Patricia Wright: Way beyond the science03 Aug 2008, Posted by in
If you ask field researcher Patricia Wright how she managed to create Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, which last June was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, the 63-year-old will say: “I took long walks, drank a lot of rum, and threw a lot of parties.” Ranomafana is located on the southeastern side of Madagascar, at the edge of what is called the “High Plateau,” a steep, mountainous region so inhospitable it remained mostly unexplored before Wright began taking walks there in 1986. There are eighteen Malagasy villages surrounding Ranomafana, and to found the park, Wright needed the cooperation of every villager. So back in 1987, she decided it was time to tour the local communities.
This was not easy walking. It took up to ten days of rugged jungle bushwhacking to reach each village and ten days more to return. She was working at Duke University back then, and the year she completed her tour, “What the hell does this lady have on her leg?” became question 33 on the medical school’s tropical medicine final. The answer was leishmaniasis, a parasite transmitted via the bite of a sand fly; it’s also called “black fever” for what it does to the skin. Wright also had hookworm, tapeworm, and by her own estimation, “just about every other tropical disease known to man.”
Trekking was only part of the challenge. Every visit required a rum-soaked meeting with tribal elders that lasted through the night, occasionally for days. The rum, toka gasy, is a home-brewed jungle jet-fuel that burns going down and feels worse the next day. So not only was she hiking over mountains to reach these villages, she was doing it dog-sick and occasionally sporting a king-size hangover.
It’s been two decades since those long walks from Ranomafana. In that time, with the help of $6 million from the United States Agency for International Development and the support of a variety of conservation groups, Wright’s labors have protected 106,000 acres of land and produced a first-class field research station, seven newly built schools, seven renovated schools, four health care centers, and a roving health and hygiene team. Today, 164 villagers work inside the park, and Wright has trained almost 500 Malagasy scientists, mostly for work at universities and conservation agencies. The park gets about 30,000 visitors a year, and villagers who live around its borders receive half the revenue generated from entrance fees.
Currently a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, a member of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, and the executive director for the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, Pat Wright is one of the world’s leading >>> conservationists and primatologists. Having received a MacArthur Fellowship (aka the “genius grant”) in 1989, along with Madagascar’s National Medal of Honor in 1995, she is known as “one of the very few researchers who doesn’t just do the work, sit on their arse, and let others deal with the repercussions,” says Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm. “Pat takes things way beyond the science.”
Wright was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1944 and raised on a small farm in Lyndonville, New York. She credits her early interest in nature to the reading that helped her endure Lyndonville’s near-endless winters. She carried this interest to Maryland’s Hood College, where she majored in biology and met her husband, James Wright. After graduation, with James still finishing his degree at Brown, Wright left her first and last lab job in the immunology department of Harvard Medical School, where, she recalls, “What I had to do wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me or the mice.” In 1967, she and her husband moved to New York. Wright looked for biology work, but without a PhD, the available positions didn’t cut it. Instead, she took a job with the Department of Social Services, part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. And though she had never lived in New York City before, Wright was assigned tough cases in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville neighborhoods. “What did I know?” she says. “I was this innocent, little farm girl. I didn’t realize that most of the social workers who were assigned cases in the ghetto didn’t actually go into the ghetto at all.”
But Wright would spend her lifetime going places women have been told never to go alone, and Brooklyn was no different. Because this was the late 1960s, Wright also recalls showing up wearing “the most amazingly short miniskirts.” But it wasn’t the minis that people remember—it was her diligence. “I really wanted to get things right,” Wright explains. “I allotted a whole day for each person and really got to know what the government was offering.” The job required her to write detailed reports, which turned out to be her introduction to field research. “I was recording how people lived, but primate behavior is primate behavior—it doesn’t matter if you’re in Brooklyn or the Amazon.”
Wright was also a rock-and-roll fan and went to concerts every weekend. She says she was on acid—“or something like that”—on the way to a 1968 Jimi Hendrix show at the Fillmore East when she first encountered the primate that would become her lifelong passion. Ducking into a pet shop to get out of the rain, she saw an owl monkey: a nocturnal, monogamous, South American primate of the genus Aotus. “He had beautiful, big, brown eyes and a built-in smile,” says Wright, “He was irresistible.” She bought him and named him Herbie.
