Tags Posts tagged with "Madagascar"


Johanna Mitra was part of the rescue team to save the endangered greater bamboo lemur.

By Daniel Dunaief

Johanna Mitra traveled a long way from her childhood home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to join an effort to save the critically endangered greater bamboo lemur.

A graduate of Stony Brook University, Mitra took a class led by Distinguished Professor Patricia Wright that set her on a memorable and extraordinary course.

Mitra “came up to me after class and asked if she could help” with her research and with conservation, Wright recalled.

Johanna Mitra was part of the rescue team to save the endangered greater bamboo lemur.

Mitra started by cataloging photos for about three months twice a week. Wright saw that Mitra had been writing blogs for an environmental nonprofit and had asked Mitra if she’d like to apply for the opening as the Communications Officer at Centre ValBio, a research station Wright created in Madagascar.

“The next thing I knew, a couple of months [and an undergraduate degree in Ecosystems and Human Impact] later, I was packing a bag to go to Madagascar!” Mitra explained in an email.

Mitra sent her parents, Nilo and Ursula Mitra, a group photo where it was “fairly evident that she was the youngest person and only woman,” Nilo Mitra said in an interview.

The Mitra parents felt reassured that the research station had been around for decades and that a large number of foreign researchers use the site, which gave her parents confidence that the team would be able to deal with any safety or health issues that arose during the translocation.

Still, that didn’t completely allay Nilo Mitra’s concerns when he learned about the crocodiles that lived in some of the rivers his daughter would cross.

After watching nature shows, Mitra’s father cautioned her not to stand too close to the shore. While she was away, he also wished he had told her not to go too close to the reeds, as crocodiles hide there before attacking.

Mitra’s trip didn’t involve any hair raising interactions with crocodiles. In fact, she felt disappointed because she “would have liked to see one – from a safe distance,” she said.

Mitra and the translocation team encountered individual zebus, which are a type of cow with a lump behind its head that makes it look like it’s wearing shoulder pads.

Mitra “could sense hesitation and tentativeness in the group when we were hiking” as the group gave the animal, which can be aggressive in defending its turf, a wide berth.

During the two-day trip to translocate the lemurs, Mitra rode in a car, truck, and canoe. When the roads, which were severely damaged by the raging waters and 80 mile per hour winds of Cyclone Freddy, were impossible to navigate, she and the team traversed difficult terrain on foot.

She hiked along rolling hills that “looked very beautiful but were degraded,” Mitra said. She walked up and down hills that had deep patches of mud.

The team also crossed streams, walked through rice paddies and fields and climbed steep, rocky slopes.

Johanna Mitra on a trip to NYC. Photo by Nilo Mitra

Fortunately for Mitra, the group hired porters to carry the equipment and her backpack. She only had responsibility for maneuvering herself and a camera bag. 

During the hike, she was concerned about getting a camera she had borrowed to document the journey wet, particularly when she was traveling in a canoe that sat low in the water.

When she waded through streams, she hoisted the camera on her shoulder or near her head.

Back home in Manhattan, her parents watched three videos about Madagascar, studied local roads and tried to track their daughter’s whereabouts.

When her journey started, they were able to track her phone for about 90 minutes, until the signal “vanished off the face of the Earth,” her father said.

After several days, her mother called Wright to ask if she’d heard anything. Wright assured her that the crew was fine and they had completed their mission of trying to bring back enough greater bamboo lemurs to increase the population from the current number of about 1,000.

“We are extraordinarily proud” of the work she did to get the job and to help in this conservation effort, her father said.

As for the experience, Mitra expressed awe at the opportunity.

“The whole thing felt unreal,” Mitra said. “I felt like I was a part of something incredibly meaningful.” The expedition “made it clear that a lot goes into saving species, but it’s worth it,” she concluded, despite the few rapid heart beats from her proud, concerned and supportive parents.


By Daniel Dunaief

Patricia Wright
Photo by Sam Levitan, Sam Levitan Photography

Patricia Wright isn’t getting much sleep these days.

