Stony Brook prof featured in IMAX movie on Madagascar lemurs

Lemur expert and Stony Brook University anthropology professor Patricia Wright, who is credited with discovering the golden bamboo lemur, discusses her involvement in the making of the IMAX film Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, which opens on April 4. She was interviewed March 20, 2014. (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware)

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A room with a view of the rain forest is all Patricia Wright has -- and all she needs -- when she isn't teaching anthropology at Stony Brook University.

When the acclaimed primatologist and professor is on that other island she calls home, Madagascar, she is among the lemurs she has studied and worked to protect for 27 years.

"They have a very calm presence, but they are also very spunky and full of character," said Wright, whose face brightens as she explains what she's learned from a behavioral study of the furry creatures. "They take life easily. They enjoy each other's company. There's so much of what we see in humans in lemurs."

Wright, 69, of Sound Beach, shares her passion for the primates -- many species of which are endangered -- in a new 3-D movie to be released April 4 in IMAX theaters nationwide.

In the same month, Stony Brook, where Wright has been on the anthropology faculty since 1991, plans to honor her during the "Stars of Stony Brook Gala." The annual fundraising event draws some 800 people and is to be held at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan on April 16.

As a researcher traveling to Madagascar for the first time in 1987, Wright discovered the golden bamboo lemur, previously thought to be extinct. She was thrilled at the finding but disheartened when loggers moved into the lemurs' habitat.

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At that point, she said, she made a commitment to herself, the lemurs and the people in the impoverished villages surrounding the rain forest: to fight to conserve their land and help improve their economic situation.

In 1991, her advocacy efforts led to the creation of Ranomafana National Park, which stretches about 160 square miles in the southeastern section of the island. She is founder of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and Centre ValBio, a research station with a 15,000-square-foot green building that can house 52 scientists, three modern laboratories, a conference room and a veranda for lectures and symposia.

While the area may be an ideal place for researchers, making a feature film posed difficulties.

Drew Fellman, writer and producer of "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar," the IMAX movie, said when he visited Wright in the rain forest to scout the location he thought, "This is likely impossible."

"There were roads that would be there on one trip that were gone the next," Fellman said. "And it was the same with the animals. They are amazing, but under such intense threat."

The movie took four months to shoot, starting in August 2012. The crew of about 15 from IMAX and about 10 from the local area fought extreme weather conditions and fragile infrastructure to get 3-D cameras in cranes high above the trees, even taking some footage from hot-air balloons, Fellman said.

Wright's quiet perseverance inspired them to keep going. He was impressed to hear her on the phone, cutting deals with international organizations and securing funding for more grant money, he said.

"There was a nonstop flurry of fundraising, life-saving and conservationism," Fellman said. "She's such a casual person who is just so hyper-achieving -- she really knows how to get things done."

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, Stony Brook's president, said Wright's commitment to Madagascar is "a testament to her generosity of intellect, of will and of spirit."

The university has a strong presence in Madagascar. More than two dozen undergraduates study abroad each fall semester, and graduate students conduct extensive research projects there. Students from the medical and dental school have provided free health care to the locals.

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Over the years, Wright said, she has tried to make sure the people of Madagascar benefited from the mission to conserve the lemur habitat. She holds three medals of honor from the government, also known as the Malagasy Republic.

By 2008, Ranomafana National Park had recorded some 30,000 visitors. Half of the entrance fee to the park goes to the surrounding villages. Local residents now hold jobs as tour guides and staff the hotels and restaurants that have popped up as a result, Wright said.

Still, 90 percent of lemur species are endangered or threatened, and Madagascar is the only place in the world where the animals live in the wild.

Wright said she believes the IMAX movie helps to bring her advocacy message to the masses in a way she never could. Rather than produce a dry, scientific nature documentary, she said Fellman and his crew "captured the true spirit of the lemurs" while "talking about conservation not in a sad but in a can-do way."

"I think they realized what I have always known: Nobody knows lemurs, and that's why they are endangered," she said. "As long as they are on the brink of extinction, I'll have work to do."

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