Patricia Wright: Way beyond the science

The social worker-turned-scientist has discovered two new species of lemurs and helped preserve Madagascar's legendary biodiversity.

By Steven Kotler

Photograph by Beth Perkins

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.”

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