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The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

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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.

What You Don’t See In Travel Brochures

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.

Madagascar: A Paradise In Retreat

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

Billionaires

Bad Times For Billionaire Branson–Staff At Virgin Atlantic Asked To Take Unpaid Leave As Coronavirus Cripples Air Travel

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Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has been criticized by a U.K. politician for airline Virgin Atlantic’s request on Monday for staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave during the coronavirus pandemic.

Labour MP Kate Osborne, the second U.K. politician to be diagnosed with coronavirus, described Virgin Atlantic’s decision as “an absolute disgrace” on Twitter.

Author Liam Young tweeted, “Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees and Branson has asked them to take 8 weeks unpaid leave. It would cost £4.2 million to pay all of these employees £500 a week to cover this leave. In total that’s a cost of £34 million for 8 weeks.”

The implication appears to be that billionaire Richard Branson, whose net worth Forbes estimates $3.8 billion, could afford to cover this cost.

Virgin Atlantic confirmed in a statement Monday that it plans to reduce its schedule and prioritize routes based on customer demand. The airline predicts an 80% reduction in flights per day, and adds, “As a direct consequence we will be parking approximately 75% of our fleet by 26 March and at points in April will go up to 85%.”

Virgin Atlantic describes the changes as “drastic measures” put in place to “ensure cash is preserved, costs are controlled, and the future of the airline is safeguarded.”

Adding, “Staff will be asked to take eight weeks unpaid leave over the next three months, with the cost spread over six months’ salary, to drastically reduce costs without job losses.” The airline confirms its decision has received the support of unions BALPA and UNITE in agreeing to the unpaid leave.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “The aviation industry is facing unprecedented pressure. We are appealing to the [U.K] government for clear, decisive and unwavering support. Our industry needs emergency credit facilities to a value of £5-7.5 billion, to bolster confidence and to prevent credit card processors from withholding customer payments.”

Bad Times For Branson

Branson’s business empire has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 14 the Virgin Voyages cruise ship operation decided to postpone the launch of its new Scarlet Lady cruise line. “The current global health crisis is understandably making many people rethink upcoming travel plans,” Virgin Voyages confirmed in a statement.

On March 5, British airline Flybe — which is part owned by Virgin Atlantic— collapsed after it succumbed to its financial woes and weakened demand because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Following the announcement of Flybe’s collapse, Virgin Atlantic said: “Sadly, despite the efforts of all involved to turn the airline around, not least the people of Flybe, the impact of Covid-19 on Flybe’s trading means that the consortium can no longer commit to continued financial support.”

Flybe, which once was Europe’s largest independent regional carrier, narrowly escaped collapse in January, after being bought by Cyrus Capital, Virgin Atlantic and Stobart last year.

Virgin Galactic, Branson’s publicly traded space tourism arm, has seen its shares slump since its mid February high of $37.26 on the NYSE. Having lost another 10% of value as of 4:30 pm U.K. time on Monday, Virgin Galactic is priced at $13.30 and falling. Branson’s Virgin Investment Limited owns 47% of Virgin Galactic through an investment entity, Vieco.

David Dawkins, Forbes Staff, Billionaires

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Emerging Economies, But Weaker Passports

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Africa dominates the bottom of the rung in the 2020 Henley Passport Index. A majority of the continent’s passport-holders don’t have the luxury of visa-free travel around the world.

[To see the infographic on Africa’s rankings, click on the image]

The African Union may be gearing for a common African passport, but for now, it seems like most African passports don’t have what it takes to get to other parts of the world.

In the recently-released Henley Passport Index, which measures all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa, only two African countries –Seychelles and Mauritius — are in the top 50.

The rest of the continent dominates the bottom quarter of the rankings with weaker passports than most, pointing to difficult and intensive visa processes in most cases.

Africa’s biggest economy and one of its most influential, Nigeria, is at the end of the travel freedom spectrum, at a pitiful number 95 with Djibouti. Nigeria’s population of 200 million can only travel to 46 countries without obtaining a visa in advance. 

Even passport-holders from Samoa and Serbia have a better chance of traveling to most places in the world, visa-free, than those in South Africa, the African continent’s second biggest economy.

Ranked 56, the number of global destinations South African passport-holders can travel to is 100.