Before long, the Wrights realized Herbie was part of a social species and that he needed some company (a fact reinforced by his tendency to destroy their apartment when left alone). So in 1971, they set out for the jungles of Colombia to find their monkey a mate. Because they couldn’t find anyone to look after Herbie, the Wrights brought him along—no easy feat because of laws written during that period to combat the exotic animal trade. To make the return trip easier, Wright decided her monkeys needed visas. She took two photos of Herbie to the Colombian embassy—assuming nobody would notice they were of the same animal—explained her situation, and hoped for the best. “They were amazingly calm, like they got these requests every day,” she recalls. “They told me to wait and then returned with two visas.” So Wright got her visas, and after two months in Colombia, Herbie had a bride. They named her Kendra.
After two years back in the States, Wright gave birth to her daughter, Amanda, quit her job, and “got down to the serious business of being a Brooklyn housewife.” That business got a little more serious when, two weeks after Wright gave birth, Kendra followed suit. They named the baby monkey Flower. And Flower raised a few questions.
“This was in 1973,” says Wright, “at the height of the sexual revolution. Here I was a liberated woman spending all my time caring for our daughter. But with owl monkeys … 93 percent of the time, babies are with their fathers. It’s this amazing example of male paternal care in primates—I just had to know more.”
Unfortunately, Aotus was one of the least studied of all primates, and there just wasn’t the data to sate Wright’s curiosity. She did the research herself. After striking out with grants—Jane Goodall didn’t respond; the National Geographic Society said no—Wright found Warren Kinzey, a City University of New York anthropologist and then one of the world’s leading experts on primate evolution. “Hi,” she began when she rang Kinzey. “I’m a Brooklyn housewife who wants to study Aotus.”
Kinzey started laughing, but he didn’t hang up. Instead, a few days later, he explained how primatologists work. Then he broke the bad news: A number of very prominent researchers had already attempted to study the owl monkey, but none had succeeded. The problem was its nocturnal habits. Even with radio collars, tracking an owl monkey through a pitch-black rainforest had proved not only impossible but dangerous. Owl monkeys have a large home range, and they share it with a full cadre of big cats, poisonous snakes, and other Amazonian creatures that do their hunting after dark—the same time an Aotus researcher needs to be out in the field.
But Wright knew something Kinzey didn’t. She had spent summers with her husband and their monkeys on Cape Cod, where she often let the animals run free in the forest. They’d make a clicking sound to communicate, and she knew she could use it monitor them. “I’d tracked them on Cape Cod,” she explains. “I just didn’t think the jungle would be that much of a problem.”
In 1976, with her husband and 3-year-old daughter in tow, Wright flew to Peru. Research at the New York Public Library had led her to the eastern side of the Andes. But after a long flight and a 38-hour taxi ride, she discovered the area she’d pinpointed had become a coffee plantation. No one had seen a monkey there in more than 25 years. So Wright headed to a small airport and asked in broken Spanish, “¿Dónde están los monos?” Turns out los monos were at Puerto Bermudez, deep in the heart of the Amazon. A Cessna flew them to a remote, jungle landing strip. Amanda took one step onto the runway and screamed—less than 20 feet away was a Campa Indian in full battle dress. Wright walked over to him and asked a different question: “¿Dónde está el hotel de turista?”
There was no tourist hotel, but there was a rough camp down by the river where visiting Indian traders occasionally slept. They set up there, and Wright hired a local hunter as a guide. But she still didn’t find any monkeys. After two weeks, Wright was frustrated. She had heard that familiar clicking sound near a canopy of trees, but hadn’t managed to see the Aotus. Her guide didn’t want to come back the next night, so she took matters into her own hands. “I left James and Amanda at camp and went off into the dark,” Wright recalls. “I was following a tiny stream, trying to get back to this tree. Then I got lost. I’m standing there in the pitch black, with nothing but jaguars and fer-de-lance and bushmasters for company, starting to panic, when I heard that familiar clicking sound.”