Distinguished Professor in Anthropology at Stony Brook University, Wright recently orchestrated the translocation of 10 critically endangered greater bamboo lemurs to Ranomafana National Park, a park in Madagascar that she helped create and which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The conservation effort, which Wright had been working on since 2014, is designed to lower the risk that this particular lemur, which weighs about six pounds and has grey brown fur and white ear tufts, will go extinct.

Short on bamboo, which, as their name suggests, is their primary food source, greater bamboo lemurs, which are down to as few as 1,000 individuals, have been eating manioc and raiding farmer’s rice paddies. The people who farm these crops have hunted the greater bamboo lemur and used slingshots to hurl stones at them. 

The lemurs “think the rice is perfectly great,” said Wright. Some of the Malagasy people have injured or killed these lemurs. Two of the translocated lemurs have eye injuries.

Wright, who is teaching at Stony Brook this spring, applied for permits from a number of government officials to get the effort approved. 

From Stony Brook, she has been managing the care of these lemurs, often long after she might otherwise be asleep. During an acclimation period, the lemurs live, eat and interact in a large cage near the research station Centre ValBio and will be released into the wild within the next few weeks.

“I’m up every night texting,” Wright said. “When anything comes up, I give my advice.”

She said the process of watching these lemurs from afar is akin to those early days of parenting.

“You drift off, sleep for a couple of hours then you have to wake up and answer this or that problem,” said Wright, whose work with lemurs has won her numerous awards, including the Indianapolis Zoo Prize. 

Bamboo chefs

Wright has considerable help in working with and protecting the greater bamboo lemurs. While the rare lemurs are guests at Centre ValBio (CVB), about a dozen people are working with them each day, with five people going out daily to collect bamboo to feed them.

When the lemurs first arrived, they fought at night. The caretakers discovered that these primates were searching for food. By providing more bamboo, the staff at CVB ended the evening conflicts.

Johanna Mitra, a recent Stony Brook University graduate and the Communications Officer at CVB, attended the capture of these lemurs and has had the opportunity to observe them interacting in the cage.

She watched as an adult lemur sat facing two juveniles. The adult pulled up the bamboo shoot and the three of them took turns gnawing on it. After eating for about half an hour, the juveniles cuddled with the adult females.

Collaboration efforts

In addition to relying on her past experience working with primates at Duke University in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Wright collaborated with Dr. Mónica Ramírez, IUCN Species Survival Commission-Specialist, who is an expert in the relocation of woolly monkeys in Colombia.

Ramírez urged Wright to transport the monkeys in separate cages to reduce stress and overcrowding during the journey. Ramírez also wanted to ensure that the monkeys could see and hear each other. She recommended constant monitoring during transport. Stress could reduce how much food they ate.

Despite the lengthy journey, the lemurs traveled comfortably and ate along the way. Ramírez said that translocations can and often are emotionally taxing for conservationists.

“When I started working with translocations, it was so difficult for me to maintain calm because there are many factors that one cannot control, mainly after the release,” she explained.  “We do our best to guarantee the welfare of the individuals and the people involved.”

Bigger picture

In addition to the satisfaction of preventing a species on the brink of elimination from disappearing, Wright suggested that saving these lemurs could have numerous benefits. For one thing, these lemurs eat large quantities of bamboo, which contains cyanide. Such bamboo would be toxic to human systems. Learning how these animals tolerate and remove such a dangerous element could prove helpful.

Guides in Madagascar involved with the bio-tourism effort also appealed to Wright to save this species, which has unusual vocalizations that vary according to their circumstance. “It’s an important tourist attraction,” Wright said.

Questions on release

When Wright and her team release these translocated lemurs back into the wild, they recognize the enormous number of unknowns.

Predators such as fossa (pronounced “foo sah), hawks and eagles hunt lemurs. Fossa, which is a relative of the mongoose, hunt cooperatively.

Wright hopes the translocated lemurs “understand what a predator is” and take steps to stay alive.

Even before the release of these lemurs, Ranomafana National Park is home to one adult female greater bamboo lemur named Simone, who joined a social group with the golden bamboo lemur, which is half her size.