It is followed by its southern African neighbor, Botswana, ranking at 62 with a score of 84.

Seychelles, the archipelago country in the Indian Ocean, is Africa’s top-ranking African passport in this regard, at 29 with access to 151 destinations worldwide.

It is quickly followed by Mauritius which is at 32 with a score of 146 destinations passport-holders of this country can visit.

The lowest-ranking African country is Somalia at 104. Passport-holders from this tiny nation in the Horn of Africa can only visit 32 countries without a pre-departure visa

Globally, Asia dominates the list. For the third consecutive year, Japan has secured the top spot on the index — which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 191. Singapore holds on to its second place position with a score of 190.

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Executive Travel: Slikour’s Mexico

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The South African hip-hop artist and entrepreneur experienced a hurricane and a seismic spiritual shift in the city of Cancun. 


It has been a journey, a lot to learn and a lot learned,” says Siyabonga Metane, popularly known on South African hip-hop stages as ‘Slikour’.

The learnings have been in music and business, but the journeys have been beyond both.

Just two years post South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994, Slikour was part of a rap group named Skwatta Kamp, formed on the streets of the country’s Gauteng province, with the aim of commercializing the local hip-hop scene.

The group consisted of seven members and most of them went on to release solo albums. Slikour released two, Ventilation Mix Tape Vol.1 and 2, in 2005 and 2007. Long before that, in 2002, Slikour had turned entrepreneur, co-founding Buttabing Entertainment, a record label and artist management organization.

READ MORE | Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester

 Today, he is also the founder of SlikourOnLife, a prominent urban culture online publication that he started in 2014 catering to music lovers.

Returning to the word ‘journey’, it especially sparks memories of a trip he undertook in 2011 to Cancun, a Mexican city on the Yucatán Peninsula bordering the Caribbean Sea, known for its beaches, resorts and nightlife. Slikour was there for a television shoot as part of a group. The trip still stands out in his mind.

He was not blown away by the city initially, but as he visited some of Cancun’s tourism attractions, he began to change his perception.

Ultimately, it proved to be what he calls an amazing rendezvous.

“The people were pretty much speaking Spanish,” he chuckles, recalling being immersed in the local culture.

READ MORE | Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana

“There are a lot of laborers there and the people are beautiful and accommodating, but we never really spoke or interacted with the community.”

Slikour decided to savor the city’s famed nightlife instead and see for himself what all the hype was about.

It all began and ended with tequila, a distilled alcoholic drink and one of Mexico’s most famous exports, made of the blue agave plant from the city of Tequila in Mexico. 

“Everything you do there is done with tequila. I don’t drink alcohol, but I had to accept and apply myself because there, they don’t use tomato sauce, they use tequila; I literally had to get into the tequila swag; it’s everything there. Tequila started there,” Slikour says.

Mexico is known for its recurring hurricanes too, which Slikour also got a taste of while there.   

“After a few days of getting there, we were warned of a hurricane, and asked to close our doors and windows, and because these things happen regularly, there’s a drill to follow. The hurricane wasn’t a major one but I was excited because I wanted to see it. I had to look through the window,” he says.

The hurricanes are so frequent in Mexico that he likens the precautions taken to lighting a candle during South Africa’s frequent power cuts.  

Despite this exhilarating encounter with nature, the real earth-shaking experience for him, however, happened deep inside a cave in the city of Cancun – and also deep inside him.

READ MORE | Executive Travel: Nomzamo Mbatha’s Kenya

“My spiritual [epiphany] was when I went into those caves. You go in there with your self-assurance, claiming you understand everything. Thereon, they tell you where everything comes from and all of a sudden, you become this very small thing in this big ecosystem. It just shows how everything affects everything,” Slikour says.

The tour guides explained how everything inside the cave came from rain, elaborating how it was connected to the core of the earth; which is where they were at the time.

Slikour was in Cancun for two weeks, and also visited the pyramids.

“The Mexicans didn’t have all the mathematics that we have now but the pyramids were built to perfection. It just showed you how forward-thinking they were and how behind we are in as much as we think we are forward; we just have technology. We don’t think the way historic societies used to think,” says Slikour, in deep reflection.

Mexico is a place he would return to, anyday, in a heartbeat.

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