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George Schaller; Conservation  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
8 Sep 1999

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Russell A. Mittermeier
Interviewed by Donald Smith
September 8, 1999

Russ Mittermeier (RM) President of Conservation International; specialties: primatology and herpetology.

1:47 RM: my field season is all year round.. . .conservation bureaucrat.. (talks about what he's working on right now and for future.. .New Guinea, other parts of Amazonia to see if for low investment, they can set aside areas as kind of trust fund... proactive preservation.. in process of finding new monkey species in Amazon.. it's remarkable in this day and age, however, they've found 7 new species in Brazil alone). Going to Brazil in 2 weeks and then to Vietnam, a hot spot . . . has the largest number of extinct species. . . ,it's habitat destruction and hunting pressure.. .in many places we're looking at empty forest syndrome where there's forest standing but nothing living in it.

RM: I've known George Schaller (GS) for 25 years and briefly worked for him at the Bronx Zoo. He's really art amazing character, he's the premier field biologist of this century.

RM: I don't think anyone can out-Schaller Schaller. He's picked most interesting vertebrate animals, some of the most difficult to study and he did whatever necessary to study them. George was the first one to go into Virunga volcanoes and show that you could watch these animals and not get torn to shreds by them.... (talks about animals GS has studied, panda, jaguar.. .)...he's got enormous persistence, he's incredibly strong and so disciplined..

RM: He's highly talented. The only person who can compare to him, in my opinion, is Jane Goodall. . . George has studied such an incredible range of species on three different continents. I think when we look back he'll be looked upon as the preeminent field biologist.

You've got to be in pretty good shape... I wouldn't want to have to compete with him in the field.

He spends so much time in the field and works with large animals that are extremely elusive.... you could spend months without even getting the first sighting of the animal you're looking for... you really have to have tremendous focus and ability to look at every detail of what animal is doing...

It's dangerous in that some of the species you're working on are tigers... but you can't go in large groups, you have to go by yourself, but George understands that, he's a loner and goes out and does what he has to do...

I've heard that he's so focused that he can be hard to get along with in the field.. but I think you need that to be successful in studying these species.

You have to be able to depend on yourself, very independent, go without social contact for significant periods of time; it takes a unique kind of personality. George is symbolic of the kind of personality to be a very successful biologist...

He's really an amazing character. In many ways he's the premier field biologist of this century.

CAN'T OUT-SCHALLER SCHALLER

What George has done quite simply picked some of the most interesting, most charismatic mega-vertebrates, large mammals, and some of the most difficult to study - many of them people thought were un-studiable in the wild. He went out and he.. .studied them. He did what was necessary to go out and find them in the wild and get the kind of information needed to understand them better and to ensure their conservation. Dian Fossey gets a lot of credit for having done the mountain gorilla work, and she of course spent a tot of time with the mountain gorilla. But George was the first one who went up into the Virunga volcanoes on the Zaire, on the Congo of Rwanda-Uganda border, and showed that you could actually watch these animals and not be torn asunder by them. And he did the classic study of the mountain gorilla in the late 50s, early 60s. I remember reading that book when I was a teenager and was very much inspired by it.

He did the classic study on the Serengeti lion, he did the classic study on the tiger, he went out and looked at the giant panda - which has got to be one of the most difficult species to study in the wild, under very difficult circumstances.

He was the first person to do research on the jaguar in South America. And of course in recent years he's been working in China and Tibet, looking at sheep and goats, and the Tibetan antelope, and a number of other species. All in what have to be considered very, very difficult field conditions.

10:30 He's got enormous persistence, he's physically incredibly strong. And, and what he has is this amazing discipline. When he goes out and studies a species, he comes back, writes up a popular book and scientific articles, and then goes out and studies the next species. And most of us get caught in an endless backlog of unpublished material. I've got papers that I should have written 25 years ago. George is so disciplined. He finishes up his projects before he starts on another one.
And he's both an excellent scientific writer and a great popularizer. So he's really a very special character.

UNUSUAL TO BE A SERIOUS SCIENTIST AND A GREAT POPULARIZER

He's highly talented. And really the only person who can compare with him in my opinion is Jane Goodall, who's really done outstanding scientific research and has been, you know, the greatest popularizer of one particular species, in, you know, the history of biological research, in the history of conservation. But of course George has studied such an incredible range of species on several different continents, three different continents, so he's really, I think when we look back he will be seen as the pre-eminent field biologist of the century.