Wright doesn’t know how Simone, who grooms golden bamboo lemurs but doesn’t receive grooming from them in return, will react to her own species. “What happens when she finds out her own species are in the neighborhood?” Wright asked. “It’s going to be very exciting.”

She might encourage her new lemur family to attack or might ditch her adopted social group for the well-traveled members of her own species.

Ramirez suggested that recruiting and educating the public in conservation would increase the likelihood of its success.

“Involving the community in the project is essential to guarantee the security of both the people and the animals,” she said.

The Brown Mouse Lemur (Microcebus rufus) is recognized as a vulnerable species on Madagascar. Photo by Chien C. Lee

A new study by a team of international scientists including Liliana M. Dávalos, PhD, of Stony Brook University’s Department of Ecology and Evolution, reveals that it would take three million years to recover the number of species that went extinct from human activity on Madagascar. Published in Nature Communications, the study also projects that if currently threatened species go extinct on Madagascar, recovering them would take more than 20 million years – much longer than what has previously been found on any other island archipelago in the world.

From unique baobab species to lemurs, the island of Madagascar is one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. Approximately 90 percent of its species of plants and animals are found nowhere else. After humans settled on the island about 2,500 years ago, Madagascar experienced many extinctions, including giant lemurs, elephant birds and dwarf hippos.

Yet unlike most islands, Madagascar’s fauna is still relatively intact. Over two hundred species of mammals still survive on the island, including unique species such as the fossa and the ring-tailed lemur. Alarmingly, over half of these species are threatened with extinction, primarily from habitat transformation for agriculture. How much has human activity perturbed Madagascar away from its past state, and what is at stake if environmental change continues?

The team of biologists and paleontologists from Europe, Madagascar and the United States set out to answer this question by building an unprecedented new dataset describing the evolutionary relationships of all species of mammals that were present on Madagascar at the time that humans colonized the island.

As a co-author of “The macroevolutionary impact of recent and imminent mammal extinctions on Madagascar,” Daválos helped design the study, interpret a previously published lemur phylogeny, and analyzed prospects for new species discovery in Madagascar.

The dataset includes species that have already gone extinct and are only known from fossils, as well as all living species of Malagasy mammals. The researchers identified 249 species in total, 30 of which already are extinct. Over 120 of the 219 species of mammals that remain on the island today are currently classified as threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List, due to habitat destruction, climate change and hunting.

Using a computer simulation model based on island biogeography theory, the team, led by Nathan Michielsen and Luis Valente from the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Netherlands) found that it would take approximately three million years to regain the number of mammal species that were lost from Madagascar in the time since humans arrived.

The research team also determined through the computer simulation that if currently threatened species go extinct, it would take much longer: about 23 million years of evolution would be needed to recover the same number of species. Just in the last decade, this figure has increased by several million years, as human impact on the island continues to grow.

The amount of  time it would take to recover this mammalian diversity surprised the international team of scientists.

“These staggering results highlight the importance of effective conservation efforts in Madagascar. Here at Stony Brook, we can have an extraordinary impact on preventing extinction because of the longstanding biological field research at Centre ValBio and the associated Ranomafana National Park, with ongoing research on conservation while enhancing local livelihoods,” said Dávalos.

“It was already known that Madagascar was a hotspot of biodiversity, but this new research puts into context just how valuable this diversity is,” says leading researcher Luis Valente, Assistant Professor at the University of Groningen. “The time it would take to recover this diversity is much longer than what previous studies have found on other islands, such as New Zealand or in the Caribbean.”

The study findings ultimately suggest that an extinction wave with deep evolutionary impact is imminent on Madagascar, unless immediate conservation actions are taken. The good news – the computer simulation model shows that with adequate conservation action, we may still preserve over 20 million years of unique evolutionary history on the island.


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.

An overhead view of flooding at the Ranomafana area in Madagascar, above. Photo by Dina Andrianoely

Stony Brook University distinguished professor and award-winning scientist Patricia Wright has been traveling back and forth to Madagascar for over 34 years to study the charismatic lemurs on the island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa.

