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Patricia Wright

Many of Madagascar’s iconic lemur species such as this black-and-white ruffed lemur are critically endangered. Photo by Daniel Burgas

By Daniel Dunaief

As a part of an ambitious reforestation plan announced in March, Madagascar’s newly elected president Andry Rajoelina explained that he wanted to change the way his nation off the southwest coast of the African continent was known, from the Red Island to the Green Island.

An international collection of scientists, including lemur expert and award-winning scientist Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University, recently weighed in on other ways Rajoelina can help conservation goals for the country through a five-step solution they outlined in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“We are all very concerned” about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, said Wright. “We know that only with a collaborative effort can we push things in the right direction.”

Madagascar, which has numerous species endemic to the island nation, including many of the lemurs Wright studies, is known as the island of red clay in part because deforestation has exposed much of the clay underlying the country. This clay has eroded into rivers, which have washed into the ocean.

“If you flew over the whole island, it would be very sad” because of all the exposed red clay from deforestation, Wright said.

She remains optimistic about Rajoelina’s goals and the potential for achieving them. The president “talked about going on the offensive and reforestation is one of his platforms,” she said. “It’s most important to reforest with endemic species,” as opposed to eucalyptus and pine.

Unlike in other countries, where politicians sometimes view conservation and economic development as forces pulling in opposite directions, Malagasy leaders acknowledge and recognize the benefit of preserving unique habitats that are home to the rare and threatened species of Madagascar.

“If you destroy all the forests, you destroy all the water and they will no longer be able to farm,” Wright said. “The natural wildlife and habitats are closely connected to their well-being. One of the biggest industries is ecotourism, which supports many industries on the ground. It’s not like there’s a line between people and wildlife.”

Indeed, the scientists acknowledge the importance of financial growth for the country that dovetails with their conservation goals.

“Conservation needs to contribute to, and not detract from, national efforts targeting economic development,” Julia Jones of Bangor University, in Wales, who led the study, said in a press release. “It must not make situations worse for the rural poor who are so often marginalized in decision making.”

The people of Madagascar have many of the same needs as those in other countries, as they seek jobs, health care, and good schooling, Wright said. “These families are closer to not having enough food to eat and they are much poorer if the natural resources are all destroyed.”

Concerned about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, Jones contacted Wright, who suggested the team enlist the help of Jonah Ratsimbazafy from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

“It was just a matter of bringing together some of the key players in conservation for 20 years,” explained Wright.

The group generated a list of five priorities.

First on the list is tackling environmental crime. The scientists suggest using new technologies, including remote sensing and rapid DNA barcoding, to allow forest rangers and others to identify protected species. To improve this effort, however, the Ministry of Justice also needs to enhance the way it reacts to environmental crimes.

The researchers suggest prosecuting and fining those who traffic in rosewood or the critically endangered species for the pet trade. They see progress in this arena in the northeastern part of the island nation, where prosecutors have effectively charged some people who have sold rosewood.

Second, the group recommends investing in protected areas. The researchers urge greater investment in policy, legal and economic conditions that encourage additional investment in nature, which could include improving infrastructure to develop tourism around protected areas, payment for ecosystem services and debt for nature swaps.

Critically endangered species such as these ploughshare tortoises may be extinct in the wild within the next few years if illegal collection isn’t stopped. Photo by Chris Scarffe

Third, the scientists urge that major infrastructure developments limit the impact on biodiversity. The current environmental impact assessment law is over 20 years old and needs an update to require the use of environmental assessment. This component also includes a greater commitment to enforcement.

Fourth, the scientists suggest strengthening tenure rights for local people over natural resources. Most farmers can’t get certification for their land, which reduces the incentive for them to invest in settled agriculture and potentially exacerbates forest clearance. A review of tenure laws could help local landowners and biodiversity.

Finally, researchers recognize a growing crisis in fuel wood. They urge an investment in reforestation efforts, which could provide environmental and economic benefits.

While these steps are important for Rajoelina and the government in Madagascar, Wright suggests several ways Long Islanders can help. She urges school teachers to cover Madagascar in their classes. Teachers in the area who are interested in gathering information about the island nation can write to Wright at Patricia.Wright@stonybrook.edu.