11:59 HE'S VERY STRONG

12:06 Oh yeah. You've got to be in pretty good shape to walk, around the mountains of Tibet for months and years on end. I guess he's about 65 now. I wouldn't want to have to compete with him in the field. He's in amazing shape.

I'VE HEARD ALSO THAT HE'S GOOD AT FIELD CRAFT . . . READ A LANDSCAPE.

12:44 He's spent so much time in the field. He works with large mammals that, for which, it's very difficult to see the species he's studied in the wild. The panda is extremely elusive. Jaguar is a very difficult to see in the wild. So you need an enormous amount of patience, first of all, because there's a lot of frustration. You spend months before you even get the first sighting of the animal that you're looking for. And you have to depend a lot on studying tracks, looking at feces, understanding the diet of an animal, not by actually watching the animal eating the food, but looking at what's in its droppings, and so on and so forth. So you really hive to have a tremendous focus, a tremendous ability to look at every detail of what an animal is doing. Because the species he's chosen to study . . . the lion was relatively straightforward, because lions can be seen easily in the wild. But most of the other animals he's looked at, especially some of the classic flagship species, like the gorilla, the tiger, the jaguar and the panda. Very, very hard to see in the wild.

DANGEROUS?

13:54 Oh, absolutely, it's dangerous in that some of the species that you're working on, large predators, like the tiger and the jaguar, and it's dangerous in that you're out by yourself. If you twist your ankle, you fall over and knock yourself out, I mean, there may be no one there to help you. And in order to follow these animals, you can't go in large groups, obviously, and I think George, more than anyone else, understands that and really, he's a loner, and he goes out and does most of this work alone. He has support crews, and things like that. but most of the research he's doing, he's doing independently, he's out there following those animals around, so it's very impressive.

I remember my first encounter with a tiger in the wild, I felt very embarrassed, because as soon as I saw it, I turned around and ran away. Full speed. Because it was just an immediate reaction. I went and told him about this, and he said, don't feel too bad about it. Because he found himself a few feet away from a tiger once, too, and he said the only thing to do is just to get out of its critical distance as quickly as possible. So the fact that he also ran away from one made me feel a little bit better. A little less cowardly (LAUGH)

THEY COULD CHASE YOU

(they didn't)

15: 29 I've heard that he's so focused that he can be very difficult to get along with in the field. Peter Matthiessen in his book has some interesting anecdotes about what it's like working with George. He does not have any patience for foolishness. He's totally focused on what he's trying to do, and don't get in his way. But I think you need that to be successful in studying these highly difficult species animals that are just very, very difficult to find in the wild.

LONERS?
16:13 You have to be...

He hasn't been focused a lot on promoting himself. He's spent so much time in the field, gets his books out and then goes back in the field. He's not a household name.

18:19 Several different trends in this century, certainly this is the century that the conservation movement really got going. There's a conservation ethic. Yet at the same time we've lost an enormous amount, we're on the verge of extinction for a lot of organisms, we've got a lot to do to make sure that we get through the next century without the same loss... we've come through the century with a growing interest in conservation, but we've also seen enormous increases in population and consumption and we have a great challenge in the century to come.

We need to understand better what is out there, there is so much we don't know.... I happen to believe there's 100 million species out there, yet we don't know up to potentially 2 magnitudes of species out there on earth... it's staggering. we're in the dark ages when it comes to this..

23:31 . . .W e have so much more to learn. It's staggering

(talks about lemurs)

I'm in favor of scientific research or all kind... what I take a little bit of issue with, is what I call the biodiversity argument for space... we're making huge investments in that but not investing a lot in better understanding life forms on this planet...

Ted Parker/Al Gentry comments: They were truly incredible figures in field biology and conservation. Parker was an amazing ornithologist. He had in his brain thousands of bird sounds... he was unbelievable... Gentry was the same for plants... had a knowledge of plants accumulated in his brain that to this day I don't think anyone else had. I think their deaths were one of the great losses in our field of conservation.

28:29 END

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