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Patricia Wright

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.

JoAnne Hewett. Twitter photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief


Brookhaven National Laboratory has had nine lab directors since it was founded in 1946. Earlier this week, the Department of Energy facility, which has produced seven Nobel Prizes, has state-of-the-art facilities, and employs over 2,800 scientists and technicians from around the world announced that it hired JoAnne Hewett as its first female lab director.

Successful, determined, dedicated and award-winning local female scientists lauded the hire of Hewett, who comes to BNL from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where she was associate lab director for fundamental physics and chief research officer. SLAC is operated by Stanford University in Menlo Park, California. In email responses, local female scientists suggested that Hewett’s hiring can and would inspire women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“I am so delighted by the news that Dr. JoAnne Hewett has been named to be the next director of Brookhaven National Laboratory,” wrote Esther Takeuchi, William and Jane Knapp chair in Energy and the Environment and SUNY distinguished professor at Stony Brook University and chair of the Interdisciplinary Science Department at BNL. As the first female director for the lab, Hewett “is an inspiration not only for the women who are in the field, but for future female scientists who will witness first hand that success at the highest level.”

Stella Tsirka, SUNY distinguished professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, suggested this hire was a part of an increasing number of women in prominent positions in science at local institutions.

Stony Brook and BNL are “becoming a hub of strong female role models for younger females, in STEM, in medicine, in leadership!” Tsirka wrote. “Between [SB President] Maurie McInnis, Hewett, Ivet Bahar (the director of the Laufer Center), Anissa Abi-Dargham [principal investigator for the Long Island Network for Clinical and Translational Science] and many other successful female faculty in leadership positions, hopefully, the message comes out loud and clear to our young women who are in science already, or aspire to be in science.”

For her part, Abi-Dargham, who is chair in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, described Hewett’s hire as “amazing” and suggested it was “really exciting to see an accomplished female scientist selected to head our collaborating institution at BNL!”

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor and Cancer Center Program co-leader Mikala Egeblad added that the significance of Hewett’s hire goes “well beyond inspiring young girls. It is important to have women leaders for all sciences, also for someone at my career stage. I hope that one day, we will get to a point when we don’t think about whether a leader is a woman or a man.”

Women remain underrepresented at top leadership positions, so Egeblad finds it “very inspiring to see a woman recognized for her leadership skills and selected” to head BNL.

Leemor Joshua-Tor, professor and HHMI investigator at CSHL, called the hire “really great news” and indicated this was “especially true for the physical sciences, where there are even fewer women in senior positions than in biology.” Joshua-Tor added that the more women in senior, visible positions, “the more young women and girls see this as a normal career to have.”

Alea Mills, professor and Cancer Center member at CSHL, wrote that it is “fantastic that BNL has found the very best scientist to lead them into their next new mission of success. And it’s an extra bonus that this top scientist happens to be a woman!”

Mills added that efforts to enhance diversity are fashionable currently, but all too often fall short. Hiring Hewett makes “real traction that will undoubtedly inspire future generations of young women in STEM.”

Patricia Wright, distinguished service professor at Stony Brook in the Department of Anthropology, wrote that it was “inspiring” to see a female director of BNL and that “young female scientists can aspire to being in that role some day.”

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.”

Richard Leakey at the Provost's Lecture Series: "Living Off the Grid with Good Access to Energy and Water". Paleoanthropologist, politician, explorer and environmentalist, Richard Erskine Frere Leakey is chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), and Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University.
Famed paleoanthropologist, conservationist and SBU professor Richard Leakey leaves a lasting legacy

By Daniel Dunaief

A revered scientist, conservationist, Kenyan, and faculty member at Stony Brook University, Richard Leakey died on Jan. 2 at the age of 77.

Leakey made several significant human fossil discoveries, wrote books and ground breaking journal articles, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1977, and saved elephants and rhinoceros from poaching.

Leakey, who received honorary degrees from numerous institutions including Stony Brook, was also a professor in SBU’s Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the founder of the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

“I considered him my brother,” said former Stony Brook President Shirley Kenny, who had helped recruit Leakey to join the university and developed a close relationship with him over the course of over two decades. When she learned of his death, she was “devastated.”

The Stony Brook connection

Leakey was visiting Manhattan in 2001 when he met with Kenny and Lawrence Martin, who is the director of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI). Eager to make a good first impression and “nervous about asking this great, incredible man to come and give a lecture,” Kenny got a manicure before the meal. “He wouldn’t have noticed if I had nails,” she laughed.

When Kenny learned that Leakey was in town to find new leg prosthetics after he lost his legs in a 1993 plane crash, the Stony Brook President asked if he had health insurance, which he didn’t. 

Richard Leakey examines fossils at the Turkana Basin Institute.

“Jewish mother that I am, I said, ‘Richard, you have to have medical insurance.’ We arranged for him to be this faculty member at Stony Brook, who came for a certain amount of time each year to give lectures and work with students, to have students work on his digs,” Kenny recalled.

