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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.

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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

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A Solution To Improve Madagascar’s Local Economies

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Madagascar is a priority country for conservation and preserving Earth’s biodiversity riches threatened by a rampant rate of habitat destruction. Ninety percent of the natural habitat of Madagascar has been destroyed and 91% of the lemur species are critically endangered, endangered or threatened.

Since the political turmoil of 2009, coupled with security issues and illegal extraction activities, the conservation situation has worsened. The presidential election that took place in January offers hope that this new regime will make preservation of the unique wildlife of Madagascar a priority.

President Andry Rajoelina ran on a platform of eliminating poverty for his people.

Ecotourism is good for the economy, but there are doubts if it is enough. Our conservation teams in the Ranomafana region are hoping that we have a solution for improving local economies.


Patricia Wright is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar. Picture: Supplied

Centre ValBio (CVB), a 30-year-old research center, is nestled overlooking the Ranomafana National Park rainforest near Fianarantsoa, and is an eight-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo.

CVB is a hub of modern science with laboratory equipment to study genetics, infectious diseases and mapping from satellites.

Substantial efforts by scientists have led to an improved understanding about taxonomy, species distributions, the evolution, behavior and population size of the flora and fauna, and the impact of habitat loss on Madagascan biodiversity.

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This knowledge has been successfully used to guide conservation planning and action, as well as new discoveries in medical science. Scientists investigate the impact of anthropogenic influence, edge effects, climate change, and fragmentation on ecosystems and communities in these lush rainforests.

The CVB campus has five buildings and a staff of 130 local scientists, technicians and administrators who work year-round on research, training and conservation.

This station conducts studies of cyanide-eating lemurs, climate change, new leech species, lemurs that have genes that might be related to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and genetics of an ecosystem.

All around, the parks, forests and the rare species within them are still disappearing. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the main threat to rainforests in Madagascar.

READ MORE | The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

Forests are sacrificed to plant rice, the staple food for humans.
CVB has launched an alternative against this destruction of natural resources. First, the village elders are engaged to ensure a buy-in by the communities.

If the villagers are enthusiastic, workshops and training begin in the fields.
Next, using years of botanical knowledge, the reforestation team (technicians and scientists) helps villagers plant endemic saplings of tree species eaten by lemurs. We don’t plant a monoculture, but rather use natural dispersion as a guide.

We know from our pilot experience that it takes about 15 years for the endemic trees to fruit and flower, and for birds, bats and lemurs to return to these ‘new forests’ where they could help ‘plant’ more forests by dispersing their seeds.

We are hoping that this strategy will help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion and river silting, and expand the habitats for wildlife.
But what value do these trees have for the Malagasy farmer?

Using these trees as structure vines of high value crops such as vanilla, wild pepper and cinnamon that need shade to grow well are transplanted onto these trees.

With assistance in processing and marketing, the local farmers can harvest these high-value crops and earn great economic gain.

The prices of Malagasy spices are high in the world market and spice venders project that the high prices will continue into the future with new markets in China and India.

There is hope that not only will this strategy increase biodiversity, but it will also bring affluence to the farmers and merchants of Madagascar.
Rajoelina’s promise of prosperity is possible and the unforeseen benefits could be transformative.

– The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar

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Arts

From Fishing Village To Gastronomic Heaven: Tables Turn For Wolfgat

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In a small fishing village on South Africa’s rugged west coast, restaurateur Kobus van der Merwe is struggling to process his meteoric rise to gastronomic stardom.

He recently got back from Paris, where four days ago his 20-cover Wolfgat was named Restaurant of the Year at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards, also winning the remote location prize.

“In our category, which was for the off-map destination… there are restaurants that we literally hero-worship and we were like, this is insane,” the food-journalist-turned-chef told Reuters TV on Friday in his first interview with foreign media since returning home.

Others on that shortlist included Japanese wild dining sensation Tokuyamazushi.

Of both prizes, he added: “We never dreamed of making the shortlist, let alone winning.”

