Patricia Wright, lemur studies expert at Stony Brook University, wins prestigious Indianapolis Prize

Dr. Patricia C. Wright is featured in the
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Dr. Patricia C. Wright is featured in the IMAX film "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar." Wright founded Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar and now runs Centre ValBio, an education and conservation facility.(Credit: Drew Fellman / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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Stony Brook University distinguished professor and primate expert Patricia C. Wright is the winner of the 2014 Indianapolis Prize, given every two years to recognize global leaders in animal conservation.

Wright, 69, of Sound Beach, won the prestigious award for her work in protecting the endangered lemurs of Madagascar.

"It is a wonderful, wonderful day," Wright said yesterday after the $250,000 prize, sponsored by the Indianapolis Zoo, was announced. "What an extraordinary opportunity, not just for me, but for Madagascar and the lemurs."Wright discovered the golden bamboo lemur in 1986. During her studies, she became concerned about loggers destroying the creatures' habitat.

In 1991, her advocacy led to the creation of Ranomafana National Park, which covers about 160 square miles in southeastern Madagascar.

She is founder of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and Centre ValBio, a rain forest research station with a 15,000-square-foot "green" building that can house 52 scientists and boasts three laboratories, a conference room and a veranda for lectures and symposiums. Each year, Wright takes a group of Stony Brook students on a study-abroad program to the institute.

Over the years, she has rallied impoverished people living in the villages around the national park to participate in the conservation effort. Wright has coordinated the delivery of medical care and education to those communities. The national park and ecotourism that has cropped up around it have created hundreds of jobs, officials say.

"She's doing wonderful science and is actually achieving victories," said Michael Crowther, CEO and president of the Indianapolis Zoological Society. "She is doing so by effectively integrating humans into the equation."

Wright and the lemurs were featured in a 3-D IMAX documentary released nationwide in April titled "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar." The film, narrated by Morgan Freeman, aimed to inspire a mainstream audience to advance the conservation efforts for lemurs, primates that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. In the same month, Stony Brook University honored her at its annual gala.

It is hoped the exposure will fuel her conservation mission, Wright said.

She plans to use part of the prize money to fund the protection of a piece of lemur habitat just north of Ranomafana that is being threatened by gold miners. The rest of the money would be used to bring electricity to villages around the park.

Stony Brook University President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, who has visited the research station, lauded Wright Tuesday for her achievements.

"I am in awe that one person can so broadly impact an entire ecosystem halfway around the world," he said.

She was one of three Stony Brook professors nominated for this year's award. The others were: Russell A. Mittermeier, who has used the concept of biodiversity "hot spots" to help raise $1 billion for critical habitats; and author and sustainability advocate Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute based at Stony Brook, which studies how the ocean is changing and what those changes mean for people and wildlife.

Wright is the first woman to receive the Indianapolis Prize, which was first awarded in 2006.The first award went to George Archibald, a Canadian crane expert who has for 40 years fought to protect the migratory flight paths of the endangered species. Other winners include a senior conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society; a pioneer in elephant social behavior research who has advocated against poaching African elephants; and another researcher who led the United States to declare polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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