Leakey, who didn’t graduate from college, was proud of his role at Stony Brook and relished the opportunity to teach, several friends and faculty members recalled. Audiences appreciated the opportunity to hear about the most recent discoveries into human origins, especially from someone with Leakey’s world-renowned reputation.

He was just a  “spellbinding public speaker,” said Martin, who first met Leakey when Martin was a graduate student in 1979. 

“When [Leakey] got an honorary degree, he had two to three minutes to make an acceptance speech,” Martin said. “There was not a sound from the moment he got up. It’s one of only two occasions when the entire student body rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.” The other was when famed physicist C.N. Yang received an honorary degree.

Leakey was such a draw that he gave some of his bigger talks at the Staller Center for the Arts, which had to accommodate overflow space for the audience demand.

Patricia Wright, Distinguished Service Professor and founder of a research station Centre ValBio at Stony Brook, recalled how a primate conservation class responded to him.

In his provocative style, Leakey would come in and say something “totally outrageous,” she recalled. The students, who might have otherwise been starstruck and been inclined to write everything he said, felt compelled to speak and would respond, saying, “Wait a second, it shouldn’t be like that.” The class would then discuss a conservation issue with Leakey, which opened up an effective dialogue.

“They loved him because he was so charming and was able to turn their minds around,” Wright said. “I loved those classes and watching him with my students.”

In the world of conservation, Leakey took unconventional approaches that proved effective. In 1989, five years after the landmark discovery of Turkana Boy, a 1.5-million-year-old fossil of one of the most complete early human skeletons, Leakey arranged the burning of 12 tons of ivory tusks in Kenya, signaling that they belonged on live animals.

“We can absolutely say that there are elephants and rhinoceros that are alive today that wouldn’t have been alive if it weren’t for Richard Leakey,” Wright said.

Words of wisdom

In addition to leading by example, Leakey dispensed valuable advice, often over food he prepared specially (more about that in the None of the Above column in this issue).

Leakey “left me with a huge gift, the gift of being confident in what I’m doing, as long I’m doing it with principles,” said Sonia Harmand, Associate Professor in Anthropology at Stony Brook. Leakey urged Harmand not to be “scared of breaking boundaries” and trying something nobody else had tried, she said. “Have faith in what you think you want to do. Never be afraid of being judged.”

Richard Leakey and Joe Biden in 2017 at the Stars of Stony Brook gala at Chelsea Piers. Photo from SBU

Harmand made a significant archaeological discovery, for which she received some skeptical comments. Leakey suggested that she consider such questions a point of pride and a reflection of the value of the work.

“You start to have enemies when you start to be famous and important,” Harmand said Leakey told her. It made her think she should be pleased that people were scrutinizing and criticizing her work. 

Wright, meanwhile, appreciated how Leakey gave her the strength to live life the way she wanted. He urged her to put in the time and effort to work on politics and networking.

Several people suggested that Leakey, who battled physical challenges throughout his life without complaint, also inspired them. “He really taught me about courage and strength,” Kenny said. “I had the kind of courage that let me take on paths I didn’t know if I could handle. He taught me physical courage.”

Indeed, Leakey displayed the kind of physical courage and belief in his convictions people typically associate with a character from a Tom Clancy novel.

In 1967, Leakey was on a Kenyan flight that had to divert because of a dust storm. Despite earlier reports that the land in the Lake Turkana region was volcanic, Leakey thought he saw sedimentary rock, which could contain fossils. He rented a helicopter and landed with only seven minutes of extra gas to spare for the return trip. When he got out of the helicopter, he found fossils. He quickly appeared at a National Geographic meeting, where he urged the group to fund the search on the east side of Turkana.

The chairman of the society told him “if you don’t find fossils, don’t bother to come back to National Geographic,” Martin said the chairman told Leakey. The findings were more than enough for the group to continue funding Leakey’s research, including on the west side of Lake Turkana, where he discovered Turkana Boy. 

Life-altering contact

For several of those who knew Leakey, the interaction was life-altering.

When he was a high school student in Nairobi, Isaiah Nengo heard a talk Leakey gave about plate tectonics and evolution.

“I was completely blown away,” said Nengo, who is now Associate Director at the Turkana Basin Institute.

As a second-year student at the University of Nairobi, Nengo attended an evolution lecture by Leakey. At that point, he was hooked, deciding to become a paleoanthropologist.

Nengo, whose parents’ education stopped around fourth grade, wrote to Leakey after he graduated from college, not expecting to hear back.

“It goes to tell you what kind of person [Leakey] was,” Nengo said. “This kid from the University of Nairobi out of nowhere writing him a letter, and he wrote back.”

Nengo, who said he heard similar stories from others in Kenya, including some who are currently colleagues at TBI, volunteered for a few months, until he got a fellowship.

He said Leakey helped fund a post-baccalaureate one-year program in the United States.

“The best gift you could get is the gift of knowledge,” Nengo said. “From [Leakey], I got the gift of knowledge, which changed the trajectory of my life.”

