Awesome is really the only way to describe Centre ValBio. The Brain Child of Dr. Patricia Wright, it is a state of the art research center located steps away from Ranomafana National Park. The raw beauty of the native flora and fauna of Madagascar surrounds you from every angle. At the same, time, the Centre has two floors of dorm rooms and several state of the art laboratories for researchers and study abroad students from all over the world. The sheer amount of research that is possible here is staggering, and the hard working staff atCentre ValBio make the most of it! There are also several satellite camps out in the forest where researchers and students can stay while doing observations. The Centre, however is home base, with electricity, Wifi, and hot showers right on the edge of the Park. One of the few places where primary forest still survives, you can easily run into several species of lemurs on one morning hike.
We were fortunate enough to have Dr. Wright give us a personal tour of a small section of the forest on our first day here.. She showed us her first campsite in the forest some 28 years ago, when she first discovered a new species of lemur. That lemur, the golden bamboo lemur, just happened to be the first one we saw in the wild in the forest – and we saw it with her! On the first trek, we also saw sifakas, red bellied lemurs and red fronted lemurs. We even saw black and white ruffed lemurs, which are not often found in that particular part of the forest.
One of the most striking things I saw on the trek, however, was not the lemurs, but the interactions between Dr. Wright and the locals. Ranomafana National Park is becoming more and more an eco-tourist site, similar to the model used in Rwanda with mountain gorillas. Most recently a French Colony, French is the most common language spoken outside of the native Malagasy which makes it a Mecca for French tourists. We must have run into at least 10 tour groups that day. My French is rusty, but I am able to speak enough to converse and understand most of what was said. Dr. Wright knew every single guide by name! She stopped to speak with each of them and they all made a point to introduce her to their tour groups as the founder of the park and the discoverer of the golden bamboo lemur. They were undeniably proud of her and their forest and cared deeply about the animals that inhabited it. One group had never heard of her, but after the guide explained who she was and how important she was to the park, they lined up to take their pictures with her.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most people survive on less than $2/day. That poverty was evident on the 10 hour drive we took from the capital city of Antanarivo (simply called Tana by the locals) to the Centre. However, Dr. Wright has done everything in her power to transform this area. Conservation is not just about research, it is also about the people. The construction of Centre ValBio has brought jobs, education, and even electricity and clean water to the local town of Ranomafana. Logging has all but stopped in the area and though the slash and burn agriculture is apparent all around, more and more locals are finding employment not just at the Centre, but at local luxury hotels that are popping up in the area, bringing even more money into the local economy. Dr. Wright brought us to her Women’s Weaving Centre where the women make their own money by weaving the most beautiful scarves and bags out of cotton and a locally produced silk. In the center of Ranomafana, you can buy perfectly crafted baskets, woven placemats, and carvings made from sustainable wood.
While it may have been the lemurs that brought her here, Dr. Wright has improved life for all of the local inhabitants – human, animal, and plant. She is an inspiration. Earlier this year, she became the first woman ever to win the Indianapolis Prize for Conservation. She jokes that it is fitting that someone who studies matriarchal primates be the first woman to win that prize, but the truth is she deserves it either way! Dr. Wright’s work is the epitome of a well-rounded conservation program and Oakland Zoo is proud and honored to be a part of it.