We have all seen at least one of the Madagascar movies portraying comical cartoon animals struggling for a home in the wild. However, this spring, a new movie titled “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” will be released about the real fight for survival of lemurs in Madagascar. Spearheading the production of this movie, not to mention the entire conservation effort it represents, is Stony Brook anthropology professor Dr. Patricia Wright.
Dr. Wright began her work as a conservationist while she was in Madagascar doing research. “It started out that I just wanted to study lemurs. I never thought it would be quite as complex as it is now.” Her real efforts at conservation began when “timber exploiters came in and started cutting down trees,” and she went to the capital to ask them to make it a protected area. While the government was very supportive, they told Dr. Wright that the responsibility for funding and planning the conservation project would fall to her. She was surprised, but says she realized that, “If I didn’t do it, no one else would.” The funding for her project came from USAID, the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and others, and in 1990 Dr. Wright received nearly five million dollars to start her project.
In 1991, Dr. Wright came to Stony Brook University, after being recruited by her friend, Dr. Lawrence Martin, of Stony Brook’s anthropology department, who felt that she was needed at Stony Brook to establish a primatology department. “I am very happy to be here,” says Dr. Wright, who spends the fall semester researching in Madagascar, and the spring semester teaching here at Stony Brook. She enjoys this arrangement because, “it allows me to be able to do the kind of fundraising and research that I need to do, but also allows me to have students, which is very important to me.”
It was through Stony Brook alumnus Richard Gelfond, CEO of the IMAX Corporation, that Dr. Wright was able to have a movie made about Madagascar. It started with a conversation, and two months later planning began for “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.” Dr. Wright says her original intent for producing such a film was “to show the beauty and mystery” of Madagascar, as well as to raise awareness about the plight of lemurs. To that end, all proceeds from the movie will be put toward the conservation project in Madagascar. Additionally, at the “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” preview in Manhattan on Feb. 1, the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation agreed to match every dollar, doubling the amount of money that will be going directly to help the lemurs.
In addition to her work for “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” Dr. Wright is also devoting herself to many other projects. She has published a book titled “High Moon Over the Amazon: My Quest to Understand the Monkeys of the Night,” and is currently working on a second book, to be called “For the Love of Lemurs: My Life Saving the Wilds of Madagascar.” All of her conservation work has not gone unnoticed. She is a finalist for the very prestigious Indianapolis Prize, which makes her eligible to win 250,000 dollars.
However, Dr. Wright doesn’t only work to help the lemurs of Madagascar. She also does a considerable amount for students here at Stony Brook, as well as other students in the US, through her study abroad program in Madagascar. She has created a research station with modern classrooms where students work on a variety of things from biodiversity field techniques to independent research projects. “I love to take undergraduates to Madagascar,” says Dr. Wright, who runs both a fall and a summer program in Madagascar. One employee of Stony Brook’s Study Abroad office says that the Madagascar program is one “we don’t have to push. Students love it.” Jennifer Green, Stony Brook’s Study Abroad Advisor, says, “Dr. Wright has given us one of the few programs in Madagascar of quality. It is a centerpiece of our Study Abroad program.”
“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” will be released commercially, in IMAX and 3D, on May 23.
Correction: February 23, 2014: An earlier version of the article incorrectly listed the names of two donors for the documentary and the name of a conservation prize. The correct names are the “Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation” and the “Andrew Sabin Family Foundation,” not “Liz Claiborne foundation” and “Andy Sabin Foundation.” The award is the “Indianapolis Prize,” not the “Indianapolis Conservation Prize.”