Tags Posts tagged with "lemurs"


From left, Patricia Wright with Pamela Reed Sanchez, President and CEO of the Seneca Park Zoo Society with the Warrior Award, a depiction of a tree growing out of rock, designed and created by artists at the Corning Museum of Glass. Photo courtesy of Amanda Lindley

By Daniel Dunaief

For only a short period of time, Patricia Wright was just a primatologist who studies the charming lemurs of Madagascar.

Now the Herrnstein Professor of Conservation Biology and Distinguished Service Professor at Stony Brook University, Wright first trekked to the island nation off the southwest coast of the African continent in 1986 to understand and study these unique primates.

Within a year, she realized she wouldn’t have much to observe and understand in a perilously short time if she didn’t also work to protect them, their habitat, and many other threatened and endangered animals and plants.

With the help of the government of Madagascar, Wright created a protected area known as Ranomafana National Park, which includes 41,500 hectares of space, keeping loggers, poachers and others from threatening to eradicate animals and plants that are unique to the country.

Between the original effort to create the national park and today, Wright has collected numerous honors and distinctions. She has won three Medals of Honor from the Malagasy government and become the first female recipient of the coveted Indianapolis Zoo Prize in 2014.

Recently, the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, New York named Wright its inaugural “Conservation Warrior,” providing her with a $20,000 prize in recognition for conservation work that has had a lasting, meaningful impact on species survival.

Patricia Wright with her Warrior Award from the Seneca Park Zoo.

“Dr. Wright’s early years were spent in Rochester, New York and it is fitting that the inaugural Conservation Warrior award be bestowed upon arguably the most influential conservationist to come out of the Finger Lakes region,” Pamela Reed Sanchez, President and CEO of the Seneca Park Zoo Society, explained in an email.

The newly anointed conservation warrior recently traveled to Montreal as a member of the Madagascar delegation at the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP-15.

While she’s in Montreal, she plans to meet with conservation donors in an all-out effort to save wildlife on Madagascar, where almost all the reptiles and amphibians, half of its birds and all of its lemurs are only found on the island nation.

Wright hopes to raise $250 million for the country and $50 million for Centre ValBio (CVB), the research station she created in Ranomafana in 2003 and that employs 80 Malagasy staff. CVB has developed a conservation network around CVB that includes work with 75 villages.

Drew Fellman, who directed and wrote the Island of Lemurs documentary, encouraged donors to support Wright’s efforts. Wright and CVB are at the “front line of defense and anyone who cares [about] wildlife and endangered species should lend them a hand,” Fellman wrote in an email. He described how some species of lemurs are down to fewer than 10 individuals and “without conservation, there will be nothing left to research.”

In areas where conservation isn’t a priority, the region has lost habitat and biodiversity. In the northern areas of Madagascar, loggers and timber exporters reduced rainforest areas to grasslands, she said.

In the bigger picture, Wright said Madagascar needs funding immediately as the country is “closer to the brink of extinction with so many more species.” Saving plants and animals in Madagascar extends beyond committing to the protection and stewardship of vulnerable creatures. It also could provide benefits for people.

“So many lemur species are close relatives [to humans] and contain genetic information” about Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other conditions, she said. Additionally, creatures like bamboo lemurs regularly eat large quantities of cyanide, which would kill humans. Understanding how they can tolerate such high quantities of cyanide could provide an antidote.

The forests in the national park, which might otherwise attract loggers, prevent erosion, silting and landslides, she explained.

The benefit of a research stations like CVB extend beyond gathering information and conducting experiments.

In a recent correspondence in Nature Communications, lead author Timothy Eppley, a postdoctoral fellow at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance along with three other scientists including Wright, argues that field research stations “are on the front line of biodiversity conservation, acting as no-take zones that rewild surrounding ecosystems.”

In the correspondence, Eppley and his colleagues said that these stations are “invisible” in global environmental policy, despite their importance in conservation.

“Our point in the paper is that this has not been given any conservation attention,” said Wright. “Nobody is funding us for doing conservation” even though these sites are “conservation engines. We should be given recognition and more conservation money.”

Eppley, who leads SDZWA’s lemur conservation program, added that the Nature correspondence didn’t include any of the data the group collected.

While Eppley cautioned in an email sent from Madagascar that it’s difficult to generalize about conservation efforts at field stations, he said many have some conservation initiatives or projects, or that some element of their research includes a strong conservation component.

“Without the conservation piece, all other research will eventually disappear: we need the ecosystem and animals to exist in the first place,” he explained.

