That Thing That She Does: Primate researcher, forest explorer, rain forest savior, teacher, writer, explorer, national park creator…
Patricia C. Wright’s extraordinary journey into the science and anthropology of primate research started not in tropical forests, but the wilds of Brooklyn, New York. Her observations of two pet monkeys drove her, doctorate-less and with toddler and husband in tow, to study monkeys in the rain forests of Peru.
“[The owl monkey] was the world’s only nocturnal monkey, and by 1978 I had published my first paper about its behavior and ecology in the wild,” she writes. “It was the first paper ever written about its habits in the Amazon rain forest nights. I was convinced to go to grad school after that publication was accepted.”
These days, the 55-year-old professor of anthropology is the Executive Director of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and the International Coordinator for the Ranomafana National Park in the rain forests of Madagascar. The park, Madagascar’s third, was created in 1991 largely due to Dr. Wright’s efforts. Her discovery of a new species of monkey — and her horror at the slash-and-burn farming that was destroying the forest — drove her to devote five years to trekking through those woods, negotiating with village elders, raising money and establishing the 108,000-acre park, as well as schools, hospitals and other facilities in the area.
Among the numerous awards and accolades she has received is the MacArthur “genius” grant, which funded some of her work with rain forests and primate studies. She is also profiled in Me and Isaac Newton, a feature-length documentary film that focuses on the personal and intellectual journeys of seven scientists who have solved centuries-old mysteries.
“She has a gift with animals. When she was a small child, she developed relationships with chickens, snakes, dogs, cats… and after she left home, she branched out into iguanas, geckos, and eventually primates,” writes one of her siblings, Chris Chapple, also a researcher. Chapple babysat for Wright’s daughter during those early days when she was in the field in Peru. “While visiting her in Madagascar this past December, we came across a family of Vangas (birds) who were teaching their young how to fly. In profound stillness we shared the binoculars for about a half-hour. The forest enveloped our concentration and, when another birder joined us on the trail, we all rejoiced in this simple yet important moment in the life of the rain forest.”
Word from Patricia Wright
Her Next Step: Right now I am working on helping the Madagascar National Park Service nominate a cluster of rain forest parks as World Heritage Sites — natural sites of outstanding value to the world.
Another new project involves working with a consortium of universities to construct a major research station near the rain forests of southeastern Madagascar. This will be the first large research station set up to study all the complexities of the biodiversity and ecosystems of Madagascar. Madagascar is a special place. Isolated for over 88 million years, it has plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.
I have also just finished a popular book about my early adventures in South America, am editing a volume on nocturnal tarsiers from Asia, and am writing about lemur behavior and ecology.
How She Shakes Off a Bad Day: I remember how much there is yet to do, and get back to work. Or I take a walk in the rain forest, if I am near one.
Favorite Way to Travel: My favorite way to travel is on foot through pristine rain forest. The excitement of never knowing what extraordinary sight or creature will appear next is fantastic.
A self-described “tri-continentalist,” she splits her time between the Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar (which she helped establish); Helsinki, Finland, where her husband, a Finnish biologist, lives and works; and Long Island, New York, where she teaches anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
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