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George Schaller  

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George Schaller; Conservation biology, research and exploration  

Red-throated Ant-Tanager -- Habia fuscicauda

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
17 Aug 1999

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NPR/NGS
GEOGRAPHIC CENTURY
GEORGE SCHALLER LOG
8/17/99
interviewed by Alex Chadwick

1:08 AC - you started roaming out in Africa, is that right

AC saying starting now

AC - please say who you are and what you do

1:48 GS - I am George Schaller. I am a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, formally known as the NY Zoological Society.

2:02 AC - when you started working was there such a thing as a conservation biologist?

2:12 GS - yes there were, but it was not as focused as it is now bc obviously for many decades people have been doing research and being concerned about the environment. However, when you see the destruction of the earth¿s habitats and species nowadays I don¿t think any biologist can just study an animal and just leave it at that. I think you have a moral responsibility to help the animals and plants that you study endure. So, your focus becomes almost as much on conservation and sometimes more so then on doing the basic research..3;05

3:08 AC - would a scientific critic hearing what you have said say this is a scientists who¿s views may be colored more by his heart than with his head; that is if one feels a moral responsibility to a certain outcome, how does that effect your science?

3:28 GS - I don¿t think you can do good science w/out emotional involvement and you can not observe animals well, bc you only see them through your eyes anyway. There is no such thing as being wholly objective, bc the questions you ask are determined by you. Somebody else might ask another question and get different results. So in conservation - especially when you work for yrs and yrs in another culture, another country - you have to have the emotional commitment to carry you through. You can¿t just sit there is a disembodied way say you are doing science. 4:21

4:22 AC - how did you learn that lesson? When you were a boy what kind of lead you in the direction of your interest in the natural world?

4:34 GS - I think most naturalists started as being interested as children in that you like to be outdoors, you like to keep lizards in an aquarium, or you like to watch birds, and it is just fortunate that ones boyhood or girlhood interests can later now be translated into a way of making a living as an adult - and not just making a living but you feel that you are contributing to society, to the future, by helping species and the environment. 5:21

5;22 AC- where did you grow up?

5:24 GS - Well, I grew up in Germany and came to the United States as a teenager but I was very fortunate in that I went to the University of Alaska and that gave me several years of field work - of being able to be outdoors in remote, wild areas helping to study wildlife and this led to graduate school and projects and the first overseas project was in Africa. And I have continued ever since

AC - how was it that a young boy from Germany picked the University of Alaska for his college education?

6;15 GS - well that was luck. My cousin had gone there, I made a trip to Alaska while I was still in High School and I thought hey - this is wonderful - endless space, very few people, a lot of wildlife, a lot of forest - it was a kind of place you can mentally and physically get lost on.

AC - What year did you graduate?

6:42 GS - well, I graduated from HS in 1951..

AC - so that¿s when you started so Alaska must have been really really different then - it wasn¿t even a state at that time

6;55 GS - that¿s right. It was still a territory. There were only about 250,000 people in the whole state. The university was wonderful. There were only 350 students, which means you really got to know your teachers well and had a lot of opportunities.

AC - Did you know then that you were going to be a naturalist? I mean I guess you felt this love for the outdoors.

7;16 GS - I didn¿t know what I was going to do, but I knew what I didn¿t like. I tried wildlife management, I tried anthropology, but I finally fell into a field that included basic observations of animals, the ecology of animals and the conservation of what you are observing. And that has been very satisfying bc as I say you feel like you are contributing something besides yourself. 7;49

7;53 AC - when you started in Africa - what was your first project in Africa? Weren¿t you studying gorillas and chimps?

8:06 GS - that¿s right I was studying mtn gorillas in the Congo and in Uganda, and that was a marvelous experience bc here you have reputably belligerent, dangerous large ape which turned out to be very gentle, readily approachable if you did it alone and quietly and there you sit watching one of your closest kin living its life in nature. And that was, this kinship with that animal when studied, was a marvelous experience. And at the same time it was a conservation issue bc mountain gorillas are only found in two small forest areas, so it immediately taught one that to protect them for the future was a major goal, and that was 30 yrs ago. The area where they lived has had a civil war and many problems, but the mtn gorillas have endured. And that¿s bc the research that was done there, I¿m with the WCS and two people there, Amy Veddar and Bill Webber followed me in the work there, but mainly in the education and habituating animals to tourists. So it was a major foreign exchange earner. The countries, Rwanda for example, became very proud of the gorillas, it gave the country an identity. And so in spite of the civil war nobody wanted to harm the gorillas, and they have been doing fine in the past decade in spite of the war in the area.

AC - There has to be some reason for the people who live there to want to save gorilla populations and I just wondered what your role was in developing that thinking.

