May 13, 2014 Updated: May 13, 2014 at 11:32 am
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An expert on the lemurs of the Madagascar rainforest who is credited with helping protect the species was named the winner of the 2014 Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation on Tuesday.
The award was given to Stony Brook University anthropology professor Patricia Wright to honor her work since the 1980s studying and advocating for the small endangered primates native to the island off the eastern coast of Africa. Her work has included helping create the island's Ranomafana National Park, which was established in 1991, and is featured in the IMAX documentary, "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar," released this year.
Wright will receive the $250,000 prize and the Lilly Medal on Sept. 27 from the sponsoring Indianapolis Zoological Society, which presents the award every two years.
Wright's work stood out from among the six finalists, said Paul Grayson, the Indianapolis Zoo's deputy director and senior vice president of conservation and science.
"Everyone marvels at what she's accomplished in a very difficult environment, the kinds of obstacles that she has worked under," Grayson told The Indianapolis Star.
Wright first went to Madagascar after receiving a doctoral degree from the City University of New York and starting work at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. She is credited with finding a lemur species believed extinct for more than 50 years and discovering the golden bamboo lemur that hadn't been identified before, according to Indianapolis Prize organizers.
Wright said she grew worried about the lemurs' future as timber companies increasingly encroached on the animal's natural environment.
"I became a conservationist when they came into that forest and started to cut down the trees. I knew if I didn't do something about it, nobody else was going to," she told WTHR-TV.
Wright's supporters say the national park, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has boosted the tourism industry in Madagascar.
Wright said her plans for the prize money include funding a fellowship to help budding scientists from Madagascar, buying land in the island's north where gold has been found, and providing electricity for villages near the national park.