Dr. Patricia C. Wright is one of the world’s leading experts on lemurs, where she has studied the animals for more than 20 years in Madagascar. She is the scientific advisor to the new IMAX 3D documentary, “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” from Warner Brothers. This film gives voice to these exotic and fascinating primates. Wright is quoted as saying, “I am happiest when I am alone in the forest with lemurs.” Over 2,000 years ago, lemurs were alone, flourishing on the island of Madagascar until humans arrived. Sadly, lemurs now face possible extinction. Fortunately, Wright and others are working to help these exotic creatures survive.
That’s IT Mommy had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Wright, who currently teaches at Stony Brook University. She has her Ph.D. in primatology, and fell in love with lemurs after her first job at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Wright talked about lemurs, parenting in the wild, as well as, life in Madagascar.
”I’ve seen it eight times and every time it’s a little bit different and just as wonderful,” says Wright. “The filmmakers are so talented, and they just captured the lemurs’ personalities right there for everyone to see. Their jumping, the calling and the cuteness is everything that I love about lemurs. I’ve always felt a little selfish because you have this incredible life experience when your livelihood is studying lemurs. But, you can’t really share it because lemurs are so far away. You can write about it, but you can’t really share their extraordinary character,” Dr. Wright explains.
How has Madagascar changed from the first time you visited?
”When i first got there, it was really poor. It’s poor now, but it was really poor then,” Dr. Wright recalls. “Everybody was farming and eating what they could grow. That’s one of the reasons that so much of the region was destroyed. Madagascar is an island, and they were cut off from the Western World for more than 10 years. Go to a store and the only thing in the store was bananas. Can you imagine that? In the ‘90s, they established their first environmental action plan. And that, allowed money to come in from the outside world to set up a park system and to save lemurs, along with their habitat. The environment is very respected in Madagascar in a general way because of recent jobs and tourism. We built up an infrastructure for people to visit those national parks, after we built the national parks.
The one thing that Madagascar has taught me is to have patience, persistence and a lot of hope. I never would have dreamed when I started making the national park, that people would have a better way of life, established health and education. People have skills, are learning computers and they just had high-speed Internet added at remote sights. The school system was improved. I promised my local guides who worked with the lemurs that if their kids went to high school and college that I would pay for it. I’m paying for 15 kids! When women are empowered and have an education the world becomes a better place,” the professor says.
How does lemurs raise their young?
”Each of the lemurs have different social systems and different ways of raising their offspring,” the lemur expert explains. “They have such long lives. They can live to be 30 years. They are very much like humans, where they have similar long periods of infancy. And juveniles spend time setting up their own groups or enter a new lemur group. Lemurs also have many of the same issues as humans parents. They are protective of their offspring and they want the best for them. Infants can get out of hand every once in a while. They forget where they are and fall out of trees. Then, they grow up and become teenagers. And that’s when they go off to seek their fortunes. But just like humans, some kids go, but some stay. All the different species of lemurs have different parenting styles.
I have the latest research news! We found a new social system in primates that no other species has except in humans. The Black and White Ruffed Lemur was studied over the course of a few weeks. And, the animals all had little separate nests, where they kept their infants. These lemurs always have twins or triplets. They can’t carry two or three offspring at the same time. Suddenly, at the third week, three of the mothers put all of their babies together in one place. They left a young male to watch them and they went out foraging to eat. It was daycare. For lemurs, this was the first time this parenting method was recorded in the wild,” Wright says enthusiastically.
People especially my daughter want to know about a lemur’s eyes! Why are they so big?
”We don’t know why, but their eyes can come in various colors,” Dr. Wright answers. “The ring-tailed lemur has orange eyes, others have green or brown eyes, while Sclater Lemurs have blue eyes. There is a lot to learn about the eyes of lemurs. Their eyes are so big and round, and the reason for that is so that they can see a lot better in the dark than we can. They have a special thing called a Tapetum lucidum, which amplifies the light. They can see at very low light levels,” Wright explains.
What is the special quality that you love about lemurs?
”There is nothing else like them on earth,” she says. “They are beautiful animals. There are 103 different species doing their own thing and every one is cute in it’s own way. The reason why I stayed in Madagascar as long as I have is partially because they are so endangered. About 91% of them are either threatened or critically-endangered. And, I feel that maybe I can do something, and this film can do something. So that they will survive into the future,” the lemur expert explains.
What is the major problem that lemurs face?
”The deforestation and the slashing, burn farming is a major problem,” says Dr. Wright. “It used to be that the village elders, who had all the wisdom, used to say, ‘Do not eat the lemurs because they are so much like us. They are special and scared.’ But recently, people aren’t listening to village elders, and hunting has become much more of a problem than in the past,” she says.
How can we equip young people with the skills and information that they need to preserve wildlife?
”I think this film is going to really to help,” says the environmentalist. “We have to let kids know that there is hope. It’s up their generation to do the saving of wildlife. They need to be interested, and they have join a wildlife club. They have to get involved with these tropical regions, where so many animals exist in this biodiversity. Learn about lemurs. And of course, help raise money for protecting the rainforest. They can talk to their parents about going Madagascar. Maybe, even becoming an eco-tourist. Maybe not now, but maybe in the future. So, that way the money comes back to the local people, and they can see how much the wildlife is treasured around the world. And, that they better treasure it too,” suggests Dr. Wright.
Dr. Wright admits that when she was first approached to be scientific advisor on this film she was a little skeptical. “I didn’t want the lemurs to be made fun of,” she explains. “I wanted people to really understand how beautiful they are, but also how their lifestyle is a lifestyle to be respected. Filmmakers David Dougas and Drew Fellman, are really scientists in their hearts. They asked the right questions, thought about how the animals would actually do things. They are really good. I was very proud to be a part of this team,” she says.
”Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is rated G, and is is narrated by Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman. The documentary will be in select IMAX theaters on April 4. Visit islandoflemurs.imax.com for more information.
Learn more about Patricia and her mission Centre Valbio at www.centrevalbio.org
* We attended a press conference to facilitate this post.