A damage to a road in Madagascar. Photo by Dina Andrianoely

Recently, Wright was in Madagascar when Tropical Cyclone Emnati struck the nation, tearing roofs from homes, destroying crops and polluting drinking water.

“The actual howling of the wind was very eerie,” said Wright in an interview a few days after returning from Madagascar. “The river is right beneath the station and it was scary to watch it go from white water rapids, into roiling coffee-colored water. Every 15 minutes, you could notice a difference” in the flooded waters.

Wright, her daughter Amanda Wright Poston, who is a project manager with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, and PhD candidate Amanda Rowe are seeking donations through WISE Tropics.

Created in 2020, WISE Tropics, which stands for Wright’s Institute for Science & Environment, has numerous goals, including saving lemurs, planting new rainforests and helping people in Madagascar and other tropical countries that have high biodiversity and high poverty.

In response to Tropical Cyclone Emnati, which is the fourth cyclone to hit Madagascar this year, WISE Tropics is trying to raise $20,000 from donors to provide food for people whose crops were destroyed by
the storm.

“People are displaced from their homes and they are really hungry,” Wright said. “The crops are gone: they are washed away.”

Wright said she hoped to buy as many as 100 bags of 50 kilograms of rice, plus beans, sugar and salt that could support communities around Ranomofana National Park, which provides the nearby setting for research through Stony Brook’s Centre ValBio.

She hopes to raise enough money that she can provide additional food every two weeks for the next two months.

A week after Emnati, residents of Madagascar were also struggling with contaminated drinking water, which was causing diarrhea. 

Wright said she hasn’t seen this level of devastation to Madagascar in about a decade.

An overhead view of flooding at the Ranomafana area in Madagascar, above. Photo by Dina Andrianoely

She hopes Long Islanders support those struggling after a spate of storms disrupted their lives and threatened their futures.

“Long Islanders are very generous when it comes to donating for disasters,” Wright said. “We had Sandy ourselves. We can make this island to island connection.”

Wildlife on Madagascar, like endangered lemurs, are often able to survive during natural disasters.

Lemurs move close to the center of trees and lower down to avoid the strong winds, Wright described. While she has seen lemurs who died amid storms, many survive by finding natural protection.

Wright recognizes that the number of crisis points in the world has grown, with refugees and survivors leaving their homes in Ukraine amid Russia’s armed attack and amid flooding in parts of Australia.

One of the lessons she’s learned from working with people in Madagascar amid past disasters is that donations sometimes meet the immediate need but don’t always provide enough sustained support.

Origins of WISE

Amanda Poston said they established WISE Tropics to give donors who wanted to give 100% of their gifts directly to specific efforts.

“We created this so we could really have them participate in these on-the-ground projects,” Poston said.

Before the cyclones hit, donors had contributed to reforestation efforts and lemur research, which is at the heart of what Patricia Wright studies.

“People who are interested in Ranomofana and have a connection to Madagascar are able to help” through these donations, Poston said.

WISE Tropics has almost no overhead, which means that donations go directly to the intended recipients.

At this point, the need to help the Malagasy people get food and shelter is high, as the island nation recovers from storms that have closed off roads and demolished bridges.

Poston, who spent a good part of her childhood in Madagascar, said the Malagasy “respect [her mother] and are amazed at her continuous contributions to their country.”

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

Above, Leila Esmailzada, executive director of BeLocal observes a traditional charcoal making process in Madagascar. Photo from BeLocal

By Daniel Dunaief

BeLocal has progressed from the drawing board to the kitchen. The nonprofit group, which was started by the husband and wife team of Mickie and Jeff Nagel as well as data scientist Eric Bergerson, has been working to improve and enhance the lives of people living in Madagascar.

BeLocal, which started in 2016, has sent representatives, including Laurel Hollow resident Mickie Nagel and executive director Leila Esmailzada, to travel back and forth to the island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent.

