Dr. Patricia Wright wins 2014 Indianapolis Prize

Dr. Patricia Wright
Primatologist and conservationist Dr. Patricia Wright is the winner of the 2014 Indianapolis Prize for conservation - the first time in its history the prize has gone to a woman.

Her work with lemurs is now featured on the big screen, chronicled in the IMAX movie Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman. Wright will receive a $250,000 unrestricted cash award and the Lilly Medal.

"It's a great honor," Wright said. "The Indianapolis Prize -- it's like the Nobel Prize of Conservation."

She started her adult life as a New York City social worker, but was drawn to conservation by a chance meeting with an owl monkey in a pet store window. She bought it, and felt compelled to learn more. That led to her desire to get a Ph.D in the study of primates. From there, she ended up in Madagascar to search for the greater bamboo lemur -- which had not been spotted in the wild in more than 50 years. Her search paid off early one morning.

"I saw this amazing animal that came right toward me and it was like a golden color and it twirled it's tail around and gave me this like a motor going off, an incredible sound, and then it disappeared."

She learned to love lemurs, but not the timber companies which were encroaching on their natural environment.

"I became a conservationist when they came into the forest to cut down those trees," she said. "I knew if I didn't do something about it, nobody else was going to."

That's when she decided to stay -- a decision made nearly 30 years ago and a commitment that has yielded great progress since that time.

Pat knew instinctively that doing something about the problem meant looking at the big picture. She lobbied lawmakers for the creation of the Ranomafana National Park, which opened in 1991. Seventeen other National Parks followed, giving the country's economy a new category.

She said, "Eco-tourism in Madagascar has become the best business you can be in -- especially at the local level."

But, perhaps her biggest success at the local level has been the creation of the "Centre Valbio" research station which attracts dozens of scientists a year to study the habitat and serves as a kind of community center for the area. Scientists do important research there. Locals take part in artistic performances, with conservation themes. Pat Wright calls it a "very dynamic place. Because we want to involve local people as much as possible, we have all kinds of workshops where they're involved."

Her efforts in small places that are having a big impact on conservation world-wide. Indianapolis Zoo C.E.O. Michael Crowther doesn't have a vote in who wins the Indianapolis Prize, but he says Pat Wright is an excellent choice. He says she is one of the world's top scientists, and the fact that she is a woman send a message to young girls that they can achieve great things too.

"We need to share the message that conservation doesn't just exist in some weird academic corner. This is what our lives are about this is what our future is about and getting women to tell that story can only help," Crowther said.

As for the $250,000 unrestricted award that comes with the Indianapolis Prize, Wright says she will use that money to help the local economy. Electricity for some remote places and education for the people who live there. She believes that the work she has started must continue and wants to actively train the next generation to carry on. That includes graduate students trained in classic science and local people in Madagascar sensitized to the importance of their environment.

"Lemurs and so many of these tropical animals are really world heritages," she says, "they are special and they can disappear from the face of the earth and it is up to all of us to try to save them."

Dr. Wright is a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York. She will be back in Indianapolis on September 24 to accept the 2014 Indianapolis Prize at a gala event at the JW Marriott downtown. Not only is this the first time in the prize's history that a woman has won, it is also the first time all six finalists are expected to be present for the gala.

The Indianapolis Prize is the world's leading prize to recognize conservationists. Learn more about the Indianapolis Prize here.