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The Road to Ranomafana
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The Road to Ranomafana: Patricia Wright's Journey into History

by Douglas PageŠ1999

In 1972 Patricia Wright was a social worker and a self-described Brooklyn housewife. Today she is one of the world's leading primatologists. Douglas Page traces the steps that lead Wright from Flatbush to fame.

Patricia Wright once had a monkey. Now she has a whole species.

Keeping exotic pets was trendy in 1968, when Wright purchased a little nocturnal owl monkey named Herbie to keep in her Brooklyn apartment. That was the first step on a remarkable road that would lead Wright first to the Amazon Basin (where she became the first researcher to observe night monkeys in the wild), then to the rain forests of Madagascar (where she discovered a new species of lemur, and rediscovered another lemur species thought extinct), earned a MacArthur Fellowship, acquired a full professorship at SUNY-Stony Brook, and persuaded the Malagasy government to establish the 41,000 ha Ranomafana National Park to retard the decimation of the rain forest.

Wright didn't procure Herbie to study him, she got him to keep her then-husband, an artist who worked at night, company. Owl monkeys, also called night monkeys, are the only nocturnal primates. "I was a biology major as an undergraduate, and then went into social work because there were jobs available," she says, laughing. "I was a small-town girl from Upstate New York working in the ghettos of Brooklyn. When you're young you're kind of foolishly brave."

Wright's journey into the history books began a short time later, when Herbie seemed lonely. Failing to locate a monkey mate anywhere convenient, Wright made her first excursion to the headwaters of the Amazon, returning with a $2 female owl monkey named Kendra and a new career.

Later, the same week Wright gave birth to her daughter Amanda, the monkey pair became parents, too. Wright took leave from her job to care for her baby, but while she was Amanda's primary caregiver she noticed a different parenting arrangement among the monkey couple. Other than providing milk, Herbie cared for all the infant's needs. Wright, who had read extensively about the habits of her pets, had read nothing describing this unique primate child-rearing behavior. It had not been studied. "I developed a theory," she recalls. "I figured it was because those were such big babies, half their mothers' body weight. There was no way the mothers could carry them around and produce milk, too, so the fathers were needed to protect the babies from predators. There was no other way for them to survive."

Wright became so intrigued that she decided to test her untried theories on owl monkeys in the wild. The problem was, she had no idea how to do that. That youthful, 'foolish bravado' kicked in again. Soon, Wright began contacting every primate researcher she could find, innocently inquiring how to perform a field study: "Hi, I'm Pat Wright. I'm a Brooklyn housewife, and I want to study night monkeys in the wild."

POLITE DISMISSALS

Most orthodox researchers dismissed her politely, but one, Warren Kinzcy, an anthropologist at the City University of New York, took time and coached Wright patiently on how to take data while observing monkeys. Kinzcy was skeptical, of course; no one had ever studied night monkeys in the wild - least of all someone whose simian skills were limited to watching three captives romp in a Brooklyn apartment.

Wright's next bit of good fortune came when she was introduced to philanthropist Nancy Mulligan, who agreed to fund Wright's expedition with $3,000 - provided Wright were connected in some way with a university. Wright then contacted the dean of the New School for Social Research, in New York, arranged affiliation and found herself in 1978 in a dugout canoe in a remote Peruvian rain forest, with an Indian guide, a husband and three year old daughter, looking for night monkeys at a site she had chosen herself while researching night monkey habitats at the public library.

Impatient with her guide after days of no sightings, Wright set out into the forest late one afternoon alone, with a notebook, a flashlight and tape to mark her trail "Hansel and Gretel" style, only to end up lost in the profound darkness anyway.

"Here I was, in the middle of the Amazon forest, lost and admittedly getting a bit scared," she says, "when all of a sudden I began hearing the familiar sounds of a male owl monkey." She had found the night monkeys. A male monkey, similar to Herbie, was dining on fruit, leaping from tree to tree directly above her. Ignoring her plight, Wright took out her notebook and began taking data, as instructed by Professor Kinzcy. Suddenly, Wright heard less comforting sounds. Fearing wild boars might be approaching (she'd read about those in the library, also), she took refuge in a tree, where she remained until the sun came up.

She wasn't alone. High above her in the branch canopy of the rain forest, an extended family of night monkeys (Aotus trivirgatus) sat chiding her. She could see immediately that the troupe was returning to their "sleep tree" after a night of foraging. She could also see that her theory about night monkey infant care was correct. She had become the first to observe these behaviors, and the first to be showered by fruit, feces and urine in the process. It was the first of a series of rain forest firsts for Wright, who was moved to wonder about nature in wild places from reading the children's books of zoologist Gerald Durrell (The Overloaded Ark, A Zoo in My Luggage, The Whispering Land, The Stationary Ark, The Aye-Aye and I, and My Family and Other Animals) as a youngster.

