Planet Earth

George Schaller's Grand Plan to Save the Marco Polo Sheep

"Obviously humans are evolution’s greatest mistake," says the conservationist.

By Marion LongFeb 21, 2008 6:00 AM
NULL | Photo by Doron Gild


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“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote the 19th-century American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. The quotation is a favorite of George Schaller, considered the finest field biologist of our time and the most powerful voice for conservation in more than 100 years. Indeed, Schaller has described himself as “a 19th-century wanderer with a scientific bent…on an intangible and elusive search.”

Schaller, who was born in Berlin in 1933 and came to the United States with his mother and brother in 1947, has loved animals and the outdoors for as long as he can remember. He was in graduate school in the mid-1950s when one of his professors asked him, half jokingly, “How would you like to study gorillas?” The 26-year-old was happy to settle deep in the forests of central Africa. There, he wrote rhapsodically and painstakingly about gorillas in the wild, changing public perception of the animal forever. He went on to study tigers in India, jaguars in Brazil, snow leopards in Pakistan, and lions in the Serengeti. His account of the latter, The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations, won a National Book Award in 1973.

In time Schaller came to view his early work as “a careless rapture” compared with another, more pressing concern: saving species from extinction caused by man’s aggression. Schaller calls the work of conservation “a gigantic, continuous headache,” explaining that “instead of just being a biologist—something for which I was trained—I must also be a fund-raiser, diplomat, politician, sociologist, anthropologist, everything at once.”

His results as a conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society have been spectacular nevertheless. In 1980 he began working with the Chinese government to save the giant panda from extinction, and since then he has helped establish more than 20 wildlife parks and reserves around the world. Today, at 74, he is pursuing his most ambitious goal yet: building the Pamir International Peace Park at the junction of four countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan—in the process saving the spectacular spiral-horned Marco Polo sheep. In his latest book, A Naturalist and Other Beasts (Sierra Club), Schaller ponders his career of more than 50 years, although the mood is hardly retrospective. “I am not in search of memories,” Schaller writes at the outset. “My interests lie in the future.”

Do you have an earliest memory of feeling deeply connected to nature and wildlife? I can’t remember being interested in anything else. You start as a child: You like to ramble around and watch birds, turn over rocks, pick up snakes. I had a little zoo of salamanders and opossums and other creatures. Basically, I’m still doing what I did as a kid.

When did you first recognize the danger that people pose to the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants? One of my first projects—I was 26—was studying mountain gorillas in central Africa. Humans were overrunning their habitat, and I realized the gorillas wouldn’t have a future unless we saved that habitat.

Your field studies of beautiful animals won you recognition, yet your focus shifted to conservation biology. Why? When I began my work, most of the big animals had never been studied, so when I sat with the gorillas, almost anything I observed was new and gave people an idea of what their lives were really like. But how can you watch the few hundred gorillas left in the world and not feel guilty about their precarious existence?

How do you choose a particular place for your next round of conservation efforts? In recent years, I’ve looked at places where nobody’s doing anything and try to see what I can do. For example, there are lots of nongovernmental organizations sitting in Nairobi, worrying about wildlife. But who goes to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran? There, I think I can have an impact.

What do you do to gain the trust of the local government in countries where Americans are often viewed with suspicion? They don’t trust you until they know that you have no other agenda. I go in there, I’m focused on wildlife, and that’s it.

How do you begin effective conservation in these countries? I go in and get facts about the wildlife, the people, the condition of the habitat. You give the officials the information you’ve gathered; you give them suggestions and see what their response is. It’s extremely important to have one local person—a chief or some local leader—who really cares and can do something about it.

Given all the strife in places like Iran and Afghanistan, how do you get people to pay attention to protecting wildlife?We choose animals valued by the locals. For example, in 2001 I started a project in Iran. I went there and asked how I could be of assistance. They told me, “The last Asiatic cheetahs are here; only 50 or 60 may be left.” Now we have a cheetah project there, and some of the animals are wearing radio collars, and Iran is very supportive in that work. If you choose a conspicuous animal like a cheetah, which Iran considers one of its natural treasures, not only does the government pay attention, but suddenly everybody’s aware.

When you are near a mountain gorilla, you recognize it as kin. You feel as though you might put your arm around it and have a chat.