10:55 GS - Initially my role was basically to study the animals because you can¿t do good conservation measures unless you know how far an animal travels, what it eats, what it needs to survive. The next step is to see what problems do they really have. And of course the only problems animals usually have are people. And the gorillas live in areas that if you killed the gorillas and removed the forest, the watershed, the forest and the mtns, the water would dry out and people would not be able to water their crops. So there is a direct benefit to them by keeping the forests. When you hire people as guides and reserve guards, that brings in some income, so they benefit. Of course you can¿t do that everywhere very easily bc people don¿t pay to see many of the smaller creatures. But the biggest problem in conservation really is to stimulate local people to protect their areas in which they live, bc everywhere in the world local people degrade the environment to make living. It¿s not just subsistence, people now usually have TV, they see the good life, they want the same, so they use resources beyond subsistence to buy goods and so forth. And that makes it extremely difficult to save some areas especially if they have no special interest to tourists.

12:49 AC - I know that the WCS is working in central Africa in the Congo basin¿.and is active in trying to habituate the lowland gorillas.

13:16 GS - yes, the WCS has projects in about 50 countries, most of them are run completely by nationals within their country, in fact to build a capacity of local people to do their projects is one of their aims. But in some countries it¿s very useful to have a foreigner to stimulate the work and prod the governments along on conservation and so forth. Bc now the beginning of the new millennium, our main problem will be keeping the earth alive as out global economy expands at a tremendous rate. So everybody in the field is constantly trying to find new ways to stimulate protection of species and habitats.

14:16 AC - As you look ahead to the new millennium and developments there, there are really horrific predictions as to what will happen to biodiversity in the future¿what do you see in terms of problems and in terms of answers?

14:40 GS - Ha, that¿s a big question¿well, I¿m not too encumbered by optimism. There is a margin of hope bc countries cannot maintain any kind of economy if they destroy the environment, and one hopes that people will ultimately realize that they have to maintain a livable environment. Their expectations have to change, their habits have to change, there has to be less wastefulness¿it has to start really, by the developed countries. The U.S. uses about ¼ of the world¿s resources even though it has only about 5% of the world¿s people and that¿s a very disproportionate use of the world¿s resources. Countries always say there¿s no money available, well, the world spends $2 billion a day on armaments, a day, billion, and certainly some of that money could be used instated on health and education and protecting the environment.

AC - I asked John Hare about being in the field with you¿.

17:25 GS - I think that anybody who spends years at a certain task becomes quite proficient at it. And I think that the world needs far more people like John Hare and myself who go out in the field and live there. You know, so much natural history is done with computers and remote sensing that I think naturalists are becoming an endangered species. And the more people you can get out into the field and enjoy being out, to be emotionally involved with the animals, the habitats and the people, the greater chance there is for these places to survive.

AC - When you are in the desert or in the forest¿.what are you doing?

18:36 GS - Well, for example, I spent four years with Chinese co-workers studying giant pandas. Now giant pandas live in dense bamboo, you could be 20 feet from a panda and not see it. So what do you have to study. You study where they¿ve sat and eaten to see what they¿ve eaten. You look at droppings again to see what they¿ve eaten. You try to track them to see where they¿ve gone, where they¿ve slept. So you spend your time looking at signs rather than animals. And in a lot of forest areas in the world now, hunting by people has been so intensive that the word ¿empty forest¿ has come into use, where you have a wonderful habitat, nice rain forests and you go into it and the tigers and the deer are almost completely gone bc people have eaten them. I spent some time in Laos for example, now the best place to see the wildlife in Laos is to go to local markets bc everything from little birds to deer are in the market as food.

20:06 AC - do you use your sense of smell when you¿re in the forest?

20:12 GS - some things you can certainly smell. You can take a musk deer dropping and smell whether it¿s made by a male or female, you can sniff a tree to see if a tiger has passed by, but unfortunately the human nose is not as good as I¿d like it to be. A lot of animals live in a world of smell, and I can only detect the most extreme ones.

AC - Can you smell a tiger?

GS - oh yeah. A tiger scent mark, and you can smell a fresh scent mark from 15 feet away.

AC - how do you know which smell is which?

21:03 GS - Well some of them are quite distinctive, others I don¿t know. But you could go in your forest in Washington and probably smell a fox for example or a skunk.

AC - you have worked in Asia very extensively and Africa, is there a favorite site that you have?

21:38 GS - Well, I¿ve tended to concentrate on the large mammals, particularly large carnivores, everything from jaguar to lion to tiger, pandas and so forth. One reason for doing so is that I enjoy watching them. I basically started out in this field bc I had curiosity. And then of course to protect the animal becomes and ideal, and then to do something year after year becomes a phase. But, if I look at a tiger, one of the most beautiful animals of the world, that¿s one aspect. You look at a gorilla, you look into the soft brown eyes of a gorilla close up in the wild, you realize you¿re kin. You look at a panda, it¿s a rare and exotic species, so you have a different feeling again. And so it depends on your emotion at the moment.

AC - do you think of yourself as an explorer?