She also urges people to become involved through social media, which they can use to have fundraisers through organizations like PIVOT, an organization committed to improving health in developing nations like Madagascar and strongly encourages people to visit Madagascar, where they can enjoy the benefits of ecotourism.

Visitors to Madagascar would have the incredible opportunity to witness the varied biodiversity for themselves.“We have charismatic lemurs,” Wright said, although many of them are critically endangered. Even if they can’t travel that far, people can support students who wish to study abroad.

“I don’t think health and wildlife are separated,” Wright said. “The health of the people depends on us preserving natural resources.”

She is looking forward to the Annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in Antananarivo, Madagascar, from July 30 through August 3. “Hopefully, we will be going forward with the next step during or shortly after that meeting.”

Malagasy women break up granite stones to be used as gravel in the construction of the IUCN research center. Photo from Ali Yapicioglu

By Daniel Dunaief

After considerable planning, fundraising and coordinating, Patricia Wright welcomed a star-studded group of scientists, government officials and conservationists recently for the roof raising of the new IUCN Saving Our Species Biodiversity Research Center in Madagascar.

The building, which cost about $1 million, is a part of Centre ValBio, which is a conservation and research center Wright, a Distinguished Service Professor and award-winning researcher  at Stony Brook University, founded in 2003. CVB is near Ranomafana National Park in the southeastern part of the African island nation.

Above, a sketch of the IUCN Saving Our Species Biodiversity Research Center/Image courtesy of InSite Architecture

When it is completed this summer, the new building, which includes a green roof balcony and a central staircase and breezeway, is expected to provide research facilities for about ten scientists. They will study insects and plants, frogs and lemurs, the primates Wright has observed, researched, and shared with the public for over 30 years. Visiting scientists can apply to work at the center starting in September.

Russell Mittermeier, the Chief Conservation Officer at Global Wildlife Conservation and a research professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook, suggested that these types of efforts pay dividends.

It’s “hard to predict what will be found but history has shown us that there are endless benefits to conserving biodiversity and maintaining healthy ecosystems,” Mittermeier, the Chair of the IUCN/ SSC Primate Specialist Group, explained in an email from Madagascar.

Conservationists credit Wright with adding the new Biodiversity Centre to the larger research and conservation presence in Madagascar.“Wright was instrumental” in developing the facility, said Christoph Schwitzer, the Director of Conservation at Bristol Zoological Society and the Deputy Chair and Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. “Without her, it wouldn’t be there. She started this whole project.”

The IUCN expressed its appreciation for the work Wright put in to continue to build on her track record of conservation.

At IUCN, “we highly value our collaboration with [Wright] and we understand she has established a good relationship with the Park Manager of Ranomafana National Park,” Remco Van Merm, the Coordinator of IUCN’s Saving Our Species initiative, explained in an email.

Save Our Species funds projects that “enhance the conservation of threatened species,” Van Merm added. “In the case of the new SOS Biodiversity Research Centre at Centre ValBio in Madagascar, the research that will be carried out will contribute greatly to the conservation of lemurs and other threatened biodiversity” in the national park.

Wright insisted that the new biodiversity center use local materials and workers, as she did with the construction of Namanabe Hall, its much larger sister building on the CVB campus.

Wright “wants to have the local villagers be involved in the process,” said Ali Yapicioglu, a partner at InSite, an architectural firm in Perry, New York who worked on both buildings. The sand is from the river, while the gravel comes from granite pieces that local women break down into smaller pieces.

In addition to local labor and materials, Wright ensured that InSite provided education to Malagasy residents, which included classes at the construction site. Through the building process, InSite also trained electricians.

While CVB, which is the largest biodiversity research center in the country, is well-established, it took considerable work on the Stony Brook scientist’s part to create it.

Schwitzer said Wright “fought against various forces trying to set this center up and she succeeded. She’s an excellent fundraiser.”