She heard more than one. They were in the trees around her. It was too dark to see, and she didn’t want to chase them off with her flashlight, but she could tell by the landing patterns of falling fruit that there were four of them. She spent most of the night listening, always on the edge of panic. Around 4 am, she heard a loud shuffling headed her way. Wright knew wild bush pigs were among the animals in the forest most likely to kill you, so she scrambled up the nearest tree. It was a spiny palm with long thorns that cut deep into her flesh. Then the first drops of urine hit her face. In the tree above her, very angry to have company, were two owl monkeys. “It was my first sighting of Aotus in the wild, and they were pissing on me. I’ve never been so happy.”
Wright spent six months following those four monkeys and in 1978 published “Home Range Diet and Ranging Patterns of Aotus” in the journal Folia Primatologica. By then, she’d gone back for a PhD, studying at City College of New York with her newfound mentor, Warren Kinzey. Graduate school was the end of her marriage; James left the first week. There was no money for babysitters, so 5-year-old Amanda came to all of Wright’s classes.
Wright brought her daughter back to the Amazon and did her doctoral dissertation at Peru’s Manu National Park—both the earth’s most biodiverse site and one of the most remote national parks in the world. It was there that she began to answer the questions that were raised after Flower was born, to uncover why the male Aotus took on so much parenting. To avoid predation and food competition, owl monkeys had become nocturnal. During the day, the fruit trees are packed with monkeys—many of them significantly larger than Aotus. There were also raptors in the sky, eagles and hawks that liked nothing better than a primate snack. But being nocturnal means you have to deal with big cats. The energy required to manufacture milk, carry a baby, and avoid a jaguar at the same time is considerable; because males didn’t have this combination of responsibilities, they took on the heavier workload of child rearing.
It had taken almost a decade, but Patricia Wright had started finding answers.
The best scientists develop reputations. Some are known for wild, intuitive leaps; others for being able to recall facts better than a dozen encyclopedias. There are those blessed with the ability to always ask the right question and those with the steadfast patience to work through the wrong ones. Every now and again, a researcher arrives on the scene with the knack for doing what was thought impossible. After her work with Aotus, doing the impossible became Wright’s calling card.
That’s why Elwyn Simons hired her out of graduate school. A senior biologist at the Duke Primate Center, Simons is about as close to Indiana Jones as evolutionary primatologists get. Besides being one of America’s premier explorers, according to many who know him, he is also a keen judge of talent. “I could see her doggedness right away,” recalls Simons. “Most people find ways of talking themselves out of doing things that are difficult and uncomfortable—Pat displayed an unusual willingness to go anywhere and do anything to achieve her goals.”
Simons sent her to Borneo. The situation was somewhat familiar. Wright was asked to track down the tarsier, another secretive primate about which there was very little data. Of course, there were plenty of intriguing, unanswered questions. But again, Wright brought back the answers.
Simons upped the ante: He asked her to search for the extinct. About 400 miles off the coast of Mozambique, surrounded on all sides by the raging Indian Ocean, lies Madagascar—at 227,000 square miles, the world’s forty-sixth-largest country and fourth-largest island. Some 165 million years ago, this island separated from the rest of the Gondwanaland super-continent, creating a period of biological isolation so significant that of the island’s 200,000 species, 150,000 are endemic, found nowhere else on earth. Thirteen percent of all primate species, 23 percent of all primate genera, and 36 percent of all primate families call Madagascar home. Scientists refer to the island as “the eighth continent.”
But it’s not an easy place for humans. According to the World Bank, more than 85 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Slash-and-burn agriculture, called tavy, is a common source of income, and every year nearly one-third of the island burns. Since the 1950s, logging for timber, mining operations, and economic development has increased so much that when Wright arrived in the mid-1980s, less than 15 percent of Madagascar’s original forests remained. Today, it’s around 10 percent.
Simons wanted Wright to track down the greater bamboo lemur, one of the world’s most endangered species and one of just three species worldwide to feast on bamboo, which is riddled with cyanide. At the time of her arrival, the greater bamboo lemur hadn’t been seen in years and was generally thought extinct. But there’s a difference between being thought extinct and actually being extinct, and in the past few decades that difference has sometimes been Pat Wright.