Like others who were prepared to change their lives after interacting with Leakey, Harmand had been in a comfortable job at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France when Leakey suggested she join Stony Brook and the Turkana Basin Institute in 2011. “I’m not sure I would have taken” the job, but for Leakey. The work was only supposed to last a couple of years, but she never left.

“He marked my life forever and my career forever,” Harmand said. “We also had a very deep friendship” that extended to the next generation, as her nine-year-old daughter Scarlett has forged a connection with Leakey’s granddaughter Kika, whose mother Samira is the daughter of Richard and Meave Leakey.

With three daughters, including Louise Leakey, who conducts field research at Turkana Basin institute, Leakey was a strong advocate for women.

Women are “equally capable as men and for him, this was not even a question,” Harmand said.

A passion for Kenya

In addition to being pleased with his connection to Stony Brook University, Leakey, who accepted the ceremonial key to a French city in his first language of Swahili, was a proud Kenyan. He set out to employ, train, include and inspire Kenyans in research projects and encouraged the children of staff members to come see the fossils, Martin said.

Leakey also helped raise money from people who traveled to Kenya to support educational fellowships. He contributed to the construction of maternity clinics on either side of Lake Turkana so women could give birth in safe, sterile conditions with electric light, Martin added.

Kenyans recognized Leakey when he traveled and appreciated his contribution to the country.

“We were driving to his farm, when we got stopped,” Martin said. “Everybody knew him and wanted to shake his hand and say hello. He was a local hero who was seen as a Kenyan doing things for his fellow Kenyans,” Martin said.

Harmand recalled one of the last times she spoke with him; he reiterated his passion for his home country.

Leakey made it clear “how important it is to involve Kenyans in what we do,” Harmand said. “We are training the next generation of human origin scientists in Kenya. He is the son of Kenya.”

A passion for science

While Leakey had a genuine interest in a variety of fields, he was, at his core, a scientist. Nengo called him a “polymath” who knew a great deal about a wide range of scientific subjects.

In one of her final conversations with Leakey, Wright said he took her aside after a meal she described as “exquisite” and asked her about bones she’d found in Madagascar.

The conventional wisdom about human origins in the island nation was that humans had come from Borneo 2,000 years ago.

In the middle of Madagascar, however, Wright had found bones from hippos and birds that had cut marks from humans that dated back 10,000 years.

Leakey told her that she “had to find those people,” she recalled. “You will be letting down all of Madagascar if you don’t find their origins.”

Wright said that conversation, which had its intended effect, was “emblematic of his burning desire to know and to learn about hominid history and the burning desire to collect and assemble pieces of history.”

Birthday presents

Leakey, who gave so much of himself to so many people, didn’t like receiving gifts, Martin said, but he welcomed receiving cheese, wine or cooking tools, including pots and pans.

When Leakey reached his 70th birthday, Martin asked him what he planned to do to celebrate. He had scheduled a sailing trip, but he wasn’t sure if he could pull together a crew. Martin offered to be a part of his crew for a journey that lasted over a week aboard a 38-foot catamaran.

Leakey’s daughters Samira and Louise joined Martin as deck hands, giving Richard Leakey the opportunity to take the helm during his journey along the coast of Kenya near his home in Lamu.

“When he was steering the boat, it was the only time he wasn’t challenged by his disabilities,” Martin said. “He didn’t need his feet. Driving wasn’t particularly easy. When he was sitting in the catamaran, it didn’t heel; it went fast, and he could steer the boat. Watching him, I had the sense that he felt completely free.”


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?”

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in Stony Brook will offer a new Master Class series, “Here for You,” which will take place each month, from January to June. 

“Here for You” will feature everything that Stony Brook Village has to offer to Long Islanders. Participants will be able to choose the format that is most enjoyable for them — in person or virtually. 

Learn floral arrangement techniques with the owner of Village Florist and Events in Stony Brook Village on Jan. 29. Photo from WMHO

Subscriptions for the entire series is $85 per person, which includes a “taste kit” from the Crushed Olive, a “Stony Brook Village Booklet” with insider tips from experts in cooking, mindfulness exercises, floral arrangements and photography, and special “hot” deals throughout Stony Brook Village.

Participants will be a part of six content-rich experiences that span across the arts, health, science, history and culture. The monthly series will include virtual tours of Madagascar, South America and Europe, culinary lessons, open-air guided tours of Stony Brook Village, and much more. 

The first class of the series, which will take place on Friday, January 29, is titled “The Power of Flowers” and features the Village Florist and Events owner Amanda Haggquist. In this virtual workshop, participants will utilize a floral arrangement kit, learn about popular winter flowers and arrangement techniques, and discover the origins of flower arranging. This class is available without the seasonal subscription at $20 per person.

Upcoming programs include guest appearances by Mona Rossero, owner of the Crushed Olive; Guy Reuge, the Executive Chef of the Mirabelle Restaurant; primatologist Patricia Wright and her husband, wildlife photographer Noel Rowe; and professional meditation and spirituality guide, Michael Opisso.

To learn more about the “Here for You” series and to register, call 631-751-2244.

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.