Eppley suggested that scientists often approach conservation initiatives that they can test on a small scale and then, if they are effective, find the best way of scaling up those initiatives for entire protected areas, landscapes, countries or broader geographic regions.

As for the honor Wright received from the Seneca Park Zoo, Eppley believes such recognition dovetails with their recent correspondence piece in Nature Communications.

Wright “founded CVB and has been tirelessly building it into a globally recognized field research station,” he wrote.

Bringing international recognition to the work being done at CVB “highlights the overall importance of field research stations and why they need to be included in global environmental policy frameworks,” Eppley added.

Photo from SBU (copyright ©2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.) by Drew Fellman

Stony Brook University Distinguished Professor Patricia Wright wants you to visit Madagascar, virtually for now and in person in the future. Wright, an award-winning scientist who has spent over 30 years studying the lemurs of the island nation of Madagascar, has been encouraging virtual ecotourism to the island nation, which has been struggling economically amid a pandemic that halted tourism. Wright recently raised money to support continuing operations for Centre ValBio, a research station she built in a national park she helped create. She has also helped secure money to create the nation’s first canopy walkway. The award-winning professor discussed COVID-19, conservation and science in Madagascar.

TBR: How has Covid affected Madagascar?

Wright: I flew back in January just after New Year’s. The Madagascar I saw was a lot different from New York. They have been able to stave off Covid by not allowing people into the country. It’s an island nation. There’s only one international airport. It was in some ways, a little bit better than in New York because there was less Covid. However, economically, it was a disaster because much of the gross national product for Madagascar is tourism and there has been absolutely no tourists there, and no researchers, either.

TBR: Has the government provided some support to bridge the gap?

Wright: It’s a real problem, because it’s the third poorest country in the world. The government doesn’t have a lot of funding. We’ve been asking for funding from the United Nations, from the World Health Organization, from the international agencies and they’ve been able to give some stop gap funding.

TBR: Does this crisis become worse with each passing week?

Wright: This is what I worry about because families were telling me when I was in Madagascar that they don’t have money to buy the seeds to plant their crops. That means that it’s not only right now that they don’t have enough money, but if they don’t plant the rice, they’re not going to have enough rice to eat. It’s reaching a crisis. Stony Brook has really pitched in … We have virtual wildlife tours, where people can go to Madagascar and our tourist guides will take you to Ranomafana. That’s adding income. People are taking their families to Madagascar by just doing zoom.

TBR: Does it look like tourists will return to Madagascar soon?

Wright: We’re hoping that that will occur in June or July of this year. That’s what the hope is, that this will start. The international airport right now is closed. That’s a good thing because that means that there’s not as much Covid coming in … When enough people get vaccinated, you’ll probably have to show your vaccination card if you want to get on a plane.

TBR: Are people booking trips?

Wright: I have a ticket to go at the end of May. Air France and Ethiopian Airlines are booking tickets for May, June and July. There’s hope.

TBR: You mentioned the virtual tours that people are taking. How many people are taking those tours?

Wright: A couple of hundred a week, and particularly because we’re also tapping into schools. A teacher can bring a class to Madagascar … Families can have a family reunion going to Madagascar all together. It’s interactive.

TBR: Are people seeing the same things they would see if they were on site?

Wright: They have some really great footage. They can get much closer to lemurs than if you were underneath them looking up in real life.

TBR: Do you hope people will follow up with an in person visit?

Wright: I’m hoping we’ll get a big increase in tourism once everything opens up

TBR: What about conservation?

Wright: It’s really difficult because people think that because the nation is shut down from the outside world, they can just go in and hunt. They can go back into protected areas because there’s not tourists there. There’s a real threat. We’ve been able to continue our programs in education and health and reforestation.

TBR: Are you concerned that some of these species might become extinct?

Wright: I really worry about that. There are some species of lemurs where there’s only 50 left. … We have 113 species of lemurs. They are in every part of Madagascar. It’s hard to protect them all, each one is so individually different. Lemurs have been evolving for 55 million, 60 million years. They’re only found on Madagascar. If we lose them, we really lose a part of our primate history that is very precious.

TBR: Is there any thought about capturing them and protecting them in an enclosed space?

Wright: We have thought about that. There has to be a long term program, though. If you bring that many animals into captivity, you have to be sure you have the funding to keep them fed and well protected. We have been thinking about that. We’ve been doing some translocations, where we take them from a place where they’re really threatened and they’re eating crops and farmers don’t like that. We take them out of that very dangerous situation and bring them into a protected area.

TBR: Are there funders that recognize this is a time where they can do the most good?

