Saving a species: Indianapolis Prize finalist Patricia Wright

Conservationists gather for Indianapolis Prize Gala
Conservationists gather for Indianapolis Prize Gala

A coveted prize awarded in Indianapolis is down to six finalists from around the world who are quite literally saving a species and discovering new animals.

Patricia Wright is one of the finalists for the Indianapolis Prize.

As a young girl, Patricia Wright did not dream of being one of the most important conservationists in the world. Instead of helping animals, she made a career helping people -- as a Social Services caseworker in New York City.

But that all changed in the 1960s. A young mother, and newly divorced, a walk by a Greenwich Village pet store changed her life. She saw an owl monkey in the window. After she came into an unexpected sum of money, she bought it.

"It was called aotus," she said, "and I named him 'Herbie' and that started my whole life -- a second life."

She was in her thirties by then, and although her family thought she was crazy, Pat went back to school to get a Ph.D. in primatology. That led her deep into the rain forest 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.

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

Pat Wright had stumbled on a previously unknown species of lemur -- the golden bamboo. It was an extraordinary find. She also eventually found what she had been looking for all along -- the greater bamboo lemur -- alive and well in the jungles of Madagascar.

But finding the rare and precious animals was only the beginning. She wanted to make sure they could thrive too. Their survival was not assured. Timber companies were on the move in the mid-1980s, so Pat knew the only way to protect the animals was to protect the place where they lived.

As one of a new generation of conservationists, Pat Wright knows that protecting habitats is not enough -- it has to make economic sense too. So, she turned her focus to the locals.

In Ranomafana she found people in rags. There were no cars and roads had become little more than potholed paths. People barely had enough to eat. She knew improving their lot in life would ultimately help the animals who lived nearby.

As she puts it: "It can't be just the wildlife. It has to be the wildlife and the people together and we knew that from the very beginning -- but it was a challenge because nobody else was doing that."

She won the confidence of village elders and lobbied the national government to create the Ranomafana National Park in 1991 -- which preserved sections of the rain forest in Madagascar. It was the first of 18 national parks created in the country. She also created the "Centre Valbio" research station, which attracts dozens of scientists a year to study the local habitat.

Along with furthering the work of conservation is Madagascar, the research station alone provides salaried jobs with fringe benefits to 85 people. 57 others work as tour guides. There are new hotels and local artisans make and sell handicrafts to visitors.

"The whole economy of the place has changed, but the attitude of the place too", she says. "There's a sense of hope. There's a sense of future. There's a sense that we have to send our kids to school so they can have good jobs when they grow up."

Pat Wright has won a number of awards for her work, including the "Chevalier d' Ordre National" (National Medal of Honor) of Madagascar, from the President of Madagascar in 1995. If she wins the Indianapolis Prize, she would be the first woman to do so in its ten-year history.

The Prize carries with it a unrestricted $250,000 award, as well as the prestige that comes with winning one of the most highly-visible awards for conservation in the world.