FOUNDER OF MADAGASCAR'S CENTRE VALBIO
Dr. Patricia Wright has been one of the leading figures in Madagascar conservation for over 30 years. Best known for her extensive study of the social and family interactions of wild lemurs, as well as discovering a new species - Hapalemur aureus, the golden bamboo lemur - Patricia also founded the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments (ICTE) at New York state's Stony Brook University. Established in 1991, the Institute is dedicated to science-based research and conservation in the tropical regions of the world. But it is Madagascar in particular that has always been at the heart of Patricia's work, and in addition to the ICTE, she has also founded Centre ValBio, a modern research campus located in the Madagascan rainforest that works to sustain the country's people and natural resources.
Patricia has devoted most of her professional life to Madagascar and its lemurs, beginning in 1986 when she travelled to the island in search of the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus), a species thought to be extinct. Patricia achieved her goal of rediscovering this elusive primate, but her contribution to the natural world didn't end there. In the years following she combined her research with efforts to preserve the country’s endangered forests, as well as the many species of plants and animals they harbour. She was also influential in the establishment of Ranomafana National Park, a 106,000-acre protected area home to a number of endangered species that has since been inscribed as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A recipient of numerous awards for her scientific research and conservation work, including the Chevalier d'Ordre National (National Medal of Honour) and Officier d’Ordre National (National Order of Merit) from the President of Madagascar, Patricia is also a Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology who works tirelessly to educate the public about the wonders of the natural world, and the dangers it faces.
Interview with Dr. Patricia Wright
Could you tell us about the work that yourself and the team at Centre ValBio does? How does it support conservation efforts and the advancement of science?
We are a research station overlooking Madagascar’s rainforest with modern facilities for molecular biology and studying infectious diseases. Foremost, we study the biodiversity of Ranomafana National Park, including lemurs, frogs, chameleons, birds, plants, insects and carnivores, and how they all rely on each other as part of the ecosystem here. We also study climate change and keep track of the health of the rainforest over time. Over the last 30 years we have accumulated a detailed record of statistics like annual rainfall and temperature changes, as well as the behaviors and infant survival rates of 10 species of lemur, which allows us to begin to understand the effects of climate change on lemurs and other Madagascan wildlife.
Additional study programs undertaken at our research station include the health of local communities and the effectiveness of reforestation with endemic trees. We have a conservation education program that reaches almost 10,000 people, and a mobile health team that brings care to 30 villages over two days’ walk from the nearest road. We also have an environmental arts program and local cooking workshops.
Our data and scientific results help to advise management decisions, as well as advance medical, molecular and biological science. For example, we just completed a study of malaria mosquitos and found that they were rare in the rainforest, but abundant in villages. Another study first discovered a “day-care” system in ruffed lemurs, the first described in primates other than humans. Our senescence study showed that diurnal lemurs can live as long as 32 years without showing signs of aging. Our studies of wildlife-human interactions show crossovers of parasites and diseases from people to lemurs. The Centre ValBio scientists (including me) have described new species of lemur, chameleon and leech. Our scientists have even “habituated” many of the lemurs in Ranomafana so that they can now be seen easily, making tourism a much more viable way of bringing money into the area than it once was.
What are the biggest challenges facing Centre ValBio?
Maintaining equipment in the rainforest environment is tough. We have to constantly worry about the -80°C freezer that we use in the lab, while computers are sometimes damaged with power surges. The roads are bad and maintaining the cars is always a challenge.
Gold miners have recently entered the park and are destroying the wetlands here. It is a challenge to remove them, as they keep returning.
We worry about sustainability, as we have to live from grant to grant. We need an endowment to be guaranteed to cover maintenance and salaries over time.
What is it about lemurs that inspired you to dedicate your career to them?
There are many ways that lemurs inspired me. The fact that females lead in lemurs and hold all the political power is definitely an inspiration. Also each species of lemur is extremely specialised - some hibernate for half of their life, some can tolerate a diet containing huge amounts of cyanide, some have interesting social systems such as the day-care system in ruffed lemurs, and some have morphological peculiarities for extractive foraging, like aye-ayes.
Lemurs are also the drivers of the Madagascan ecosystem, and I am interested in their role as main seed dispersers, pollinators and prey for raptors and carnivores. I am also inspired to find out how individuals move from group to group over time, as well as lifetime reproductive success and dimensions of old age in lemurs. Lemurs are beautiful to watch, magnificent acrobats and have intricate vocalisations. They are charming creatures whom I never tire of observing. And just as I answer one scientific question, more spring up.
How did your work help to establish Ranomafana National Park in 1991?
In 1986 i discovered a new species of lemur (Hapalemur aureus, the golden bamboo lemur) and rediscovered another species (Prolemur simus, the greater bamboo lemur). A few months later, logging companies came in to cut down the big precious hardwood trees for exportation. Worried that the lemurs’ habitat would be destroyed, I went to the capital to plead with the Director of Water and Forests to protect the forest. He agreed to establish a national park, providing I find the funds to pay for the demarcation, gazetting and infrastructure of the park.
