Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Photograph by Becky Hale
How does a city girl and former NFL cheerleader who'd never been camping and whose family thought becoming a Girl Scout was too dangerous find herself sleeping in a rain forest hammock amid poisonous snakes, being charged by gorillas, chased by elephants, pawed by leopards, scaling rocky cliffs, and diving with great white sharks?
It all started when Mireya Mayor's college anthropology class began studying primates. "It's true that I was a cheerleader who had grown up taking ballet and piano lessons," Mayor says. "But I was seized by the fact that some of these incredible animals on the verge of extinction had never been studied, and that in some cases, not even a mere photograph existed to show their existence. The more questions I asked the more it became clear to me that much about our natural world still remained a mystery."
Mayor has since dedicated her life to solving that mystery, studying rare primates in the wild throughout the world and working closely with local populations. Despite her lack of experience and city-slick upbringing, she soon found herself on her first expedition in the remote wilderness with nothing more than a couple of notebooks, a pair of hiking boots, a backpack, and a hammock.
Today, Mayor is a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation Fellow, dividing her time between research in Madagascar, appearing as a correspondent on the National Geographic Ultimate Explorer television series, and completing a Ph.D. in anthropology.
Earning her the nickname of "female Indiana Jones," Mayor's Ultimate Explorer TV expeditions have taken her to central Africa's gorillas, underwater with the six-foot Humboldt squid, and into a veterinarian's haven for leopards in Namibia. "While caring for the leopards," Mayor explains, "the vet accidentally discovered a cure for hydrocephalus, or fluid in the brain, a disease that also occurs in human infants. As a result of our film and the media attention it received, new studies are now under way in children's hospitals.
"When science and the media collide, extraordinary things can happen! This is why I consider my television work just as important as my conservation fieldwork," she notes. "The TV series sheds light on the plight of endangered places and animals around the world. Television has the power to help people know and connect with these animals and habitats that are disappearing. We may be facing the largest mass extinction of our time, so awareness is crucial. If we don't act now it will be too late."
Mayor's discovery of a new species of mouse lemur in Madagascar put her own work in the spotlight. "It was one of those things you never thought could happen in the 21st century," she recalls. Documenting her find in hopes of obtaining full protection for its habitat required arduous fieldwork during the monsoon season. "There we were, tromping through remote areas of jungle, rain pouring, tents blowing into the air, looking for a nocturnal animal that happens to be the smallest primate in the world."
Based on her hard-won documentation, Mayor convinced Madagascar's president and prime minister to declare the new mouse lemur species' habitat a national park. The president has since committed to triple the number of protected areas in the nation and established a $50 million conservation trust fund. "This tiny little discovery has become a huge ambassador for all things wild in Madagascar," she reports.
Mayor is quick to note the importance of local support for conservation success. "The local people are the very core of effective conservation, and without their support the 'dream' of saving the planet can never become a reality. Although the rain forest is literally their backyard, many Malagasy kids have never even seen a lemur. So I organize lots of field trips into the forest. Animals on the brink of extinction will depend on this generation, and I truly believe that you love what you know. Only by seeing how amazing these creatures are will kids want to protect them."
Mayor also stresses that local populations need more new opportunities. "It's often lack of options that cause threatened places to suffer. Providing education and opportunity are critical keys to protecting the planet." Her own field research expands options for locals. "Some of my best trackers were former hunters. Now they're using their very specialized skills to protect animals in the wild."
She may circle the globe on television expeditions, but Mayor's heart remains in the rain forests of Madagascar. "This phenomenal natural laboratory could vanish in our lifetime—becoming the stuff of history books, not science books. Until I can walk away in good conscience, knowing it's going to be okay, I just can't leave."
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The government of Madagascar has established 15 new conservation areas encompassing a total of 2.65 million acres on the East African island famed for its unique wildlife.
All three are mouse lemurs and are as tiny as their name implies. The palm-size creatures are primates-the group that includes apes and humans.
With Madagascar's government paralyzed after a recent coup, looters are invading the African island country's protected wildlife sanctuaries, harvesting trees and threatening critically endangered lemurs and other species, conservationists said this week.
in Their Words
We may be facing the largest mass extinction of our time, so awareness is crucial. If we don't act now it will be too late.
In an increasingly wired world, Mayor goes to remote places to study little-known creatures.
Mireya Mayor explains how her role as a mother frames her work for wildlife conservation.
Fulbright Scholar Mayor was nominated for two Emmy Awards for her work as lead correspondent on National Geographic’s Ultimate Explorer TV series. Mayor can now be seen as a featured host on the new Nat Geo WILD network.
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