Why do people respond so strongly to certain animals?I suspect it’s because they’re charismatic, they’re beautiful, and you can see them easily. If the panda were all black, like a black bear, nobody would pay much attention to it. People feel they are helping to save one special animal to which they feel an emotional attachment, not realizing perhaps that the only way to do that is to preserve its whole life system, its territory, its food sources, and so on. When the giant panda became famous, the attention also benefited thousands of other plant and animal species that inhabited the same mountain forests.

Has any animal gained a special hold on your affections?When you are near a mountain gorilla, you recognize it as kin. You feel as though you might put your arm around it and have a chat. When I first saw a gorilla, I felt a desire to communicate with him, to let him know that I intended him no harm and only wanted to be near him. And I wondered if he shared this feeling of kinship with me. Never before had I had that feeling meeting an animal. You don’t get that feeling when you see a tiger, but your mind almost glows with the sight—they’re absolutely gorgeous—and to see a tiger is one of the great wildlife experiences. I can also get enamored of capybaras, which are giant rodents and look like big guinea pigs, and even wild pigs. I have had two kinds of pig, a warthog and a white-lipped peccary, as pets. They are just as intelligent and social as dogs. I have an attachment to all the animals I’ve studied and keep involved in what’s happening with them. Emotionally, they cannot leave me.

You’ve written that some of your happiest experiences in the wild have come when you felt accepted by another animal.Because we’ve hunted big animals for so many thousands of years, every single one of them is shy. You’d be able to interact with them close-up if only man’s behavior had been different. During this last trip in northern Tibet, a wolf wandered into camp and looked around—he’d probably never seen people before. And that’s the way it would be, a sort of Garden of Eden. I used to watch gorillas by climbing low branches of a tree so I could look down on them and they could keep an eye on me. One time a female gorilla climbed up and sat next to me and just looked at me. I remember once in the Serengeti, I was following a cheetah on foot, and she got nervous and moved away from me. Then she went and killed a gazelle fawn, and I lay down near her and moved slowly closer until we were about 10 feet apart, and she simply looked over her shoulder and ignored me because she sensed I wasn’t going to harm her.

A lot of the conservation news seems very grim these days. How do you keep going in moments of discouragement?I don’t get up each morning and say, “I’ve got to save the world, starting with the United States government.” I have very specific projects, where I can see progress. And that keeps you going because, in a small way, I see that I can have an influence. And especially if you teach others, and have students and assistants to work with, and can find a way they can continue the work—that’s satisfying.

You have said that recent decades have seen a revolution in our relationship with animals as humans overcome cross-species barriers, achieving intimacy with humpback whales, chimpanzees, lions, mountain sheep, wolves, and many others. If the problem for wildlife is no longer ignorance of their plight, what is the major obstacle now?People may be aware, but it’s still peripheral to their minds. If you ask people here, “Should we save the tigers in India?” 95 percent would say yes. But if you ask them, “Should we have mountain lions here in the neighborhood? There’s some chance they might eat your dogs,” then the answer is, “Oh no, no, no, we don’t want them.” So people are not willing to sacrifice anything. But that can be changed with proper education. In the end it’s the community that will save the environment. Whether you’re talking about an African village or Tibetan nomads, basic human attitudes are not that different. People simply have to be stimulated. In countries like China, you can’t own the land, but the Buddhist monasteries are setting up sanctuaries that, in effect, become little reserves. I’ve been to two festivals in a Tibetan province where nomads have come together of their own accord to celebrate and protect wildlife. They’ll say: “Oh, our wild yak are disappearing. We’re not going to allow grazing on this mountain range. These flats are for Tibetan antelope.” So every community can do this if something stimulates them.

What about steps we can take right here in the United States?We have an overabundance of everything. I’ve got two cars sitting in the garage. People must understand that everything they do is an ecological act. How much does it cost to bring grapes here from Chile (pdf)? Not just the grapes, but the fuel spent in carbon emission? If you have a cup of coffee, that means some rain forest in Colombia is being cut down to make coffee plantations. Do you have a cell phone? OK, inside it there’s a mineral called coltan, mined mostly in the eastern Congo by a lot of the Rwandans who fled after the genocide, and they’re living in the forest, and they’re killing gorillas and elephants for meat because they don’t have much else to eat. I’ve got two lights on in here. [Gets up and turns off a light.] I don’t need two lights on in here! You know, this is endless.