Working with Stony Brook University students who identified and tried to come up with solutions for local challenges, BeLocal has focused its efforts on creating briquettes that use biomass instead of the current charcoal and hardwood, which not only produces smoke in Malagasy homes but also comes from cutting down trees necessary for the habitat and the wildlife it supports.

Biochar briquettes reduce the amount of hardwood Malagasy residents chop down to provide fuel for cooking. Photo from BeLocal

“In the summer of 2018 we figured out that we had something that works,” said Mickie Nagel. “We had all the agricultural waste and could turn it into fuel. Our goal is to start thinking about how to bring it into communities and into the daily lives” of people in Madagascar.

In January of this year, Esmailzada partnered up with Zee Rossi to introduce the new briquettes to residents of three villages, who were interested in the BeLocal process and offered feedback.

Rossi worked in Madagascar for three years as a part of the Agricultural Food Security Advisory Section of the Peace Corps, until he recently joined the staff at BeLocal.

At this point, BeLocal has helped create four working production sites for the briquettes, all of which are on the outskirts of the Ranomofana National Park, which Stony Brook Professor Patricia Wright helped inaugurate in 1991.

The biochar briquettes solve several problems simultaneously. For starters, they reduce the amount of hardwood Malagasy residents chop down to provide fuel for cooking. The biochar briquettes are made from agricultural waste, such as corn husks and cobs, rice stalks, leaves, small sticks and even unusable waste from the production of traditional charcoal.

The briquettes also produce less smoke in the homes of the Malagasy. At this point, BeLocal doesn’t have any data to compare the particulates in the air from the briquettes.

One of the current briquette makers is generating about 2,000 of the circular fuel cells per month. As a start-up effort, this could help with several families in the villages. Nagel estimates that it takes about 12 briquettes to cook a meal for a family of four. The families need to learn how to stoke the briquettes, which are slightly different from the cooking process with the charcoal and hardwood.

Esmailzada and Rossi had planned to return to Madagascar in July, where they hoped to understand how people are using these sources of energy.

Esmailzada has taught and workshopped with the Malagasy on how to make the briquettes. Since returning to the United States, where she recently completed a master’s program in public health with a focus on community health at Stony Brook University, she was eager to see how much progress has been made.

BeLocal has continued to refine the technique for creating these briquettes. Working across the border with Stony Brook graduate student Rob Myrick, Malagasy residents have tried to char the biomass in a barrel, instead of digging a pit.

“Hopefully there will be movement” with the barrel design, Nagel said.

Myrick is working on refining the airflow through the pit, which could enhance the briquette manufacturing process.

Myrick will “work on techniques [at Stony Brook] and [Rossi] will work on the process with the villagers over there,” Nagel explained in an email. Myrick has been “such a helpful and great addition to BeLocal.”

Esmailzada and Nagel are delighted that Rossi joined the BeLocal effort.

“It’s such a natural partnership,” Esmailzada said. “He built this incredible trust with this group of really dynamic people. Having him be the liaison between us and the community really came together nicely.”

Rossi explained some of the challenges in developing a collaboration that works for the Malagasy. “One of the biggest barriers is being a foreigner,” he said. “With any new thing you present to a farmer, you have to sell yourself first. It’s really important that you connect with a farmer on a person-to-person level.”

Numerous farmers are skeptical of the ongoing commitment foreign groups will have. Many of them have experience with a foreigner or a local nongovernmental organization coming in, doing a program and “not following up,” Rossi added.

Nagel is putting together a nongovernmental organization conference to get the organizations “working on projects in the same room,” she said.

Through this effort, BeLocal hopes to create new partnerships. The organization continues to work with Stony Brook’s VIP program, which stands for vertically integrated projects.

Students from sophomore year through graduate school can continue to work on the same projects. The goal is to enable a continued commitment, which the school hopes will lead to concrete results, instead of one-year efforts that often run into obstacles that are difficult to surmount in a short period of time.

Ultimately, Nagel believes the process of building briquettes could translate to other cross-border efforts and suggested that these goals should include the kind of information crowd-sourcing that benefits from other successful projects.

BeLocal is receptive to support from Long Islanders and elsewhere.