Madagascar has presented numerous challenges for conservation, in large part because of the changes in governments.Mittermeier recently had a “good discussion” with Andry Rajoelina about biodiversity just before Rajoelina was inaugurated as president of Madagascar last week. “Let’s see what he does” on biodiversity, Mittermeier explained. The Stony Brook professor plans to recommend that Rajoelina visit Ranomafana. 

For visitors, the CVB site offers ecotourists a firsthand opportunity to observe the charismatic lemur species, which are a part of the “Madagascar” animated films and were also the subject of an Imax movie about Wright’s work called “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.”

“People who go there can see quite a few interesting lemur species in the wild,” Schwitzer said, adding that the station also gives Schwitzer “hope for lemur conservation,” he said.

The SOS lemur program originated with a 2013 published report, which included permanently managed field stations as a critical element. Research and field stations deter logging and lemur hunting, while also contributing scientific information that the government can use to set policies and make informed decisions, he added.

The lemur action plan includes the construction of this building. Schwitzer indicated that these types of initiatives, spread throughout the country, are critical to protecting species under various pressures, including habitat destruction.

“If we don’t keep up the effort, we could very well lose one,” Schwitzer said. He hastened to add that no lemurs have gone extinct in modern times, but “we can’t become complacent.” Indeed, the rarest of lemurs, the Northern Sportive Lemur, is down to 60 individuals in the world.

In the future, Schwtizer hopes Malagasy leaders and institutions will apply for international funding for themselves, as they drive the conservation goal forward.

This September, Wright will also finish an Education Center on the lower campus. On the upper campus, which is just across the road, she is building a wildlife center that will include a vet clinic, a frog breeding center, a mouse lemur facility, and a climate and drone center. The facility will also include bungalows for long-term researchers.

In addition to providing a field station for researchers, the site will also provide information accessible to the public.

“We are producing online identification systems like iNaturalist and also putting vocalizations and videos of the wildlife online,” Wright explained in an email.

Schwitzer said he has attended meetings where Wright has shared her vision for CVB with scientists and conservationists.

“Everybody looks at this and says, ‘This is cool. I want to do something like that,’” Schwitzer said.

The greater bamboo lemur will struggle to survive amid a shorter rainy season. Photo by Jukka Jernvall

By Daniel Dunaief

An elusive primate is living on a shrinking island within an island. The greater bamboo lemur, which is one of the world’s most endangered primates, now inhabits a small section of Madagascar, where it can find the type of food it needs to survive.

The greater bamboo lemur, which was one of numerous lemurs featured in the 2014 iMax movie, “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” is finding that the time when it can eat the most nutritious types of bamboo is narrowing each year amid a longer dry season.

Patricia Wright has dedicated her life to helping lemurs in Madagascar. File photo from SBU

In a publication last week in the journal Current Biology, Patricia Wright, the founder of Centro ValBio research campus, driving force behind the creation of Ranofamana National Park and a distinguished professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, along with several other researchers, including Jukka Jernvall from the University of Helsinki and Alistair Evans from Monash University, showed that the population of lemurs is threatened by a changing climate. The bamboo that sustains the greater bamboo lemurs depends on water to produce shoots that are higher in nutrition.

Indeed, when the rains come, the new bamboo shoots are “filled with protein,” said Wright. Jernvall, however, predicted that the driest season will get longer by a day each year. By 2070, rains necessary for bamboo growth and greater bamboo lemur survival will be delayed by as much as two months.

This is problematic not only for the current generation of greater bamboo lemurs but also for the more vulnerable younger generations, who need their lactating mothers to eat more nutritious bamboo to help them grow. Bamboo shoots typically come up from the ground about two weeks after the rains begin, in the middle of November. Bamboo lemurs, whose annual clocks are set to the rhythm of an island off the southeast coast of Africa that is the size of California, are born around the time of these bamboo-shoot-producing rains.

“Any village elder will tell you that the rains used to come at about Nov. 15 and continue until March 15,” Wright said. “That’s the way the world was, even in the 1980s and 1990s and probably many years before that. Suddenly, we started to get some evidence of climate changes and periods of a longer dry season.”