23:00 GS - I¿m an explorer and discoverer in the intellectual realm, not so much in the physical realm. I seldom go to places where there aren¿t people or people haven¿t been before, so I don¿t look at myself as an explorer. But I do get pleasure at traveling around in the old fashioned way. I don¿t like to travel around in a car, although it¿s often necessary, but you¿re in a metal box making a lot of noise, I¿d much prefer crossing the Tibetan plateau on camel or by yaks or in some other old fashion way that¿s slow where you can smell and feel and see the environment.

24:02 AC - John Hare talked about that as well¿.you¿re much better off if you can rely on yourself instead of modern technology.

24:53 GS - Well, that¿s perfectly true. I don¿t take anything by which I can contact anybody. I work very hard not to have adventures, bc an adventure basically means that you screwed up. A perfect expedition is one which goes absolutely smoothly from beginning to end and that¿s what one works toward and so I very seldom have had problems. It¿s really very difficult to get lost as such, if you don¿t panic and know which direction to go you¿ll get out.

AC - Have you been lost, in trouble out on an expedition where you¿re off by yourself somewhere and you don¿t quite know where you are?

25:51 GS - I¿m usually, on big expeditions, I¿m with other people. I¿ve wandered off alone where I¿m lost for a few hours, but no problem.

AC - I think the outdoors is popular as an idea these days, but I don¿t know if it¿s a popular place to go.

26:25 GS - People are afraid often, to leave their cultural cocoon, they want to be in contact. I¿ve seen it in east Africa in the Serengetti, where I worked with lions and other species. People panic when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, even though they¿re not alone bc suddenly they feel completely insecure, there are lions and hyenas around and so forth. But that¿s a matter of experience and training. You¿re right, most people in this country when they want to go camping, they go in campers where they can park and have a home away from home. Whereas the ideal is to be as far as possible from anybody with a friend or a wife and be in a tent and dependent only on yourself not on others.

AC - how long do you plan to go on exploring?¿.

28:05 GS - well, I¿m 66 which I consider reasonably young. You were just talking about SE Tibet¿that was closed temporarily, but it¿ll open up in a bit¿.as long as you¿re fit and have the mental stamina, there¿s no problem to keep going. What would you do if you were retired, you¿d keep on doing the same thing¿.it¿s a wonderful way of living, it¿s stimulating, it¿s exciting to work in different cultures with different countries. It¿s not always easy bc each country has it¿s own way of doing things and own way of working with a foreigner, but on the other hand, all countries in the world are concerned with the environment and willing and often eager to cooperate.

AC - sum up your most significant achievement as a biologist and as a naturalist.

30:06 GS - Well I think everybody in this and other fields thinks about what they would leave behind, and yes I¿ve left some useful scientific information behind, but I think what is most lasting are the nationals, whether in China or Brazil and other countries that I¿ve worked, the local biologists, the young ones that have worked with me and that I¿ve trained that have the spirit of going out and doing the same kind of work and who then ultimately train their students, and so the impetus I gave goes on and on and spread in the future generations long after I¿ve been forgotten. And when I see in China, where I¿ve worked for 20 years, some people that I¿ve worked with sending their students into the field, there¿s a tremendous satisfaction in that.

AC - can you just say where you think you¿ll be in the course of one year¿.

31:44 GS - Things with a lot of countries are in flux, especially in central Asia. I plan to return to Tibet¿.I plan to go back to Mongolia where I¿ve worked for a dozen years and at present we have a major project with Mongolian gazelles¿.I just came back from there as a matter of fact. We have a project in Siberia¿.so those are three things I¿m hoping to do in the next year.

AC - Are you done with Africa do you think?

GS - one never knows. For the past 20 years my focus has been on central Asia bc of the opportunities and relatively few people that are out there¿.so I¿m so busy in central Asia right now, I don¿t know whether I¿ll get back to Africa which is a place where there are a lot of biologists doing excellent work for conservation¿..
(¿he goes into further detail about his project in Tibet and protecting the antelope in its natural habitat¿)

35:58 AC - I wonder if you could say what your definition of a naturalist is and who has been important to you in this century?

36:15 GS - I think people that inspired me were for example, William Beebe who in fact worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society earlier this century, who did a lot of field work particularly in Latin America, and who wrote beautiful essays about the natural world. There is Aldo Leopold who is sort of the patron saint of the conservation movement through his book ¿The Sand County Almanac¿. There are people, scientists today like E.O. Wilson who not only do excellent science but who do wonderful writing as well as thinking about biodiversity. A naturalist is really somebody who studies nature. And I¿d like to think of myself as a naturalist rather than an animal behaviorist or ecologist because I¿m concerned about nature as a whole. You can¿t divide it down, if you want to protect a species you have to protect a habitat, you have to think of the whole system, the whole ecosystem, the whole landscape and that¿s my basic interest.

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