Wright: We do have some foundations that are stepping up, but we need more to step up … I just received a grant from the Leakey Foundation, which is out of San Francisco, and they just gave us money to keep the lights on for another three months. We are working hard to keep going.

TBR: How can people help?

Wright: I’ve already mentioned virtual tours [which cost about] $30 a person. For donating, we have a donation button at Centre ValBio. This is through Stony Brook and Stony Brook is very good about making sure the money goes straight to Centre ValBio, which is the name of the research station.

TBR: What about the science side?

Wright: I just got off a Zoom call with the sifaka guys … With the Covid year, we have a beautiful database, now we’re able to mine that, which consists of the plants and animals that are in Ranomafana. We’re making a relational database [that has over] 35 years of data that we’ve been taking from all over the region. It’s one of the few long term databases that there are in the tropics and we’re very proud of that.

TBR: Will the public be able to access some of that data?

Wright: Yes, we’re not at that point yet, but that what’s what we’re hoping for … We just heard news that we’re going to have a canopy walkway, which we have been wanting to put into Ranomafana National Park for over a decade and the funding has just been found. And so, we are going over to Ranomafana in May/ June with a designer to put in that canopy, so we’ll be ready for the tourists when they come, so they can go up in the canopy and see the lemurs eye to eye, to be able to see those chameleons and birds and everything in a new way.

TBR: Who provided the funding?

Wright: It’s called Mission Green and the organization is raising money just for canopy walkways, there will be 20 canopy walkways. This will be the only one in Madagascar.

TBR: As far as the sifaka call you mentioned earlier, is there any news?

Wright: So far, we know that all the babies from last year have survived. We’re kind of at that stage right now. That’s very exciting. The babies will be born in May and June.

TBR: What did you notice that was different in the Covid world of Madagascar?

Wright: When we went out there without being there for six months, because the national parks were closed. When we did get to go out there, I couldn’t believe it. They came down and were [practically] saying, ‘Where have you been?”

Centre ValBio staff members distribute face masks to the Malagasy people.

By Daniel Dunaief

Long Islanders are pitching in to protect the people of Madagascar, called the Malagasy, from COVID-19. They are also trying to ensure the survival of the endangered lemurs that have become an important local attraction and a central driver of the economy around Ranomofana National Park.

Patricia Wright, a Distinguished Service Professor at Stony Brook University and founder and executive director of the research station Centre ValBio (CVB), is working with BeLocal to coordinate the creation and distribution of masks. They have also donated soap, created hand washing stations at the local market, and encouraged social distancing.

BeLocal, an organization founded by Laurel Hollow residents Mickie and Jeff Nagel, along with Jeff’s Carnegie Mellon roommate Eric Bergerson, is working with CVB to fund and support the creation of 200 to 250 masks per day. BeLocal also purchased over 1,800 bars of soap that they are distributing at hand washing stations.

Wildlife artist Jessie Jordan is volunteering her time to help the Malagasy people.

All administrators for regional government in the national park area near CVB, which is in the southeastern part of the island nation, have received masks. The groups have also given them to restaurant owners and anybody that handles food, including vendors in the market.

At the same time, CVB has received permission to become a testing site for people who might have contracted COVID-19. At this point, Wright is still hoping to raise enough money to buy a polymerase chain reaction machine, which would enable CVB to perform as many as 96 tests each day.

The non-governmental organization PIVOT, which was founded by Jim and Robin Hernstein, has also helped create screening stations to test residents for fever and other symptoms of the virus. As for the masks, BeLocal and CVB are supporting the efforts of seamstresses, who are working 7 days a week.

Jessie Jordan, a wildlife artist based in Madagascar who has been living at CVB for several weeks amid limited opportunities to return to the United States, has been “busy collaborating with local authorities and contributing masks, soap and hand washing stations to the community.”

At this point, Jordan said people were concerned about the economy, but not as afraid of the virus. “The local health centers are less busy right now because of confinement measures and people are scared of testing positive,” she explained in an email.

The Malagasy who benefit from the national park economically through tours and the sale of local artwork have suffered financially. Social distancing in the cities is “nearly impossible,” while Jordan said she has heard that some people in the countryside don’t have access to TV or radio and are not aware of the situation.

As of last week, Madagascar had 132 confirmed positive cases of the virus. Through contact tracing, the government determined that three people brought COVID-19 to the nation when they arrived on different planes. The country had 10 ventilators earlier this month for a population that is well over 23 million.

BeLocal researched the best material to create masks that would protect people who worked in the villages around Ranomafana. “We researched templates and materials and worked together with CVB to choose the best material that would be available,” Leila Esmailzada, the Executive Director of BeLocal, explained in an email.

