Erik Patel's doctoral research on the silky sifaka lemur has received press from such publications as National Geographic magazine and The New York Times; the BBC will soon release a documentary. But it got off to a humble start.
"I volunteered to take a job collecting lemur poop after getting my master's [degree]," said Patel '91. Having recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, he wanted field experience before applying for Ph.D. programs, and he needed a research subject to focus on.
"I wanted my research to have some kind of benefit, so studying a rare primate, I thought I could do some good," Patel said.
Finding a path
Patel's academic path has been a winding one. As a freshman business major at Washington University in St. Louis, he felt lost and disengaged. A friend at Earlham invited him for a visit, and he soon transferred in. "It just seemed like a really thoughtful and sincere place," he said.
He found students' relationship to their professors invigorating. "You had access to them, and they would treat you like human beings. The first-name basis, the small classes; I really learned a lot from the faculty as opposed to the TAs," Patel said.
Professor of Psychology Kathy Milar got Patel interested in animal behavior and learning. While observing monkeys in India, his father's homeland, after college, Patel began to see a potential career path forming.
"I loved being in a developing country. It completely opened my eyes and blew me away. I saw my father's childhood house and it was a hut, in a village," he said. Patel realized he could be a primatologist, researching and helping animals while working in developing nations.
After earning his M.A. in biological anthropology from Berkeley, Patel needed a species to focus on. Which brought him to the wilds of Madagascar, collecting scat.
"I was lucky that there was a rare, unstudied lemur in the silky sifaka," he said.
The silky sifaka is a large lemur with white fur that lives in a small area of rainforest in northeastern Madagascar, locally known as the simpona. It is a critically endangered species; the exact number of animals is difficult to calculate.
"Right now there are about 140 individuals that we've counted with our own eyes, but I estimate that there are between 300 and 2,000. The trouble is, they're not found evenly spread across the remaining habitat, so it's hard to extrapolate," Patel said.
Strife and Struggle
Habitat destruction and hunting have been plaguing the silkies for some time, but their situation has deteriorated since 2009. That was the year Madagascar's government underwent a coup d'etat, in which the democratically elected president was overthrown by forces loyal to the mayor of the nation's capital. "We've been in hell since then," Patel said.
"The new guy is broke because he's lost all his international funding, and the environment is at the bottom of his list," he added. Increasingly desperate citizens have turned to the rainforest for resources, and are destroying lemur habitat and hunting the animals as bush meat.
During Patel's research, it has become obvious that helping and educating the people is essential to the well-being of the lemurs. "We've realized that we can't save the lemurs just by studying their habitat," he said.
So far SIMPONA, the nonprofit Patel founded to research silky sifakas, has initiated several projects to educate and empower Malagasies who live near silky territory. Several libraries have been built, and work has been done to teach both children and adults about the silkies' situation and why keeping them around might benefit the community.
"They often don't even know that silky sifakas exist. But silky sifakas are bringing tourists here," said Patel, who admires Costa Rica's ecotourism industry and sees its potential for Madagascar and the lemurs.
Patel is looking forward to expanding on this work after graduating with his Ph.D. in biological psychology from Cornell this winter. He will be working at the Duke University Lemur Center, which will enable him to continue intense research on the silkies, and initiate more habitat restoration and education projects.
He'd like to get silky sifaka education incorporated as part of the official Malagasy school curriculum, for instance.
In the meantime, he's finishing his academic tasks, keeping up with his SIMPONA colleagues, and working to stay in shape so he keep up with his research team at altitudes of 6,000 feet.
"People are really soft-spoken [in Madagasgar], but direct; if I put on five or ten pounds, the first thing they will say is Erik, you are really fat now, and you are really slow in the forest," he said.
To learn more about Erik Patel's nonprofit, SIMPONA, visit www.simpona.org