Dr. Patricia Chappelle Wright is the winner of the 2014 Indianapolis Prize, one of the world’s leading award for animal conservation. As the winner, Wright, a distinguished professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, will receive $250,000 and the Lilly Medal, joining the ranks of some of the most celebrated conservationists on Earth.
“We are honored to present the 2014 Indianapolis Prize to Patricia Wright,” said Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoological Society, which initiated the Indianapolis Prize as part of its conservation mission. “A static summary of achievements is not enough to convey Pat’s impact on protecting lemurs and their habitat in Madagascar. Her approach has been hugely successful at the intersection of conservation and community-building. We hope that her remarkable story will empower others to become advocates for our planet and the wildlife that inhabit it.”
Wright, the first female winner of the Indianapolis Prize since its inception in 2006, was selected from a group of finalists that includes: Joel Berger, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society; Gerardo Ceballos, Ph.D., professor of ecology and conservation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico; Carl Jones, Ph.D., scientific director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust; Russell Mittermeier, Ph.D., president of Conservation International; and Carl Safina, Ph.D., co-founder and president of the Blue Ocean Institute.
Wright and the five finalists will be honored at the Indianapolis Prize Gala, presented by Cummins Inc., on Sept. 27 in Indianapolis. She will receive an unrestricted $250,000 cash award and the Lilly Medal, an original work of art that signifies her contributions to conserving Madagascar’s lemurs — considered to be the world’s most threatened mammal group. The remaining five finalists will each receive $10,000.
From Social Worker to Conservation Hero
In the 1960s, Wright, then a social worker, purchased an owl monkey from a New York City pet store. Her fascination with that monkey led Wright to ultimately obtain her Ph.D. in her 40s and travel to Madagascar, an island often referred to as the “Eighth Continent” due to its rich diversity of plants and animals. There, she fell in love with the island’s lemurs.
Just a year out of graduate school, Wright rediscovered a species of lemur thought to be extinct for more than 50 years. She even discovered a new species — the golden bamboo lemur. These discoveries catalyzed Wright’s political capital in Madagascar, which proved useful as she established Ranomafana National Park in 1991. The park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and 18 other parks have been established in her wake.
Today, Wright partners with Malagasy villagers to develop solutions that are both environmentally and economically sustainable. Much of this effort is focused on empowering villagers with their status as stakeholders for Madagascar’s forests — and specifically, its lemurs. In a country where more than 75 percent of the population lives at or below the World Bank’s global poverty line benchmark of $1.25 a day, ecotourism has become a means for economic empowerment and self-sufficiency. By engaging community stakeholders to save Madagascar’s vanishing habitat, Wright’s plan for preservation provides a conservation model that can be replicated all over the world.
Wright’s work and personal story is featured in the IMAX and Warner Bros. 2014 documentary “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.” Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film seeks to inspire the audience to advance the conservation efforts for lemurs, animals which have been around since the time of the dinosaurs.
“This is a story about a courageous individual who has engaged in acts of heroism to save some magnificent creatures,” said Freeman. “I cannot think of a person more worthy of the Indianapolis Prize than Dr. Patricia Wright.”
Wright intends to use some of her winnings from the 2014 Indianapolis Prize toward providing electricity, especially for Malagasy schoolchildren, in the various small villages around Ranomafana.
“I want to help light up their lives,” said Wright.
She also plans to fund the protection of an unprotected forest just north of Ranomafana, home to another yet undescribed new species of rare lemur, which are critically threatened by gold mining in the area.
“In Madagascar, they call her ‘Mother,’ and she loves them just as much,” said Mireya Mayor, Ph.D., American anthropologist and National Geographic correspondent. “Dr. Wright is selflessly and fiercely dedicated to the people and ecosystems of Madagascar because she loves them. Her heart is theirs.”
Photo by Noel Rowe