For the Love of Lemurs

To her delight, social worker-turned-scientist Patricia Wright has found the mischievous Madagascar primates to be astonishingly complex

A verreaux's sifaka lemur can jump 30 feet (Frans Lanting)
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On a steep slope, hip deep in bamboo grass, in the heart of the Madagascar rain forest she saved, Patricia Wright is telling a story. “Mother Blue is probably the oldest animal in this forest,” she begins. “She was the queen of group one, and she shared her queendom with what I think was her mother.”

The animals she is describing are lemurs, primates like us. They are the unlikely product of one of nature’s reckless little experiments: all of them—more than 50 living lemur species—derive from a few individuals washed from the African mainland into the Indian Ocean more than 60 million years ago. The castaways had the good luck to land on Madagascar, an island the size of Texas 250 miles off the southeast coast of Africa. And there they have evolved in wild profusion.

Wright, a late-blooming primatologist from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has made lemurs her life, tracking bamboo lemurs and sifaka lemurs that live in a handful of social groups in Ranomafana National Park. The story she is telling, to a work party from the volunteer group Earthwatch, is one episode in a running saga from 20 years of field research in Madagascar. If her tone evokes a children’s story, that may be apt. Wright is a matriarchal figure, with straight auburn hair framing a round face, slightly protuberant eyes under padded eyelids, and a quick, ragged grin. The business of conservation has made her adept at popularizing her lemurs, using all the familiar plotlines of wicked stepmothers, families broken up and reunited, love, sex and murder.

A female sifaka lemur perches on a branch over Wright’s head. The graceful creature, a little bigger than a house cat, has a delicate, foxlike snout and plush black fur with a white patch on her back. Her long limbs end in skeletal fingers, curved for gripping branches, with soft, leathery pads at the tips. She turns her head, her stark, staring, reddish orange eyes glowing like hot coals. Then she bounds away in a series of leaps, a dancer in perfect partnership with the trees.

Wright first visited the town of Ranomafana in 1986, basically because she needed a bath. She was looking for the greater bamboo lemur, a species no one had seen in decades. Ranomafana had hot springs—and also a rain forest that was largely intact, a rarity on an island where the vast majority of forest has been destroyed. In the steep hills outside town, Wright spotted a bamboo lemur and started to track it, the first step in getting skittish wild animals to tolerate human observers. “You have to follow them and follow them and follow them, and they’re very good at hiding,” she says. “It’s kind of fun to try to outwit an animal. When they decide that you’re boring, that’s when you’ve won.”

The lemur Wright followed turned out to be an entirely new species, the golden bamboo lemur, which even locals said they had not seen before. (Wright shares credit for the discovery with a German researcher working in the area at the same time.) On a return trip, she also found the greater bamboo lemur she’d originally been looking for.

As Wright was beginning a long-term study in Ranomafana of both the bamboo lemurs and the sifakas in 1986, she came face to face with a timber baron with a concession from Madagascar’s Department of Water and Forests to cut down the entire forest. Wright decided to try and preserve the lemurs’ habitat. She was married, raising a young daughter and employed at Duke University as a new faculty member. Friends warned that letting “this conservation stuff” distract her from research would hurt her career. “But I couldn’t have it on my conscience,” she says now, “that a species I had discovered went extinct because I was worried about getting my tenure.”

Over the next few years, she pestered the timber baron so relentlessly that he abandoned the area. She lobbied government officials to designate Ranomafana as the nation’s fourth national park, which they did in 1991, protecting 108,000 acres, an area five times the size of Manhattan. She also raised millions of dollars, much of it from the U.S. Agency for International Development, to fund the park. She oversaw the hiring of local villagers, construction of trails and training of staff. She sent out teams to build schools and to treat diseases such as elephantiasis and roundworm, which were epidemic around the park. Her work won her a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and Stony Brook wooed her away from Duke with a job offer that allowed her to spend even more time in Madagascar.

Along the way, Wright found time to get to know her lemurs as individuals, particularly the sifakas in five territorial social groups, each of which had three to nine lemurs. Pale Male, in group two, for instance, “was a great animal, very perky,” she tells the volunteers. “He would play all the time with his sister, roughhouse around, go to the edges of the territory. And then one day, Pale Male disappeared. A lemur’s lost call is a mournful whistle, and his sister gave it all day long.” Pale Male had moved away to sifaka group three for an interlude of lemur bliss with the resident female, Sky Blue Yellow, producing a son named Purple Haze.

Lemurs typically sleep on the upper branches of trees. The fossa (pronounced “foosa”), a nocturnal mongoose, has a knack for finding them there. It creeps up a tree, its lean body pressed close to the bark, then leaps out and catches a lemur by the face or throat with its teeth. After a fossa struck one night, Sky Blue Yellow was gone. Pale Male, badly battered, soon also disappeared, leaving behind his 2-year-old son, Purple Haze. Six months passed by the time Pale Male came back bringing a new female into group three, and Wright was there to witness the reunion with Purple Haze. “That baby was so excited to see that father, and that father was so excited, and they just groomed and groomed and groomed.”

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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