After publishing her findings in the respected European journal Folia Primatologica (1978, 29:43-55), Wright returned to City University of New York, earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1985 then taught for eight years at Duke University, while continuing her field trips to Asian, African and South American jungles, always with her daughter Amanda. "I remember all during that time being worried I was a bad mother," she says, "but now realize it was a great education for a child."

The opportunity to study bamboo-eating lemurs took Wright to Madagascar in 1985. Lemurs, so-called lower primates or prosimians, exist only on the Texas-sized island of Madagascar 250 miles off the coast of Mozambique in the Indian Ocean, and on the neighboring Comores Islands.

Prosimians evolved before anthropoids. The first prosimian appears in the fossil record about 55 million years ago, 10 millions years before the first monkey, and 20 million years before the first ape. Before the appearance of anthropoids, prosimians were prevalent; their fossils have been found Europe, Asia, Egypt and even in the northwestern United States.

Still, scientists don't understand how lemurs appeared on Madagascar, which broke away from Africa more than 120 million years ago. One theory, according to Kenneth E. Glander, director of Duke University's Primate Center, the world's leading facility dedicated to prosimian primates, is that they rafted there on clumps of vegetation.

The 29 surviving species on Madagascar range from the tiny pygmy mouse lemur (Microcebus myoxinus), which weighs only 30 grams, to the largest lemurs, the Indri (Indri indri) and the Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema), which may weigh over 7 kg.

Two species of bamboo-eating lemurs were known to inhabit the island, although one, the greater bamboo lemur (Hapalemur simus) was believed extinct. On this particular trip, Wright hoped either to confirm or dispute this claim.

For weeks she searched the steep, slick bamboo-covered kilometer-high slopes of the rain forest in the Ranomafana region of Madagascar, seeking the greater bamboo lemur, a dark-gray beast with dramatic, white ear tufts. Then, on a damp, misty morning, she suddenly heard sounds she'd never heard before. "I looked up and here's this creature clinging to a bamboo limb," she remembers. "It's smaller than the greater bamboo I'm looking for and it's rust-colored, almost orange, with chipmunk-cheeks and teddy-bear ears. And there it is, in front of me, whirling its tail around in a circle scolding me with a harsh 'cluck', and then it's gone."

She knew it wasn't the gray, it was the wrong color. "I knew it had to be a bamboo lemur and I knew I'd never heard that sound before," she says, recalling the experience of finding a mammal no other scientist had ever seen.

THE DOUBTS COME FIRST

The doubts come first. "Later you think to yourself, 'what did I really see?' You doubt yourself. Of course, it was frightened of us and it took two or three more weeks before we even saw it again. After a while you think maybe you were just hallucinating."

It was no hallucination, although many scientists dream of that one breathless moment, face-to-face with taxonomic immortality. What Wright saw was an animal totally unknown to science, which she later named H. aureus - the golden bamboo lemur. The name alludes to a golden treasure of the forest. "Rather than naming it after my grandmother or someone, we thought it would be much more appropriate to imply what kind of value it has," she says. "So we chose aureus."

Wright stalked the creature for weeks, through muck, mire and self doubt, trying to locate, isolate and trap a specimen. "To describe a new species to science you're supposed to have a muscle type, a dead specimen," she says. "There was no way that we could do that - kill an endangered species. We didn't even know how many of them there were. This was a new primate. There was no way we could kill one."

A blood test and a thorough examination would have to do. "We eventually convinced the powers that be that the chromosomes are different, the calls are different, the glands are in different places, their social systems are different - we convinced them that this was definitely a new species."

Eventually during that single, signal year in Madagascar - the first one out of graduate school - Patricia Wright also located the 'lost' greater bamboo lemur, the one thought for 85 years to be extinct. It nearly is. The species is so decimated only a band of about 35 individuals remain.

Like the giant pandas which they resemble, the bamboo-eating lemurs eat virtually nothing else. To make the best use of the island's limited bamboo supply, each of the three species of bamboo lemur consumes a different part of the bamboo plant. One eats the stalk, another the leaves, the third - the newly found golden bamboo lemur - the green shoots. No other animal eats the shoots, which are loaded with cyanide. "The golden bamboo lemur eats enough cyanide every day to kill a person several times over," Glander says. He assumes the animal's diet has medicinal benefits, but no one has worked out what those might be.

