Their world stretches from the treetops of Madagascar to the rain forests of Brazil to the salmon feeding grounds of bears in Alaska.
They study a wide range of animals, at the same time that they dedicate their work to the survival of species with uncertain futures.
Russell Mittermeier, Carl Safina, and Patricia Wright not only share a connection to Stony Brook University and to conservation, but they are also three of six finalists for the biennial Indianapolis Prize, considered the top award for the world’s conservationists. The award, which is administered by the Indianapolis Zoo, considers conservation candidates from all over the world. The winner, who will receive the Eli Lilly Medal and a $250,000 prize, will be announced on May 13.
“I am very proud of these outstanding members of our faculty,” SBU President Stanley said through an emailed statement to the Times Beacon Record Newspapers.
The three finalists recently attended an Earth Day tweet-up at the Student Activity Center at Stony Brook, where they shared their views on the prize, on conservation, and on the Long Island ecosystem. It was the first-ever Tweet-Up for the University. Members of the school, including Stanley and representatives from the Indianapolis Zoo, attended the discussion.
“Having three of the six finalists from Stony Brook speaks to the institution’s tradition of academic excellence and commitment to field work that positively impacts genuine conservation,” Rob Shumaker, the vice president of Conservation & Life Sciences at the Indianapolis Zoo, said after the meeting.
On the positive side, the tweeting trio talked of a comeback for a bird of national symbolic importance that hasn’t nested on Long Island since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
“Here on Long Island, for the first time in 60 years, we have a nesting pair of bald eagles,” said Safina. The head of the Blue Ocean Institute, Safina has written six books on threats facing the world’s habitats.
One of the strongest pieces of advice each of the Stony Brook finalists offered is to see animals in their natural habitat.
“Once you get out there, you’re connected for life,” Mittermeier, a leading field biologist who is also the president of Conservation International, told a combination of about 200 people in attendance at the SAC and those gathered in a virtual crowd through Twitter.
“Visiting places is not a trivial part of the fight for wildlife conservation,” Safina echoed.
Indeed, in 2012, Stony Brook inaugurated a new research, education and conservation building on the boundary of Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar called NamanaBe Hall. Stanley attended the inauguration, along with dignitaries from Madagascar.
The university president agreed that the experience of seeing these animals in the wild brings a new perspective.
“Observing [creatures] in their natural habitat brings a completely new level of awareness and appreciation for them and it is an extraordinary experience,” Stanley said.
Wright, who has studied lemurs for over a quarter of a century, was recently featured in an Imax movie narrated by Morgan Freeman called “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.” The film, which Wright has seen 16 times and includes footage of lemurs on that island, shows the interactions of lemur social groups. Back in her office after the tweet up, Wright shared a chart that tracks how one female lemur leader lost her role in a “hostile takeover,” only to assume the same position with another group.
Wright, who helped establish Ranomafana National Park in 1991, calls the lemurs “her family,” along with her daughter and her well-traveled graduate students who have been to Madagascar and Peru.
Mittermeier, meanwhile, discussed how conservation groups are looking to turn the 2016 Olympic spotlight for host city Rio de Janeiro on some of Brazil’s conservation efforts.
Conservation International is joining other groups to suggest that the mascot could either be the muriqui or the golden lion tamarin. The muriqui, which weighs between 10 and 20 pounds, is an endangered monkey that is found only in the Atlantic coast forests of Brazil. Mittermeier also is urging the Olympics to use the tamarin, a monkey with reddish brown hair around its head and face that is considered a conservation success story, as an image on gold medals.
While he won’t likely be making an appearance in Brazil, Stony Brook’s own mascot Wolfie prowled around the ballroom during the Earth Day Tweet-Up.
Stony Brook officials said they were pleased with their first-ever tweet up and are interested in hosting this type of event again. The talented trio said it would be an honor to win the prize and that it underscores the appreciation for the value of their work.
As for why conservation is important, Safina explained, “it’s about trying to be human without ruining the world.”
Wright said she felt she “couldn’t be a person if she let all these animals go extinct.”