I sat in the middle of the woods, waterproof notebook in hand, the pitter patter of raindrops falling around me. Out of the corner of my eye, a red ruffed lemur popped its long snout from behind a large pine, fixing its curious yellow eyes upon another red-haired target (me). It wearily approached, navigating around a mud puddle and began encircling me, sniffing my rainboots and hair. Appraising me with its wide-eyed stare, it seemingly decided I posed no threat and slowly ambled away. Its mate came scampering up, and they touched noses in greeting. I had remained stock-still throughout the entire encounter—shaking myself out of the moment, I hastily resumed writing in my journal.

I was on a college field trip for my primatology class at the Lemur Conservation Foundation in rural Manatee County, Florida. There, eight species of lemurs range free in 26 acres of oak and pine forests, where plantings of mango, guava, passionfruit, persimmon and bamboo mimic their native homeland of Madagascar. I had come to collect data for my research project on affiliative behavior in red ruffed lemurs, carefully recording their social-bonding activities, from playing and huddling to grooming and sniffing. Trekking into the reserve each day, I sat for hours in the dappled sunlight, gazing up into the leafy trees for leaping lemurs, those sleepily sunning themselves high in the branches or foraging for fruit on the forest floor.

A red ruffed lemur in the reserve. Up to 95 percent of its diet is tropical fruit, making Varecia rubra the most frugivorous of all lemurs. Found only in the rain forests of northeastern Madagascar in the wild, this species is critically endangered due to habitat loss and hunting. © Emily Kautz

One month later, Dr. Patricia Wright, a prominent anthropologist and primatologist, came to speak with a small group of Colorado College students in the anthropology department. She first asked about our career interests, giving us a knowing smile. Anthropology majors are often made all too aware of the “impracticability” of their chosen field of study—“Just what are you going to do with that?” many will ask, with looks of mingled surprise and doubt. As I’d first written in my application for the primatology field course, I talked about how I longed to work for an organization such as World Wildlife Fund due to my passion for wildlife conservation and interest in how humans relate to their environment across cultures. Nodding, she began to tell us of her life’s work studying the social interactions of wild lemurs and her commitment to conservation in Madagascar.

While conducting research in Madagascar in 1986, Dr. Wright discovered a new species of primate: the golden bamboo lemur. In an effort to protect this critically endangered species, she helped establish Ranomafana National Park in 1991. The lush rain forest is a sanctuary for 12 lemur species, including three species of bamboo lemur, 90 butterfly species and more than 100 types of tropical frogs. Nat Hab travelers visit Ranomafana during their Madagascar Wildlife Adventure, taking guided hikes in search of lemurs, colorful chameleons, vibrant birds and other exotic creatures. Visitors may even be lucky enough to spot a slinking fossa, the lemur’s primary predator. Orchids grow wild by sparkling streams, and deep in the forest carnivorous plants await unsuspecting insects. Rare medicinal plants continue to be used by Malagasy ethnic groups, including the Betsileo and the Tanala, whose name means “people of the forest.”

Near the entrance of Ranomafana is Centre ValBio, Madagascar’s leading field research center. The center is at the forefront of studies on animal behavior, rain forest ecology and preservation, and environmental anthropology. Run by Dr. Wright, the facility hosts world-renowned scientists, professors, graduate students and undergraduates. I was surprised to learn that even students from my old high school, Allendale Columbia, had traveled around the world from Brighton, New York to document the unique biodiversity found in Ranomafana.

Centre ValBio engages in many special projects, including community health and nutrition initiatives, reforestation programs and an outreach project that brings artists to the rain forest to spread awareness of environmental issues. The research station also works in collaboration with UNICEF to conduct environmental education in 50 village schools surrounding Ranomafana. In its mission to support sustainable development, Centre ValBio employs Malagasy to work in the conservation sector, collaborates with subsistence farmers on sustainable agriculture plans, and has assisted with the creation of local groups that market handmade silk scarves and medicinal plants.

Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, home to more than 100 species of lemurs and 11,000 endemic plant species.  World Wildlife Fund states that “approximately 95 percent of Madagascar’s reptiles, 89 percent of its plant life, and 92 percent of its mammals exist nowhere else on Earth.” Dr. Wright’s research on wild lemur populations has blossomed into a lifelong career of protecting Madagascar’s biologically diverse ecosystems and educating the world at large on the importance of conserving the planet’s most vulnerable wildlife. Now one of the world’s foremost lemur experts, she has spent some 30 years studying these unique primates in Ranomafana National Park. Her efforts have inspired many, including myself, to seek out their passions and become conservationists for a better tomorrow.

Bamboo lemur in Madagascar © Denise Ramsey

Bamboo lemur in Madagascar © Denise Ramsey