Connect with us

Travel

The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

mm

Published

on

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

Travel

Executive Travel: Kwesta’s Senegal

Published

on

The South African musician on how he finds culture and creative inspiration in the West African country.

(more…)

Continue Reading

Travel

Executive travel: Ola Orekunrin’s India

mm

Published

on

For Nigeria’s high-flying doctor, Ola Orekunrin, being a part of the booming global air ambulance services industry presents opportunities to save lives as well as visit places she hasn’t seen before.

Orekunrin, a medical doctor and helicopter pilot, is the founder of Flying Doctors, an air ambulance service launched in Lagos to transport patients from areas with low levels of healthcare to those with well-appointed facilities offering better medical aid.

READ MORE: Flying Doctor Shoots For The Stars

Over the years, the demand for her organization’s services has risen due to the healthcare challenges Nigeria faces. And there are many. On top of the list is the burden of infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, followed by non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. The country has a high rate of trauma-related incidents such as accidents and violence.

According to national statistics, Nigeria has the highest number of deaths from road traffic accidents in the world.

For Orekunrin, her business presents an opportunity to fulfil her desire to serve. The motivation for the launch of her company, Flying Doctors, was the loss of her sister, who had tragically died for want of urgent care.

Today, Flying Doctors swiftly moves patients from across the African continent to some of the best healthcare destinations, saving thousands of lives in the process. The job means Orekunrin is constantly on the go.

READ MORE: Magda Wierzycka’s India

With so much time away from home and in the air, Orekunrin has become somewhat of an expert when it comes to the most exciting destinations to visit both for business and leisure on the African continent – and beyond.

“My favorite destination in the world right now is India,” she says.

“It is a place I spend a lot of time because we have a huge Indian diaspora in Nigeria and when they get sick, they usually request to be flown back home. So I have had a lot of experience with India. I think India is in the process of cracking healthcare. For example, they take the best medical students from the whole of India and put them in one hospital. This means the [number] of procedures that get done there are a lot and the advanced medicine that is practised there is equivalent or better than what you get in some first world countries,” she says.

But that is not the only reason Orekunrin is in love with the subcontinent.

“It is such a vast country that moving from state to state, you can find different types of productivity everywhere. In places like Bengaluru, everybody is running a startup and it’s like the Silicon Valley of India. You go to a place like Goa and that is like a beach resort and you go to Kerala and it is completely different like a spa resort with some sort of Indian medicine being practised and infused with conventional medicine. So it is an incredible country where you can find so much variety, culture, language, tribes and so many successful people coexisting together and identifying as Indians. I think that is another lesson that Nigerians can learn.”

Her favorite past-time in the country is getting her eyebrows threaded and going to remote oil and gas exploration sites.

Ola Orekunrin moves from state to state in India exploring cultures and languages. Photo provided.

“The companies there inspire me because I think about their [the companies’] history in terms of growing from a sole proprietorship to eventually growing into the biggest businesses in the world. It makes me think about Nigerian businesses; I run my own business but I also invest in other businesses as well,” says Orekunrin.

Within West Africa, Orekunrin’s favorite destination is Cape Verde. The country is particularly interesting for medical evacuations because it is made up of remote islands and the influx of tourists to that destination means medical logistics are in very high demand.

“It is four hours away from Nigeria and is a fusion of a lot of cultures; from South America, to Africa and European cultures all in one. I visit it frequently most of the time for work. I also really love the different food. I was born and brought up in England but always had a craving for Africa. My connection to Cape Verde is the closeness to Nigeria but also some of the similarities we share in terms of the food and the culture and the music and that is a strong connection.”

In the next few years, Orekunrin is hoping to grow her medical business into a pan-African player. She continues to look forward to the travel it will entail. For Orekunrin, the air ambulance business is all about saving lives. And being at the right place at the right time – for sick patients in need.

Continue Reading

Entrepreneurs

Living Like Mandela

Published

on

Tourists in Soweto, the township southwest of Johannesburg in South Africa, now have more options for staying in the same neighbourhood that was once home to two Nobel laureates, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Here, through accommodation app Airbnb, locals are increasingly turning entrepreneurs throwing open their homes for visitors wanting to savor Kasi life. As many as 20 Soweto homes are listed hosts on the Airbnb search engine – and the list is growing.

Take Nelson Tiko Mashele, a 33-year-old born and bred in Soweto, who founded Vilakazi Backpackers on the famous Orlando West street with his father, and which is located five minutes from the homes of Mandela and Tutu, and 10 minutes from the Hector Pieterson memorial.

Mashele is one of the youngest Airbnb hosts in Soweto, and his establishment one of the newest in the area. He says 70% of his guests are locals, the rest international, and business is looking good.

READ MORE: The Sharing Economy: 400,000 Guests At Home

The day we visit, we are ushered into his spotless living room. A coffee table in the middle of the foyer is laden with sightseeing pamphlets. Hip hop music is playing in the background. The seven-bedroom house is well-appointed and Mashele charges R299 ($25) a night.

A room at the Vilakazi Backpackers costs R299 ($25) a night. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

That’s not a bad bargain for the local life that his guests, who he says are mostly from America, Germany, Brazil and France, want to experience.

According to Airbnb, most guests choose to live like locals. Mashele says they would rather walk to tourist destinations and buy local food from the outlets on the famous Vilakazi Street.

One of Mashele’s partners is Soweto Outdoor Adventures run by Kgomotso Pooe, also his long-time friend. Their collaborations offer his guests quad-bike tours, paddling and boating rides, trips to Orlando Towers and indulging in local cuisine such as magwenyas (deep-fried dough balls) with atchar and white liver and kota (half loaf of bread filled with curry), ending the day with a shisanyama (meat cooked over an open fire).

On the opposite side, in Orlando East, is a bed-and-breakfast in operation for over 16 years. TDJ’s BnB is a home-owned business catering for local and international visitors. Their aim this year is to start using the Airbnb services to help increase their profits.

“We are looking forward to getting new guests from all over the world,” says TDJ’s manager Nomthandazo Ntshingila.

READ MORE: Staying In Hotels

She says joining Airbnb will give her an edge moving her numbers higher than the average 30 visitors she receives per month. Currently, a room at TDJ’s costs R454 ($38) a night.

For a more authentic experience, tourists can taste African beer brewed at the guest house. Another hotspot guests can visit is Sakhumzi, a Sowetan shisanyama restaurant and bar.

A key difference between Mashele’s and Ntshingila’s businesses is that the former has Wi-Fi on site allowing him to stay active on social media.

“One of the requirements to host with Airbnb was to offer Wi-Fi services to potential clients. We then got Wi-Fi before listing on the app,” says Ntshingila.

Hosts need to be constantly connected to an online platform and keep the most updated information on their availability and business.

The accommodation hosting platform tells FORBES AFRICA they are working on refining their offerings and making “regular updates to ensure people get exactly what they are looking for”. It’s clear that for the app to take off in townships like Soweto, homeowners need to be empowered with technology.

Airbnb says it’s planning to invest $1 million from 2018 to 2020 to promote and support community-led tourism projects in Africa. The project aims to support training in hospitality and technology for township residents.

Indeed, such investments will also help upskill those living in less-developed areas within Soweto such as Kliptown and Pimville, and as a result, reduce the barriers for entrepreneurs wishing to rent out their homes and bring in precious tourism dollars, much-needed in today’s difficult times.

Continue Reading

Trending