You’re currently involved in the creation of a peace park, a wildlife reserve where Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan meet. How does that work?Well, you have the Pamirs, which are broad valleys flanked by mountains extending southward from Russia to Pakistan’s borders. You’ve got Kirghiz nomads, who are very colorful, you’ve got Marco Polo sheep, you’ve got snow leopards. The main problem is that you’ve also got four countries, each with its own political system, its own language, its own history of strife. We managed to get officials from all four countries together in September 2006 in China, and they agreed to work together. But you can’t necessarily get definite boundaries and say, “This is a peace park right now.” I don’t care what it ends up being designated, as long as wildlife is protected. We use the Marco Polo sheep as a symbol because it’s a spectacular animal, all countries relate to it, and it’s economically valuable. An American hunter will pay $20,000 to $25,000 to shoot one in Tajikistan or China. So the first question is, where does that money go? At least three-quarters of it ought to go to the local communities so they will see the value of protecting the sheep.

Will poor regions always be disadvantaged in protecting what is theirs? If a poor country spends most of its money on arms, it doesn’t have money for anything else. And it’s obvious that the developed countries with quite a bit of money don’t spend it on the environment. Right now, when the World Bank makes a large loan to a country, that country must repay it. But how? They ship their food overseas, and the local people don’t have that food anymore. Even when grants are provided, the figures can be misleading. You have the United Nations Development Programme and the European Union all giving environmental grants. Yet probably two-thirds of that money goes to foreign consultants. Then the countries have to buy American or European equipment as part of the project. Only a small amount actually goes to help the local people. Until developed countries genuinely care about the rest of the world, things are going to be very difficult.

Is that why you have said that wildlife conservation may ultimately depend on spiritual values? Can you put a value on a river? On the cry of an animal? Unless you can convince people of the spiritual value of the environment, the cause is lost. Take the Tibetans, who recently began trimming their cloaks with tiger and leopard skins from India because of their new wealth. The Dalai Lama got up and said, “This is against your religion,” and the Tibetans stopped wearing skins. So among the Tibetans at least, there’s a strong spiritual responsiveness to the environment.

You express that idea in A Naturalist and Other Beasts: “To preserve a remnant of beauty becomes an ideal, and this ideal possesses one until it is transformed into a faith.”

Yes, the faith can be almost religious. I have worked very long for this faith. It’s difficult, though, because wherever you go, you see the wounds in the environment. You can’t ever just relax about it.

Some people say that if we can’t conserve a species in the wild, we should let it go extinct instead of keeping it captive in a zoo, because its time has passed. To let a species decline to the brink of extinction is usually based on laziness, negligence, and lack of will. Some zoos have saved species from extinction and later returned them to the wild. Other zoos have supplemented the last of a species in the wild—the California condor, for example—with captives.

Is it ever right to let a species become extinct? It is estimated that species extinction rates are a hundred to a thousand times greater now than in the past because of human actions. Obviously humans are evolution’s greatest mistake. To atone in a small way, we need to help maintain all the diversity we can. Who are we to judge what is expendable?

Some scientists are trying to bring back extinct species through reproductive technology. Do you support this?

We had best fight hard to maintain existing species so that their future is not dependent on technology.

You recently tracked a new species, the saola, in Laos. How is it possible to discover an unknown species today?

Roughly 1.7 million species have been given scientific names, but perhaps 30 to 50 million or more species exist, not including bacteria. So there is ample opportunity to describe new species, especially small and insignificant-looking ones, such as insects. No doubt I could go into my backyard and find new species. But to find new large mammals such as the saola is unusual these days and usually occurs in places that are remote or have been inaccessible due to political unrest.

You’ve said that there are no final victories in conservation. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a good example. It’s been a continual battle since the 1970s to keep the oil companies out. We claim to be the richest, most educated country in the world, and we can’t keep one little fraction undamaged? You think you have something, and the minute you look away, somebody is trying to destroy it. Look at what has happened recently with tigers, which were safe in a number of reserves. Almost overnight, they were completely wiped out of several places, because, suddenly, there was a demand for skins. When something is so beautiful and valuable, you can never turn your back.

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