Above, a mother greater bamboo lemur holds her infant, which weighs about half a pound at birth. Photo by Jukka Jernvall

Wright is currently in Madagascar, where she says there is a drought right now. “No water for our research station means no electricity since we are near a hydroelectric power plant,” she explained by email. In fact, in some years, the rains start as late as January, which reduces the food offerings for the mother lemur, who weighs about 6.5 pounds, and her offspring, who need considerable nutrition to grow from birth weights Wright estimates are less than half a pound. The lemur mother “has to have nutritious shoots to feed her baby milk,” Wright said. “She can survive on leaves and trashy stuff in the culm, but she can’t raise her babies” on it.

Wright and Jernvall worked together in 2005 on a study of climate and another type of lemur called sifakas, whose name comes from the alarm sound it makes. In their earlier work, Wright and Jernvall found that aging sifakas with worn teeth could still produce offspring, but that their infants typically died if the weather was dry during the lactation season, Jernvall explained in an email.

“This alerted us about the potential impact of climate change,” he continued. “The bamboo lemur were an obvious concern because they are critically endangered and because they eat the very tough bamboo.”

Jernvall said the work on bamboo lemurs combines Wright’s efforts in Madagascar with climate modeling he performed with Jussi Eronen at the University of Helsinki and an analysis of dental features conducted by Evans and Sarah Zohdy, who is currently at Auburn University. Stacey Tecot, who is on sabbatical from the University of Arizona, also contributed to the research.

Wright believes some efforts can help bring these bamboo lemurs, who survive despite consuming large amounts of cyanide in their bamboo diet, back from the brink. Creating a bamboo corridor might improve the outlook.

Growing bamboo would not only benefit the lemurs, who depend on it for their survival, but would also provide raw materials for the Malagasy people, who use it to construct their homes, to build fences and to cover their waterways.

Bamboo corridors could be a “win-win situation,” where scientists and local communities grew and then harvested these hearty grasses, Wright continued. She has started a bamboo pilot study near one of the small populations of lemurs and hopes the lemurs can expand their range.

The greater bamboo lemur will struggle to survive amid a shorter rainy season. Photo by Jukka Jernvall

Like other animals with unusual lifestyles, the greater bamboo lemurs offer a potential window into an unusual adaptation. Through their typical diet, lemurs consume a high concentration of cyanide, which is stored in the bamboo. Understanding the bamboo lemur could provide evidence of how one species manages to remain unaffected by a toxin often associated with spies and murder mysteries.

As a part of her efforts to improve the chances of survival for this lemur, Wright is considering moving some lemurs to a protected area. She needs permission from Madagascar officials before taking any such actions and recently met with Madagascar National Park official to discuss such remediation efforts.

In Madagascar, Wright said observing the bamboo lemur is challenging because it is such a “cryptic animal.” She has sat beneath a tree where a lemur is hiding for seven hours waiting for it to emerge, watching as a lemur brought in its legs and curled up its body to hide from the scientist’s inquisitive eyes. “I’d get really hungry, so they would win and I would leave,” Wright recalled.

She suggests that the data in the Current Biology article demonstrates the urgency to take action to protect these primates. “We are trying our best to help the bamboo lemur not go extinct,” she said. “Bamboo corridors should help, but we may have to irrigate the bamboo during November to January.”

Patricia Wright speaks at the Earth Optimism Summit in April. Photo by Ronda Ann Gregorio

By Daniel Dunaief

Determined to share success stories instead of doom and gloom, Nancy Knowlton, the Sant Chair of Marine Science at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, decided to change the tone of the conservation dialog.

Knowlton organized the first Earth Optimism Summit around the most recent Earth Day this April. She searched for speakers who could share their progress and blueprints for success. That included Patricia Wright, a Stony Brook University distinguished professor who has developed an impressive legacy during her 25 years in Madagascar.

Nancy Knowlton, organizer of the first Earth Optimism Summit in April. Photo by Ronda Ann Gregorio

In Madagascar, the 10th poorest country on Earth, optimism has been growing, perhaps even more rapidly than the 1,000 endemic trees that have been making a comeback in the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. The growth of those trees has encouraged the return of animals that had retreated from an area thinned out by selective logging.