Not only did Wright find the greater bamboo lemur in 1986, she also discovered a new species of primate: the golden bamboo lemur. Finding a new species is rare, but finding a new species of “charismatic megafauna”—animals with widespread appeal that become poster creatures for environmental causes—is about the same as finding a needle in a haystack if that haystack is the size of Montana.
It was a career-making discovery and a heartbreaking one at that. Weeks after Wright and then-assistant Deborah Overdorff spotted the golden bamboo lemur, the sound of chainsaws ripped through the forest. The loggers were after one of the most expensive woods in the world, rosewood, and were not going to stop for a bamboo-eating lemur.
Wright became a diplomat. She started with the Malagasy government and then moved to the United States, talking to anyone else who would listen. She met with money men on every continent but still couldn’t raise enough. Just when the Malagasy government was ready to quit, her MacArthur award arrived. It was $250,000. Wright dumped all of it into the park. The dividends continue to accrue.
In 1986, when Wright first set out on her long walk, she had no idea what was coming. She didn’t know that she would log 300 muddy miles. She also didn’t know that, because of the walk’s success and the deep bonds she formed with the island, her work there would add her name to the pantheon of female primatologists who have the serious grit necessary for long-term field research. Unlike Jane Goodall’s chimps or Dian Fossey’s gorillas, Wright’s lemurs, the focus of her attention for over two decades, are lousy on the ground. Because the animal’s arm-to-leg ratio is roughly the same as an adult human’s, it spends almost all its time in the tree canopy. So all the time Wright has spent following lemurs has been much like her long walk—bushwhacking up and down hills, knee deep in mud, hangovers replaced by the constant torment of having to crank her neck backward to study the treetops. Luke Dollar, assistant professor of biology at Pfeiffer University and one of the world’s leading Madagascar carnivore experts, says, “What she’s done is amazing. In the past 20 years—a very short time from a scientific perspective—we’ve gone from knowing nothing about lemurs to knowing as much about them as we know about any other taxonomic group of large mammals.”
Wright has continued to do the near impossible. In 2004, she and her team sited a new species of lemur, which was named after her: Wright’s Sportive Lemur. And last year, she and her graduate students found a new troop of greater bamboo lemurs, upping the world’s total to around 125.
Wright’s work has opened up new frontiers of research for other species of lemurs, too. Additionally, she has raised and begun to answer all sorts of odd questions about primate old age. In relation to Alzheimer’s, which lemurs somehow avoid, Wright is currently investigating their medicinal habits—what plants they eat when ill and utilize when injured. She hopes this will pave the way for both new drugs and more protection for the forests that supply those drugs.
But her primatology work pales beside her conservation legacy. “I can’t think of anyone who has been a better champion for the place they love,” Dollar says. “Almost everything I know about perseverance, tenacity, and diplomacy, I learned by studying under Pat.” The proof of this is in the dozen schools serving 4,000 Malagasy students that Dollar and his collaborators have built or renovated in the past two years.
It’s all this work that led to a tract of rainforest that includes Ranomafana gaining World Heritage status in 2007. But the park’s biggest dividend is the influence it has had on its home country. When Wright arrived on the island there were two national parks. Because Ranomafana has become an inspirational gold standard, there are now 46 protected areas and eighteen national parks. Building on this work, the Malagasy president, Marc Ravalomanana, is currently helping turn Madagascar into a model for African eco tourism. At the top of his agenda is to increase Madagascar’s protected landscape from the current 1.7 million hectares to 6 million hectares over the next five years, an act that Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, recently called “one of the most important announcements in the history of biodiversity conservation.” Which is to say, 20 years from now, when some other fledgling researcher asks “¿Dónde están los monos?” the answer will continue to include Madagascar.
And despite the long walks, horrid tropical ailments, and a brutal schedule that keeps her traveling all year long, Wright has pulled through remarkably unscathed. “I’m a bit slower at the beginning of each field season, and it takes a bit longer to get into form,” she says. “But to tell you the truth, nothing hurts.”