Patricia Chapple Wright, PhD is an accomplished American primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist. Considered to be one of the world’s foremost expert on lemurs, Wright is best known for her 26-year study of social and family interactions of wild lemurs in Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar. She is the founder of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments (ICTE) and Centre ValBio (CVB). Wright has worked extensively on conservation. In the late 1980s she spearheaded an integrated conservation and development project that, in 1991, led to the establishment of Ranomafana National Park.
Wright obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Biology in 1966 from Hood College. Wright’s first job was in Boston at Harvard Medical School as a lab technician. Nex,t she worked for the Department of Social Services, as a caseworker, in NYC, quitting her job to be a mother and housewife. In the 1960s she bought an owl monkey from a NYC pet store in the village. To learn more about their father care system, she and her family traveled to Peru to see the owl monkeys in their native habitat. 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 primatologist Dr. Patricia Wright traveled to Madagascar in search of the Greater Bamboo Lemur, a plenteous species in the subfossil lemur sites of the north but believed to have gone extinct in the recent past. After searching in all of the southeastern forests where sightings had been recorded decades before, Patricia and her team focused the search on the forests of Ranomafana because of the extensive stands of giant bamboo that were observed there. Patricia 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 new species was named Hapalemur aureus, the Golden Bamboo Lemur.
Not long after research on the newly discovered populations of bamboo lemurs began Patricia learned that local villagers had been hired by timber exploiters to harvest the larger trees. Patricia’s guide told her that a man could earn one dollar for every canopy tree he could cut and carry on his shoulder to the road. Chopping trees was the best way for a person to make money. Patricia knew that this would certainly mark the end for the lemurs and action needed to be taken. Patricia traveled 2 days to get to Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo to discuss the problem with the Department of Water and Forest. The man who sat behind a padded bullet-proof door and huge desk listened to her concerns for the habitat of a new species. He agreed that the forest should be protected as a national park but it would take money to delineated boundaries and convince people not to cut down the forest or hunt lemurs; border patrols would need to be hired. The man said he had full confidence that Patricia could find the money. Though the task was daunting, the researcher made the commitment to save the forest but she knew she could not be successful without the help of other people. She began to build relationships with funding organizations as well as the people living in the villages around the forest of Ranomanfana.
Ranomanfana National Park (RNP) was inaugurated on May 31, 1991. The 43,500 hectares park contains mountainous rainforest and protects 12 species of lemurs, as well as untold species of chameleons, birds, frogs, tenrecs, and carnivores. The protection of its biodiversity depended on the relationships built with the local people. Patricia had made 7 expeditions to meet with village leader and ask about what they would need in order to replace the value of the materials they were extracting from the forest. Each leader responded with a similar list: a clinic to replace the medicinal plants, agricultural expertise and fertilizer for farming to replace the slash-and-burn cultivation,schools for their children and a real soccer ball. It was a giant task to be the leader of a pioneer project melding improvement of village economies with protecting a huge forest filled with unique biodiversity. This would be a conservation project based on science and research, one of the first in Madagascar. In 2007 Ranomafana National Park became part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site Cluster, an international honor and a tribute to its success.