Nagel added that projects like the briquette effort keep the context and big picture in mind.

“Helping Patricia Wright save this rain forest and the lemurs will always be a goal and we know the only way to do that is to help with alternatives to food and fuel sources, and better farming techniques so they don’t have a need to slash and burn more rain forest to add more farming fields,” Nagel said.

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.”

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.

BeLocal winners from left, Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian, Manuela Corcho, Johnny Donza and their thesis advisor Harold Walker. File photo

In its inaugural year of facilitating student engineering projects to improve the quality of life in Madagascar, BeLocal Group had an enviable problem.

The organization, which was founded by husband and wife team Jeff and Mickie Nagel of Laurel Hollow and Eric Bergerson of Forest Hills, had so many high-quality projects with the potential to solve daily challenges in Madagascar that they had trouble selecting the winner of the $2,500 prize.

“We had really robust debates amongst the entire BeLocal team,” Jeff Nagle said, referring to about eight projects that met several important criteria, including an expectation of impact, innovation and quality of engineering.

Luke Papazian, left, and Johnny Donza, two of the members of the winning team, along with a model of their da Vinci bridge. Photo from Mickie Nagel

Indeed, the BeLocal Group is highlighting the winner and seven finalists on its website, BeLocalGrp.com.

“We saw so many good projects,” Bergerson said. “It’s ultimately about the transfer of knowledge and empowerment.”

The nine members of the judging panel awarded the BeLocal Prize for Student Innovation May 2 to a team that worked on a bridge to cross a stream near the village of Mandrivany. Led by Johnny Donza, the team, which includes Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian and Manuela Corcho, designed a da Vinci bridge, so named after the famed Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, who sketched a design for a similar bridge in 1502.

Villagers had been using a log to cross the stream. A broken log was difficult to replace because the island nation is confronting significant deforestation.

Instead of using valuable trees to construct the bridge, the Stony Brook University team turned to the plentiful bamboo.

Donza came up with the idea for the design after watching a video on YouTube of the Rainbow Bridge in China. A few clicks later, he said he stumbled on the da Vinci bridge, which is a simpler concept.

Stony Brook students produced a range of designs. Many homes in Madagascar cook their food inside, where they produce smoke from briquettes. The children who stay inside during cooking time struggle with breathing problems, as the particulates from the briquettes create a hazard.

Jeff Nagel said they don’t have a lot of aeration in their homes. Inhaling the fumes from briquettes made of raw wood or poorly made charcoal causes respiratory disease.

Michael Downey led a team that presses a mash made by another Stony Brook team including Timothy Hart into briquettes using biowaste from rice husks and casaba peels.

“Most people, when [they] graduate, they start working or go into an office and sit behind a computer. This is a chance to go to the opposite side of the world and help people.”

— Johnny Donza

The device, which is made of bamboo, PVC tubing and some nuts and bolts, can produce four briquettes in a minute, Downey said. The other members of Downey’s team were Robert Michael, Adam Smith and Arie Spiel.

“The charcoal burns cleaner than regular wood,” Downey added.

The ideas for specific needs came from a trip BeLocal coordinated last summer in which graduate students Acacia Leakey and Leila Esmailzada traveled with Mickie Nagel to Madagascar with video cameras to learn about local needs.

This summer, BeLocal will send a larger contingent of students to Madagascar. Hart, Donza and Downey will travel with Sean Peters, Sunny Cheng and Robert Myrick. The team will build four prototypes of various designs. Donza and Downey were excited about their postgraduation trip to the island of lemurs.

“Most people, when [they] graduate, they start working or go into an office and sit behind a computer,” Donza said. “This is a chance to go to the opposite side of the world and help people.”

Downey added that the “whole point of becoming an engineer is to change the world.”

While the students are exploring new areas with their designs, BeLocal is also planning to broaden out its work. The organization is looking to gather information and foster innovation in other countries next year. It has also spoken with faculty at several other universities, as well as with nongovernmental organizations.

“It is the goal of BeLocal to provide the leverage of global innovation to challenges sourced around the globe,” Bergerson said in an email.