Situated in Paternoster, about 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Cape Town, Wolfgat’s speciality is seafood.

Van der Merwe’s seven-course tasting menu pays homage to the region’s long-gone indigenous inhabitants, and his signature dishes are flavored and supplemented with ingredients foraged locally, such as seaweed and succulent plants.

They include Rooibos tea-smoked yellowtail with dune spinach and buttermilk rusk, and freshly baked bread served with bokkom (salted dry fish) butter and infused herbs.

Guests at the 130-year-old whitewashed restaurant, nestled above Wolfgat cave within hearing distance of crashing waves, pay 850 rand ($60), or 1400 rand including drinks.

Van der Merwe, who took the plunge into full-time cooking before completing his culinary studies, said he had no wish to expand or replicate Wolfgat in an urban setting.

“We certainly don’t aspire to be in the city because the west coast is our muse and I can’t see Wolfgat existing anywhere else,” he said.

His clientele is split evenly between foreign tourists visiting the village and well-heeled South Africans.

But those who make the two-hour drive from Cape Town had better be sure of their reservations before they set out – because he’s fully booked for the next three months. -Reuters

– Wendell Roelf

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Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneur And DJ – Oskido Tells Us Why Brazil Is His Favourite Place

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This South African DJ and entrepreneur is never home-sick when in Brazil. He says its food and music fill his soul.


After traveling the world and the concomitant culinary outings that come with it, kwaito (South African music genre) pioneer, DJ and businessman Oscar Bonginkosi Mdlongwa, popularly known as Oskido, counts Brazil his most favorite overseas destination.

In enjoying the fruits of his success, Oskido has come far.

He was born in Brits, a large town irrigated by the waters of the Hartbeespoort Dam in the North West Province of South Africa.

His childhood was in Bulawayo, a city in the southwest of Zimbabwe, before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in music in 1988.

His influences may be primarily South African and Zimbabwean, but the South American country is what he regales about when we meet him in late November last year.  

“What amazed me the most was the food. I have traveled all over the world but the way they cook their food and the way they love their food stunned me,” says Oskido.

The memories are still fresh.

In September last year, Mdlongwa had traveled to the centrally-located capital of Brazil, Brasilia, on a cultural exchange program between Brazil and South Africa.

During our interview, he also compliments the city’s culture and the friendliness of its people.

“When I come back to my country [South Africa] after traveling, I just want our food. When I start going to Europe, I think of home, missing the food, but when I went to Brazil, it was like I’m home.”

He goes on to elucidate that they have their own traditional way of cooking, which includes beans that he enjoys the most.

Oskido especially appreciates Brazil’s restaurants because of the different meat cuts they serve customers.

“They will bring you a paper and describe the part that you are eating. Also, their way of cooking is healthy,” he says.

“We normally just eat and say ‘rump’; you don’t even know where it’s coming from. Therefore, they come in and you keep eating different cuts until you find the one you like and they will keep feeding you until you are full.

“What amazed me the most is when you get to our [local] food courts, you will find all these chain stores. It’s the same thing [there], but there isn’t anything that is like a buffet. Their food courts are designed that way, there isn’t any of the junk food,” says Oskido.

He speaks about connecting to the people despite the language barrier. He remembers going to a shopping center to buy things and having to explain.

He would speak on the phone with a translator and communication would be delayed.

But he found his own comfort zone.

Whenever he talked about music, he says there would be an instant connection with the people.

Oskido was invited by the South African Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa as a delegate for the exchange program.

“The minister and his office went to a school of kids aged between four and five years old. The kids were told to look for a song on YouTube that resembled Africa. Coincidently, they found Tsa Mandebele as the song of choice. I found that these kids could sing along to my song and dance to the moves because of the music video,” he says, joyfully.

“It was good to see a Limpopo language [song] sung in Brazil. That was the moment when I was really touched, and felt that there was something about Brazil.

“After the festive season, I want to go back, take my family and go relax.”

These are the notes from the South African DJ who has gone from Brits to Brazil.

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