As many of the island’s remaining forests are felled in the wake of a 2009 coup, primatologist Patricia Wright describes how she is helping local residents and international conservation organisations to fight back.
Patricia Wright has devoted most of her professional life to working on Madagascar, home to a remarkable collection of plants and animals, more than 80 percent of which are endemic to the island nation. For more than two decades, Wright has managed to combine her research — among other things, she discovered two new species of lemurs on Madagascar — with efforts to preserve the country’s beleaguered forests and the many species of flora and fauna they harbor. She was the driving force behind the 1991 creation of Ranomafana National Park, a 106,000-acre World Heritage Site in southeastern Madagascar that has been instrumental in preserving the island’s biodiversity, which evolved as Madagascar was separated from other landmasses for 80 million years.
Earlier this decade, Wright and scores of other scientists, conservationists, and local activists made significant progress in slowing the rampant deforestation of Madagascar — roughly 90 percent of the island’s forests and ecosystems had already been denuded — and in building a thriving ecotourism sector. But in the wake of a March 2009 coup by local politician Andry Rajoelina, the destruction of Madagascar’s forests has resumed with a vengeance. One of Rajoelina’s first acts was to lift a ban on the harvesting of precious hardwoods, such as rosewood and ebony, and that decree — coupled with rampant illegal logging in some national parks — has led to the felling of tens of thousands of trees, a surge in bushmeat hunting for lemurs and other species, and a drop in ecotourism, which is vital to Madagascar’s economy.
In an interview with journalist Steven Kotler for Yale Environment 360, Wright — a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, executive director for the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” — describes what she and others are doing to halt the current plunder before it’s too late. Wright has helped publicize the recent wave of destruction in the world press, has presented information on the decimation of Madagascar’s forests to the U.S. government, and has worked with local activists in Madagascar to halt the illegal logging.
The actions by Wright and others have had some effect, with the Rajoelina government issuing a decree in April banning the logging of precious hardwoods. Yet some illegal logging continues, with a shipment of banned hardwoods leaving Madagascar recently, bound for China. Still, Wright, who just returned from Madagascar, is pressing her fight to save Madagascar’s remaining wilderness, pushing for a genuine halt in logging, backing programs to reforest the island with native species, and working on initiatives worldwide to create meaningful incentives to preserve tropical forests. “Right now there are laws all over the tropics that say once you cut [the] forest, you own it,” she says. “We have to reverse that somehow.”