If Patricia Chapple Wright’s life was made into a film, it would be a challenge shooting in the dense rainforests of Madagascar where she almost saved the lemurs from extinction, discovered two new species and created a national park. She raised a daughter as a single mother in the jungle and had to struggle to be taken seriously by academics.
The incessant rain was becoming too much to bear especially given the steep and slippery terrain, so I asked my naturalist guide Theo to find a place where we could rest.
I was in a pristine rainforest known as Ranomafana in the central highlands of Madagascar on a three-week trip in April to observe and photograph the natural history and geology of south central Madagascar. We sat protected by rain, beneath the eaves of a primitive cabin once used by a scientist who the local villagers considered “the mother of Ranomafana”.
That lady was none other than Dr. Patricia Chapple Wright, the world’s leading lemur expert, who’d spent time in these cabins in the mid 1980s while searching for extinct lemurs and in the process discovered two new species.
I had no knowledge of Wright, or the amazing work she had done for the conservation of this 145 square mile rainforest, which along with a 500 square mile buffer zone is home to many endangered species. Those include several species of lemur that she almost certainly saved from extinction. As a result of Wright’s determined efforts, Ranomafana National Park was created by her in 1986 and became a World Heritage Site for its unique biodiversity in 1992.
Lemurs are our primate cousins that never evolved into Homo sapiens but possess 90% of our DNA. They had been the least studied primates, since they are only found in Madagascar where they evolved for over 80 million years in relative isolation.
While in Madagascar, I had made up my mind to reach out to Wright and thank her for her yeoman service to science and conservation.
Upon my return to New Jersey, I emailed her lab in Stony Brook University, New York, where she is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Primatology.
In my letter, I expressed my sincere intent to meet her and perhaps interview her for FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. My letter to her was more successful than her own early efforts to meet the chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, when as a young scientist she had naively attempted to write to Goodall in Tanzania.
She had simply addressed her mail to “Jane Goodall, Gombe Stream, Tanzania” and perhaps that mail still sits in a dead letter office in Tanzania.
To discover the real Patricia Chapple Wright I read up on her in every media source available. I watched the movie Madagascar: Island Of Lemurs narrated by Morgan Freeman that featured her.
The BBC series on Madagascar which showed her work with lemurs was a great supplement to my knowledge of the flora and fauna there. Her first book High Moon Over The Amazon: My Quest To Understand The Monkeys Of The Night was an interesting read about her childhood, her “hippie” life in the 60s followed by a long stretch as primate scientist and raising a daughter as a single mother in the jungle.
This book revealed her warm persona, her motherly instincts, her love for nature and her sacrifices to achieve scientific credentials through hard field work in Manu National Park, Peru, in the 70s, a good two weeks journey from civilization.
Her second book, For The Love Of Lemurs: My Life In The Wilds Of Madagascar, gave me an idea of her amazing years observing, documenting and studying the behavior of lemurs, especially the golden bamboo lemur and the greater bamboo lemur both of whom she discovered in Ranomafana.
It was an amazing read covering the difficulties of a young woman scientist in the middle of a rainforest in a politically isolated land with multiple tribal customs and taboos.
Her scientific journey began four decades ago in New York City when in 1968, as a young housewife on her way to a Jimi Hendrix concert with her husband, she got trapped in a Greenwich Village pet store, Fish & Cheeps, during a rainstorm.
She eventually went home owning an owl monkey that she had fallen in love with at the store. It was the counter culture era in the United States with anti-war protests, hippie culture, women’s rights and African-American equality movements. Therefore raising a monkey, albeit an exotic one, was not considered unusual.
The young Wright was a social worker in New York despite having a biology degree from Hood College in Maryland. As Barbara J. King, nature commentator at NPR (National Public Radio) put it: “That connection with an owl monkey led to a radical life change. Eventually Wright headed to graduate school and then to Madagascar to do research. She has discovered new lemur species and helped create a national park — all while helping the local people along the way. Her efforts have blossomed into a worldwide movement to save the lemurs, considered to be among the most endangered vertebrates.”
After raising the owl monkey for a year she wanted to find a mate for it. Not finding much information on the subject in libraries, she reached out to the anthropology department in CUNY (City University of New York) and came to know that owl monkeys are natives of the Amazon and jungles of Central America. The young Wright decided to take her painter husband and new-born daughter, Amanda, to Brazil to find a mate for her owl monkey. The family eventually came home with a mate and soon the monkey pair had an offspring.
Wright’s observation that the male monkey took all offspring-raising responsibilities defied common perceptions among primatologists that only females nurtured offspring. Her curiosity of this behavior led her to travel to Costa Rica for several months, again with her young family, to study owl monkeys. She came back with sufficient information to publish a pioneering research paper. Her attempt to publish was spurned because she was not a bona fide scientist as she did not have an advanced degree. So she began her PhD studies at CUNY under the tutelage of Dr. Warren Kinzey, a well-regarded scientist.
Her field studies took her to Manu National Park in Peru, where she spent nearly two years studying the behavioral aspects of owl monkeys. Her book High Moon Over The Amazon details her experiences in Peruvian rainforests including stories of facing jaguars, vipers and army ants while raising a young daughter.
Later, working as a research associate for Duke University’s primatology lab, she was sent to the Philippines and Borneo to study the Tarsier monkeys of Southeast Asia. Upon her return, her professor assigned her to Madagascar to search for a new species of lemurs, and especially the greater bamboo lemur, considered extinct.
This assignment began her three decades of field work in Madagascar which had been closed off to Westerners for more than a decade in the 70s. The economic infrastructure had fallen apart, there were no paved roads and people resorted to slash-and-burn subsistence farming, which meant slashing and burning the rainforest.
Wright was so frustrated with Madagascar and writes: “My journey was just one disappointment after another, until I came to Ranomafana in the Southeast. I stopped in a village because it had hot mineral springs and I needed a bath. Later, the villagers guided me into this gorgeous forest, where I camped. In the forest, I spotted something that I thought was the animal I’d been searching for. It wasn’t. It was actually a species new to science, the golden bamboo lemur. Not long after that, I did see a greater bamboo lemur. It wasn’t extinct after all.”
In 1989, she became a MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellow. In 1995, she was awarded the Chevalier d’ Ordre National (National Medal of Honor of Madagascar) and in 2004, the Officier d’ Ordre National from the President of Madagascar in recognition of her conservation work.
She is busy commuting between two continents; she is the founder of Center ValBio, a modern research campus in the rainforest of Madagascar. As professor of anthropology and standing member of National Geographic’s Committee on Science and Exploration, she is today considered the world’s top primatologist and lemur expert.
Conducting over 40 biological expeditions in Peru, Sarawak, Philippines, Paraguay and Madagascar over the past four decades, she is the author of several research papers focusing on behavior, predation, rainforest ecology, climate change and conservation studies especially of Malagasy lemurs.
In 2013, Wright was one of only 26 resident members to gain election to the American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in the United States. In 2014, she won the Indianapolis Prize for Conservation, the most prestigious award for nature conservation. She has written many books including Madagascar: Forests of our Ancestors, Tarsiers: Past, Present and Future and Girl Power: Ladies Led in the Lemurs. – Written by Ramdas Iyer