the country held democratic elections, in what the Science report said is an “encouraging sign” that the new administration will “set the conditions for a return to international aid.”

And, an action plan created by the IUCN’s Primate Specialist Group last year set out a “blueprint” for turning around the course down which lemurs are headed. It included creating a long-term research presence across the country, increasing ecotourism, and facilitating more conservation efforts at the local level.

“There’s a whole synergy of things that emerge from this,” Colquhoun said.

Despite all they have going against them, Colquhoun said lemurs are fairly resilient, with little “personalities” all their own.

Colquhoun should know: he’s been studying them for 30 years, starting with his undergraduate studies at Western University. Back then, little was known about lemurs, but Colquhoun could observe a group of them at London’s Storybook Gardens.

“They’re just really neat little animals,” he said.