At first I was shocked, as I was an assistant professor and not trained in setting up a park, nor experienced in large-scale fundraising. But along with representatives from the Department of Water and Forests, my first guides Loret and Emile and my colleague Patrick Daniels, I walked from village to village discussing the possibilities of a park and deciding the boundaries with the village elders. Eventually I managed to secure funding from USAID, the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenburg Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and UNESCO’s Man in the Biosphere Programme so that we could do the initial procedures. Ranomafana National Park was inaugurated in 1991 and awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2007. In 1991 we had very few tourists, but last year the park had over 30,000.
In 2012, you wrote that Madagascar was “in the midst of a lemur holocaust”, with over 90% of all species threatened with extinction. What is the situation like for these unique primates today?
Lemurs are still desperately endangered. Many species are on the brink of extinction. The good news is that we now know Madagascar is home to over 110 species of lemur, thanks to all the exploration we have done and the help of molecular biology methods; when I first arrived here, that number was just 32. When I began my work here there were just two national parks in the whole country, but now there are 22, with many community-managed protected areas.
Lemurs still need help. The national park system in Madagascar was first established in the 1990s, but they need more funding to protect the parks. Researchers are still finding out facts about lemurs, and conservation biologists are doing their best to both connect fragmented forests and reforest areas which have been cleared. Hundreds of young Malagasy conservationists have been trained and stand willing to do all they can to protect lemurs and their habitat. But all these teams need more funding to override the threats facing these fascinating primates.
You were the first person to describe the golden bamboo lemur after discovering it in 1986. The most recent new primate species discovered was the Tapanuli orangutan, back in november 2017. How important is the discovery and description of new species to conservation efforts?
First of all it is difficult to protect undetected species. Once we know the new species, we can study their behavior and ecology and use conservation biology to set up guidelines for protection. We can also set up monitoring of the species to have an “early warning” before it is too late.
The lemur is an enduring symbol of Madagascar, but the popularity of these charismatic primates perhaps overshadows the other wonders found on the island. Are there any particular endemic species here that you think deserve more attention and conservation efforts directed towards them?
The chameleons are little jewels. The fossa is the top carnivore here and deserves attention. The spectacular birds also need to be brought to the world’s attention. Tenrecs are diverse and have special qualities: the long-tailed tenrec has a tail three times longer than its body, female common tenrecs give birth to more offspring than any other mammal species, and the smallest tenrecs weigh just a few grams. Plants and insects also need to be featured.
Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?
Think about how your own skills can contribute. If someone is young and fit, or wise and retired, they should come to Madagascar and volunteer for a conservation project. If a person is constrained by time, he/she should vacation in Madagascar (or another of the world’s most biodiverse countries) and pick a charity to support every year. Funds are needed to preserve the natural world and we can all help to raise or donate funds now before it is too late.
Communication and awareness is important too – even convincing 10 friends that lemurs are endangered and that they deserve attention is a big contribution. Social media does help raise money, so each individual should organise a social media event to raise awareness of the shrinking natural world. We are updating our website to reflect how people can help, but your readers can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org if they want to help.
Who is your own personal natural world hero and why?
Gerald Durrell, the author, set up a conservation NGO and a zoo to save the little things, the unsung, drab endangered species. And Carl Jones who carried on his work.
Jane Goodall has been a beacon for saving primates, especially chimpanzees.
Carl Safina, the author and conservationist, writes brilliant books and is the star of TV shows that explain to everyone how important the natural world is.
E.O. Wilson has devoted the last decades of his life to singing the praises of the tropics and the national world.
Jonah Ratsimbazafy, my graduate student from Madagascar, who has organised the Malagasy Primatological Society and works tirelessly for the conservation of Madagascar's lemurs.
Russ Mittermeier has devoted his life to saving primates, tortoises and turtles, especially in Brazil and Madagascar.
John Terborgh who helped bring science to the study of the Amazonian ecosystem.
Tom Lovejoy who coined the term "biodiversity" and helps us to understand conservation, especially in the Amazon.
Stuart Pimm who gave us an understanding of food webs and now heads the NGO Saving Species, which buys up critical forests and connects them to larger forests.
And all of my Centre ValBio staff who work tirelessly to save Madagascar's rainforest.
What has been your best natural world experience to date?
Facing a male jaguar in the middle of the night in a remote section of the Amazon rainforest (Peru’s Manu National Park). He was no more than a metre away from me.
Watching sifakas jump in the rainforest.
Being right under an indri group as they sing.
Discovering the golden bamboo lemur.
What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?
The natural world is precious, more precious than a Rembrandt or the Hope Diamond, but it is being destroyed every day. We can band together to value nature with all its treasures. To value, respect and save the natural world, especially the tropics, should be the top priority of all humans.
The tropical rainforests are the lungs of our planet, and new medicines and molecules lie within them just waiting to be discovered.
The natural world is a peaceful, spiritual place that should be saved into the future.
We can’t get discouraged or give up.
We must be sure that future generations are properly taught how important it is to protect and expand the tropical forests and the biodiversity they contain.