“This year, the rare and furtive bird, the scaly ground roller, came back and nested,” Wright reported. The “black and white ruffed lemur gave the area the thumbs up and reestablished territories and reproduced.”

The critically endangered golden bamboo lemur also doubled the size of its population. “The forest took 25 years to recover, but it can recover,” Wright said in her speech. Dedicated to the study of lemurs, Wright in 1991 helped create Ranomafana National Park, which is the third largest park in Madagascar. She served as a plenary speaker for a gathering that drew over 1,400 people to Washington. Scientists and policymakers held sister summits in nine other countries at the same time.

“You can’t possibly make progress in conservation if you only talk about the problems,” said Knowlton, a co-host of the summit. Knowlton knew Wright from serving on the Committee for Research and Exploration, where the two interacted six times a year. When she was putting together the list of speakers, Knowlton approached the 2014 winner of the Indianapolis Zoo Prize to see if she could share a positive message in conservation.

When Wright accepted, Knowlton was “thrilled, not only because she’s a good storyteller, but because she’s also done incredibly important work in Madagascar.” Indeed, Wright said national parks have greatly expanded from only two in the 1980s. “Now with the work of many dedicated environmentalists, including the enlightened policy of the U.S. government through USAID, we have 18 National Parks and a National Park Service to manage and protect them,” she told the session.

Restoring trees to the area also offers economic opportunity, Wright said. Under the endemic trees, farmers can grow crops like vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon and wild pepper, she said. “All these products can be marketed for high prices. We will take back that land and make it productive again, doubling or tripling its value,” Wright continued.

A scientist featured in the 2014 film “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” Wright has engaged in a wide range of efforts on behalf of the Malagasy. Last year, she negotiated with a mayor on the island to pick up trash in exchange for the purchase of several wheelbarrows. She also helped encourage the renovation of 35 schools in communities around Ranomafana, where students learn critical thinking and molecular biology. This, Wright said, is occurring in a country where three out of five students don’t remain in school past fifth grade. “More children in this region are graduating from high school and over a handful have received university degrees,” she explained.

A health team also walks to 50 nearby villages, carrying medicines and basic health lessons. SBU brought drones last year, which can fly medicines as far as 40 miles away. Drones could monitor the outbreak of any unknown and potentially dangerous disease and can offer health care for people who live in ares that are inaccessible by road.

The financial support of the National Science Foundation helped create Centre ValBio, a field station and campus in the middle of the rainforest. The research station has modern facilities and equipment to conduct genetics and disease analyses. “We provide tools and training and even fiber-optic cable internet, the fastest in the region,” Wright said. They are expanding the research facilities this year.

Through research efforts, Wright and other scientists have also discovered two new species of lemurs and found two others that were considered extinct. Restoring the national forest not only brought back animals that had retreated into the inner part of the forest, but it also encouraged the growth of ecotourism.

In 1991, there was only one tourist hotel and now there are 32 hotels, providing facilities for the 30,000 tourists. “That can start to change an economy,” Wright suggested. “Cottage industries have developed like the woman’s weaving group and the basket weavers and blacksmiths who all make a good living from selling to tourists and researchers.”

Wright attributes these positive steps to a dedication to working with residents in the area. “We have been successful by training local residents and university students, by listening to what the communities want, rather than what we think is best,” she said.

Knowlton suggested that “you can’t helicopter conservation into a particular place. It’s got to be built from the ground up. She’s done it in Madagascar.” While these are positive steps, Wright declared this is just the beginning. “There are endless possibilities of scientific knowledge and research,” she said. “They all matter and impact our daily lives.”

As for the Earth Optimism Summit, Knowlton said this is just the beginning as well, originally thinking of organizing a second summit in 2020, but may hold the next one sooner. “We’re identifying what’s working and putting a spotlight on it,” Knowlton said. “The feedback has been extraordinarily, unbelievably positive. We’ve come to realize that people are demanding” another conference.

She appreciated Wright’s contribution to April’s conference.“By sharing her successes, Pat Wright brings home the message that if she can do it, so can we all,” Knowlton said. “The summit succeeded because Wright and over 240 other speakers made it obvious, through the successes that they shared, that solving the environmental problems we face is not out of reach.”