Also like the panda, the bamboo lemurs are endangered. Due to their special bamboo diets, which may even be restricted to certain species of bamboo, these lemurs are particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction. The rain forests are of Madagascar, and elsewhere, are disappearing at a frightful rate. Without immediate conservation efforts, the golden bamboo could easily become extinct in just a few years. Less than 2,000 individuals are thought to exist.

Rain forests, the richest and most productive ecosystems on Earth, account for less than two percent of the Earth's surface, yet are home to 50 to 70 percent of all life forms. According to the Rain Forest Action Network, every day an area of rain forest larger than New York City (86,000 ha) is destroyed, extinguishing an average of 137 species daily. If deforestation continues at current rates, 80 to 90 percent of tropical rain forest ecosystems will be voided within 25 years.

"In Madagascar, most of the rain forest is gone - 80 percent," Wright grieves. "And you just cry to see it. It's not just gone, it's a desert. In the places where there were 17 species of lemurs, now it's just a desert."

The extreme poverty of the local villagers compels them to use destructive slash-and-burn agricultural methods which lead to ecological devastation. "It didn't take me long to realize that the only way I could continue to work with these animals was to get involved in conservation," Wright says.

Not surprisingly, Patricia Wright, former Brooklyn housewife, decided to do something about it. Using funds from her 1989 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, plus contributions from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, in 1991 Wright persuaded the Malagasy government to establish Ranomafana National Park on the island's eastern escarpment. The park is more than a traditional wildlife preserve. It's an attempt to save the forest while providing economic, medical and social support for Malagasy villagers in surrounding regions. The park plan funds long-term, continuous research of Madagascar's ecosystem, to monitor changes and recovery of the rain forest over time.

WHAT YOU LOVE MOST YOU SHARE

What you love most you share. Wright still spends much of her time on the island, leading scientific-tourism expeditions for a non-profit group called Earthwatch - completing the circle that started by CUNY anthropologist Warren Kinzcy.

"It's a little known historic note that Warren Kinzcy once took one of the original founders of Earthwatch to the Amazon to work on his research project," Wright says. "It changed her life to such an extent that she got this idea of organizing something where other people could share the same excitement."

The idea caught on. This year, 4,000 Earthwatch volunteers from 46 countries will be dispatched on two to four week research expeditions to 23 states and 51 countries. In the past nine years Wright has lead 18 Earthwatch volunteer expeditions into the Madagascar rain forest. These are not nature hikes. The volunteers work closely with Wright and her research assistants, participating in every aspect of the project, such as taking morphometric measurements of captured H. aureus individuals, radio-tracking bamboo lemur groups, observing and collecting behavioral data of focal animals, censussing populations of Hapalemur species, monitoring bamboo growth, and collecting plant materials for future nutritional analysis.

"People think scientists are a world apart from them, when actually scientists are just doing their jobs like everyone else - it's just a different kind of job," says Wright. "Some of our jobs are very exciting. Most ordinary people don't get a chance to experience this excitement. Earthwatch gives them the opportunity. I think this kind of sci-tourism is what's going to change people's minds about what's going on. Why should they preserve rain forests, for example? But if they've been there, and they've seen it, they have a different attitude."

Wright's work has recently attracted a somewhat more glamorous kind of attention. Director Michael Apted ("Gorillas in the Mist") spent most of last July slogging through the same Madagascar mud as Wright, filming a profile of her for his latest project, a film called "Inspirations", about six outstanding, inspiring scientists. Stephen Jay Gould is one of the others. There is also talk of a feature film depicting Patricia Wright's journey on the road to Ranomafana.

Patricia Wright found one new species, one lost species and the secret of happiness on this road. "Doing what you want to do and doing it well," she says. "People are happier when then do that. The cook at the station at the Ranomafana project wanted to take cooking lessons and now cooks us extraordinary meals and is very proud. It's taking pride in what you're doing and feeling that you're doing a good job."

She regrets only there isn't more time "The things that I didn't do were the things I didn't have time to do."

SUGGESTED READING

IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge UK, 1996.

Meier, B., et al, A new species of Hapalemur in southeastern Madagascar, Folia Primatologica, 48:211-215, 1987.

Mittermeier, R.A., et al, Lemurs of Madagascar Field Guide, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Wright, P.C., "Home range, activity patterns, and agonistic encounters of a group of night monkeys (Aotus trivirgatus) in Peru, Folia Primatologica, 29:43-55, 1978.

-end-

This profile appeared in Science Spectra (No. 17, 1999).

 
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