By Nicole Rivard
During a lecture at the IMAX theater in Norwalk, Conn., April 17, which was followed by a showing of the recently release movie “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” Dr. Patricia Wright said that she has seen the documentary 13 times already—sometimes sitting alongside Morgan Freeman, she added with a smile—and she never gets tired of it.
“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” follows Wright, a professor of biological anthropology at Stony Brook University on Long Island, whose lifelong mission is to help lemurs survive in modern day Madagascar.
But each time she sees it she does worry that audiences are going to fall in love with lemurs and that they are going to “want a lemur so bad.”
However she was quick to say to the children and adults in the audience, “Please don’t get one as a pet. Primates are not good pets.”
“There are a lot of measures in Madagascar to address the illegal exotic pet trade,” Wright added. “It is illegal to have lemurs as pets so they are confiscated.”
The exotic pet trade industry is a disgusting business that Friends of Animals knows all too well. At our Primarily Primates sanctuary in San Antonio, Texas, we provide homes for 45 lemurs, 35 of which are ringtail lemurs (Lemur catta), two are white-fronted lemurs (Eulemur fulvus alifrons) and eight are brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus fulvus) from both research and exotic pet trade sources.
Non-human primates are most often abandoned by their owners between the ages of two and eight depending on the species, after they have started maturing, and sometimes after their owners have had their teeth removed in an effort to restrict their assertive personalities.
In addition to the exotic pet trade, lemurs, who arrived on Madagascar millions of years ago, are mostly threatened by habitat destruction; the loss of their forest homes to logging, mining and “slash-and-burn” farming, Wright explained. Today 90 percent of the island is destroyed and only about 10 percent is left intact as it was before humans arrived a couple thousand years ago.
“It’s a big island so we still have some extraordinary rainforests left,” Wright said. “There was a meeting in July of 2012 and we talked about how many lemurs are left. There were 60 of us scientists together, and it was pretty discouraging actually. What we found out—there are 103 species of lemur—and 91 percent of them are going extinct. And it’s my job—and your job too now since you are going to watch this movie—to help save them before they are gone.
“We have evidence from fossil records that there were huge lemurs existing 50 years ago. Some of them were the size of chimps, gorillas, big baboons…really cool,” Wright said. “So we know what extinction is and we don’t want to have it happen to the rest of them.”
In 1991, Wright’s study of lemurs as well as her discovery of a new species, the golden bamboo lemur, spurred Madagascar to create a park system, including Ranomafana National Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses the home of 15 lemur species, some of which are listed among the world’s most endangered animals. It is open to ecotourism, and half of proceeds of people coming to visit goes back to the park and the other half goes to the villagers.
“I didn’t know how to make a national park, but now I do,” Wright said. “One of the first things you do is walk around to all the villagers and talk to them about what that means to have national park in their backyard. They are used to going into the forest and getting wood for construction and medicinal plants. And suddenly they can’t go in and get those things. I asked them, ‘What are the kinds of things they would like in return for losing all that?’ For them it was like losing Walmart because they were getting all their stuff there.”
The villagers asked for health care, schools, economic help with growing rice and soccer balls.
“The villagers were afraid of me at first. Twenty eight years later I know them all like my best friends,” Wright said. “It took a long time. But if I became discouraged at the beginning we wouldn’t have what we have today.”
And what Wright has today is a national park—125,000 acres of protected rainforest. “We work very close with the villagers to make sure we don’t’ lose any. We have 15 species of lemurs in one rainforest. It is wonderful. Some of them hibernate in the ground. Some are so tiny you can hold in your hand. Some of them eat bamboo. They are just wonderful.”
More recently, Wright spearheaded the creation of Centre ValBio, a huge preserve that is a modern hub for multidisciplinary research, training and public awareness, the first in Madagascar.
“We have a place where people can come and hear lectures, a lab where we do chemical biology, study infectious disease, hormones, nutrition, all the kinds of things we used to have to send back to the United States,” Wright said, adding that staff is also working with villagers to do reforestation.
Despite a close proximity to the rainforest, the Malagasy people know little about the ecological wonder at their back door. The Conservation Education group leads outreach and public awareness programs that highlight the unique biodiversity of Madagascar. The Reforestation program teaches about the value of trees, not just for the animals, but for clean water and erosion control as well.
Wright said that she spends six months a year in Madagascar. “I’m a frequent flyer for life now,” she said with a smile.
During the year she worked with IMAX she went to Madagascar 12 times.
“They had 35 cameramen out there, and cranes and hot air balloons. The shots are unbelievable,” she said. “These guys really care about animals. They are animal lovers. A lot of filmmakers don’t listen to the scientific advising, but they did and I appreciate that.”
Wright admits that being the star of an IMAX film is a far cry from her days as a stay at home mom in Brooklyn, N.Y., back in the 60s after earning her bachelor’s degree in biology.
Ironically it was the purchase of two pet owl monkeys—she admits she didn’t know better at age 20—that led her to becoming an accomplished American primatologist, anthropologist, conservationist, and one of the world’s foremost expert on lemurs.
She said she was born a scientist and became fascinated by the owl monkeys’ father care system after the female gave birth. Her enthusiasm sent her back to school to become a primatologist. She later went on to obtain her Ph.D. in anthropology from City University of New York in 1985 under the direction of Dr. Warren Kinzey. In 1986, she first traveled to Madagascar in search of the greater bamboo lemur, believed to have gone extinct.
After searching in all of the southeastern forests where sightings had been recorded decades before, she and her team focused the search on the forests of Ranomafana because of the extensive stands of giant bamboo that were observed there. Her bio says that she had a hunch that if a bamboo lemur could be found anywhere, it would probably be where its main dietary need was plentiful. The hunch proved fruitful when not only was the greater bamboo lemur rediscovered but one that had not been known to exist was also found—the golden bamboo lemur.
Wright told the audience that the film says the greater bamboo lemur is her favorite. “But I also love the little mouse lemur. And the sifakas the way they jump. And the indri the way it calls. It’s like a symphony. It’s hard for me because I love them all.”
She added that each species is individual and special. “The thing I really like about all of them is they are so playful,” Wright said at the end of her lecture. “They are really relaxed, they are sort of like Zen. We all could learn something from lemurs.”
Visit this site to find out if “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is playing at a theater near you.