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Anthropologist Shares Tales of Conservation, Discovery

By Caleb O. Shelburne, Contributing Writer

Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is home to rich biodiversity but some of the poorest people on Earth. Balancing these two extremes has been one of the primary challenges for Patricia C. Wright, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University and a leading primatologist, who spoke at Harvard Thursday.

Wright has spent the last three decades of her life working to both protect the island’s remaining rainforests and bring economic development to its human inhabitants.

Wright, a former MacArthur fellow and the first female recipient of the prestigious Indianapolis Prize for her work in conservation, spoke about her experiences with conservation, research, and development in Madagascar at an event organized by the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Almost 30 years ago, Wright first set foot on Madagascar in search of the greater bamboo lemur, then thought to be extinct. After spending weeks living in a tent and cooking over a fire, Wright and her team took a break at a hotel.

“Little did I know that getting a hot bath was going to lead to changing my whole life,” she said.

Behind that hotel was “one of the most beautiful rainforests I’d ever seen,” Wright said, and inside it, after several weeks of observation, the research team found live specimens of the greater bamboo lemur and discovered another undiscovered species of lemur.

Since that first trip, Wright has devoted her life to protecting that rainforest and others in Madagascar.

Wright, despite being trained as a researcher, spent months travelling to raise money for what would become Ranomafana National Park in 1991. Part of the process involved enlisting residents of local villages to help protect the rainforest, which required economic development, increased access to healthcare, and a better education system.

Today, Ranomafana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the Centre ValBio, a research station that Wright helped to found in 2003.

But despite her successes, Wright said she is still struggling to protect Madagascar’s few remaining rainforests. In 2009, a military coup threatened the Ranomafana park’s existence and even today, though the government of Madagascar is democratically elected, Wright said there is much more work to be done.

“This is a pivotal moment, this is the moment when we have a government, when we suddenly learn that we’re going to have funding again, when we will be able to make this last-ditch effort to help save those lemurs,” she said.

Sally Gee ’16, who attended the presentation, said Wright’s passion for her work was easy to see from her presentation.

“You see that she cares about her work,” Gee said at the reception afterwards.

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