BeLocal organized a team that reached out to Chris Coulter, who had started making soap several years ago. Coulter has worked with local officials to make soap.

“We knew Coulter from a few years ago” from an effort called the Madagascar Soap Initiative to get soap into every home and make it accessible, explained Mickie Nagel, the Executive Director of BeLocal. “We hope the people making it right now will consider turning this into a business.” Before Madagascar instituted restrictions on travel, BeLocal and CVB had purchased several sewing machines.

Representatives from BeLocal and CVB have been conducting hand washing and social distance education efforts to encourage practices that will limit the spread of COVID-19.  Government officials have also shared instructions on the radio and TV, Wright said. When the mayor of Ranomofana Victor Ramiandrisoa has meetings, everybody stands at least six feet apart.

CVB has produced picture drawings in Malagasy that are plastered on the sides of cars that describe hand washing procedures and social distancing. “We also have educational signs in the post offices, restaurants and in the mayor’s offices that we paid for,” Wright explained. She said the government, CVB and BeLocal are all educating people about practices that can limit the spread of the deadly virus.

“Organizations in Ranofamana are collaborating with the local government on efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Esmailzada wrote. “The local government recently began conducting PSA’s along the road and in main markets about hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing and CVB staff are leading by example.”

As for the lemurs Wright, whose work was the subject of the Imax film “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” said the country has taken critical steps to protect these primates.

“The government of Madagascar is assuming the worst and is not allowing anybody into the park,” Wright said. The president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, has closed national parks to protect the lemurs, Wright said.

The lemurs have the support of conservation leader Jonah Ratsimbazafy, who earned his PhD while working with Wright at Stony Brook University. Ratsimbazafy is one of the founding members of the Groupe d’Etude et de Research sur les Primates, which is a community based conservation organization that protects lemurs. 

Wright and others are concerned the virus may spread to lemurs. Several lemurs species have the angiotensin converting enzyme, or ACE2, that forms the primary point of attachment for the virus in humans.

Indeed, scientists around the world are working to find those species which might be vulnerable to the virus. According to recent research preprinted in bioRxiv from a multi-national effort led by scientists at the University of California in Davis, several species of lemur have high overlap in their ACE2 inhibitors. This includes the endangered aye-aye lemur, which is the world’s largest nocturnal primate, and the critically endangered indri and sifaka.

“We are worried that lemurs might get the virus,” Wright said.

Photos courtesy of Jessie Jordan

Photo from SBU (copyright ©2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.) by Drew Fellman

By Daniel Dunaief

Small primates on an island nation off the southeastern coast of the African continent need about a million dollars.

That’s how much it might take to keep Ranofamana National Park, where Centre ValBio is located, afloat financially until people develop a vaccine.

Patricia Wright, who founded CVB, has spent the last 36 years studying a wide range of lemurs, even as she has integrated her efforts into the life of the Malagasy.

While she won conservation awards in the United States, including the 2014 Indianapolis Prize for Conservation from the Indianapolis Zoo, Wright has also won three medals of honor from the government of Madagascar as she has taken steps to improve the economic and physical health of the people who live around Ranomofana.

Now, with tourists who might be carriers of COVID-19 excluded from the national parks, lemur conservation, the tour guides who provide colorful commentary about the world-renowned primates, and the artists who provide local flavor and collectibles for visitors are all under duress.

The tour guides are “local residents and are incredible,” Wright said. “They are locally trained.” Indeed, many of those who share the natural riches of the region used to be loggers when they were younger. 

“We’re talking about people and about critically endangered lemurs,” she added.

Wright often highlights the positive feedback loop between conservation and the local economy, which has created job opportunities even as it has enabled the country to attract tourists from around the world who celebrate the land of the lemur. 

Building on her experience with delivering medicine to people around the national park, Wright plans to bring a polymerase chain reaction machine to Centre ValBio to test people for COVID-19.

Wright is seeking financial support from those who would like to ensure that the sifaka lemur, named after the “shi-fa” alarm call it makes when it feels threatened; the aye-aye lemur, which is the largest nocturnal primate in the world; and the indri lemur outlast the devastating effects of a virus that threatens the lives of people throughout the world.

Someday, when the smoke has cleared and people can look at what’s left in the world, Wright hopes Ranomafana Park and its lemurs are not only one of the survivors, but are also a rare, ecological site that calls to visitors from all over the world eager to celebrate the cultural richness of the Malagasy as well as the lemurs and other rare creates calling to each other from the rainforest.

Those interested in donating to this effort may visit the CVB web site at Welcome to Centre ValBio at Stony Brook University. 


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 [email protected].

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.”