Making Madagascar Safe for Lemurs

May 16, 2018

Patricia Chapple Wright (Ph.D. '85, Anthropology) set out to study primates. She ended up saving some of the most endangered ones.

The lemurs of Madagascar have a protected habitat in the Ranomafana National Park, thanks to Patricia Chapple Wright (Ph.D. ’85, Anthropology).

Patricia Chapple Wright (Ph.D. ’85, Anthropology), the winner of The Graduate Center’s 2018 President’s Distinguished Alumni Medal, is accustomed to defying barriers. A Brooklyn housewife and mother with no doctoral training, she published the first paper on the parenting habits of the owl monkey — a nocturnal creature native to Peru that one of the foremost primatologists had tried and failed to study. Had she stopped there, it might have been enough. Fortunately, for science and society, she didn’t.

That accomplishment propelled her to pursue her Ph.D. at The Graduate Center, where she was lured by the knowledge that CUNY “had the best primatology.” She already knew Professor Warren Glenford Kinzey — a renowned primatologist. He had answered her call when she was a 20-something eager for advice on studying the owl monkey that she had become enthralled with. He, along with Professor John Oates, continued to mentor her in her doctoral studies.

Wright 2018 Commencement

Today, Wright is known for a dizzying array of accomplishments. As a recently minted Ph.D. graduate and a postdoc at Duke University, she ventured to Madagascar and braved leeches to find the greater bamboo lemur, which scientists believed was extinct. She not only found that lemur, but also discovered a new species — the golden bamboo lemur.

Again, she might have rested. But she soon discovered that the lemurs — creatures that exist nowhere else in the world — were under threat due to logging and deforestation, and the only way to protect them was to create a national park. It was a risk. She recalled thinking, “I would just be ridiculed by all of the primatologists, and I was trying to gain their respect. Or I could just let those animals go extinct.”

She chose potential ostracization and raised millions of dollars from USAID for the park’s infrastructure. But that wasn’t enough. “I realized that if you don’t support the people around the park, they’re just going to go in there and kill all the animals, so I needed health clinics, I needed schools, and agricultural assistance,” Wright said. She raised even more money from Liz Claiborne and the MacArthur Foundation — of which she became a fellow (so much for scorn). In 1991, the Ranomafana National Park opened.

“I think my success is really that that was the beginning 30 years ago, and I never let go,” Wright said.

In 2002, while a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, she started Centre ValBio in the midst of the Madagascar rainforest. “It’s a research station that not only does research on lemurs and chameleons and all the other biodiversity of Madagascar,” Wright said, “but it also does health, education, reforestation, and environmental arts.”

In March, she stopped by The Graduate Center on her way to the American Museum of Natural History.

“We discovered a new rainforest; that’s the new project I’m working on right now,” Wright explained. It’s “in the center of Madagascar, in a devastated region, and it’s been isolated for thousands of years. That’s where we found a new leech.” She and one of her graduate students were bringing a sample to a colleague at the museum — one of the foremost experts on leeches.

And, Wright added, she had recently found four new species of lemur — two of them were dwarf lemurs and two were mouse lemurs.

Asked what she considered her greatest achievement, Wright said, “My graduate students because that’s the only way you can really influence the future.” She added a beat later, “Of course, I’m very proud to have made a national park because that’s another incredible legacy.”