Add wildlife conservation science to the list of things for which Long Island is becoming known.
Three of the six finalists for this year's Indianapolis Prize, billed as the world's leading award for animal conservation, are faculty members at Stony Brook University.
Russell A. Mittermeier, who has used the concept of biodiversity "hotspots" to help raise $1 billion for critical habitats; author and sustainability advocate Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute; and Patricia C. Wright, discoverer and defender of lemurs in Madagascar, are in the running for the $250,000 prize. Runners-up will receive $10,000.
The winner will be announced May 13, and the prize will be awarded at a gala in Indianapolis in September.
All three Long Island finalists have impressive conservation victories to their credit, most in exotic locales, often against long odds. Taken together, their achievements add a new dimension of science to a region known for physics (Brookhaven National Laboratory), pathogens (Plum Island Animal Disease Center) and aerospace engineering (Northrop Grumman Corp.).
"You don't think of Long Island as a hotbed of tropical conservation," Wright said with a chuckle.
But she has helped make it so by discovering a species of lemur and being the driving force behind the creation of Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, which protects the species Wright discovered and one other.
The prize, launched in 2006 by the Indianapolis Zoo, is awarded every other year to someone who has made "extraordinary contributions to conservation efforts."
"There are people who have a scientific background and a kind of a mountaintop view of conservation, and people who have saved species and sacrificed a lot and even risked their lives," said Judy Palermo, a spokeswoman for the prize foundation.
Having three finalists from the same university has never happened before, Palermo added. "It just shows the strength of Stony Brook and the teachers that they have and the programs that they have."
Old hat for them
All three Stony Brook finalists hold PhDs and have been nominated for the prize before.
Safina, who grew up in Plainview and lives in Stony Brook, fell in love with nature while watching "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" and fishing with his father and uncles.
In 2003, he co-founded the Blue Ocean Institute to bring attention to perils faced by the seas and teach the public how they can be reversed. Safina is a research professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and is a visiting professor in the School of Journalism. He has written several books, and episodes of his show "Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina" aired nationwide on PBS in 2012.
Safina said he would rather inspire and encourage than just deliver doom and gloom. "If you say, 'Here's a very serious problem, and here's how it can be solved,' then maybe they'll want to do something about it in their lives or careers or what they major in in college," he said.
Wright, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook, was introduced to primatology after getting a pet monkey in the 1960s. It caught her eye from the window of a New York City pet store across from the Fillmore East, where she was on her way to a Jimi Hendrix concert.
"I fell in love with the animal and became very curious about what it did," she said. "And that led me to the Amazon, and that led me to doing a dissertation at the City University of New York."
Wright eventually went to Madagascar, the island nation off the east coast of Africa, in 1984. By 1986, she had discovered the golden bamboo lemur, a species previously unknown to science, and rediscovered the greater bamboo lemur, which had been considered extinct for 50 years.
By 1991, after years of mapping, networking with residents of local villages and fundraising (including most of the $250,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship grant she won in 1989), she had persuaded the government of Madagascar to establish the Ranomafana National Park. Wright believes the park has saved three species of lemur from extinction through deforestation.
Mittermeier, 64, who resides in Great Falls, Va., but said he mostly "lives on a plane," is the president of Conservation International and has worked to preserve primates and turtles in South America, Madagascar and elsewhere.
Mittermeier has used the concept of biodiversity "hotspots" to focus conservation efforts where they are needed most. More than half of all plant species, 40 percent of all vertebrates and up to 90 percent of endangered species are found in just 2.5 percent of the world's land, he said.
"In terms of allocating resources and setting priorities, this is the most effective mechanism we have," Mittermeier said, estimating that he has helped raise about $1 billion for conserving such places.
Mittermeier, who has an adjunct research appointment at Stony Brook in the Department of Anatomical Sciences, was a finalist for the 2012 Indianapolis Prize and was nominated in 2008. Safina was nominated in 2008, 2010 and 2012 and was a finalist in 2010. Wright was a finalist in 2012.
All three said that if they win, they would use the prize money to further their conservation work.
"It's the most prestigious prize of its kind anywhere in the world," Mittermeier said. "I'm really honored to be included in an illustrious group of finalists."
The other finalists are Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico; Carl Jones of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and International Conservation Fellow at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust; and Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
-- The first Indianapolis Prize was awarded in 2006 to George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. The 2010 winner was Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder and president of Save the Elephants.
-- The contenders are reviewed by two international committees -- a nine-person nominating committee that narrows the field down to six finalists, and a jury that selects the winner.
-- The Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, a unit of the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company, provides funding for the Indianapolis Prize.
-- Actor Harrison Ford and actress Jane Alexander are honorary co-chairs for this year's award.
-- The previous prize award was $100,000. This year, the winner will receive a $250,000 prize that can be spent as he or she chooses, and runners-up will each receive $10,000.