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Photograph by Beth Wald
George Schaller watches snow falling in an Afghan shepherd's yurt in 2004. He has spent much of his life in the field, studying animals and hoping to preserve the wild places where they live.
At 73, George Schaller is one of the world's preeminent field biologists. He has just returned from two weeks in Iran, monitoring the fate of the last of the Asian cheetahs, when we meet at his home in the wooded hills of western Connecticut. In a couple of weeks, he'll be off to the remote edge of Alaska to retrace a trek he took half a century ago. In addition to making his expeditions, he serves as vice president for science and exploration at the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Over the decades, the modest, soft-spoken Schaller has been a force in helping establish wildlife sanctuaries and reserves throughout the world—though he is quick to say that he is "only one of many" trying to save natural lands. Born in Berlin, Schaller immigrated with his family to the United States in 1947. He is the author of 15 books, including The Serengeti Lion, which won a National Book Award in 1973, and hundreds of articles and papers published over the course of his 54 years afield. A small, spare cabin, separate from the comfortable house he shares with his wife, Kay, serves as his office. There is no computer or telephone here (electronic devices are confined to the house). This, he says, is a place for contemplation.
Interview by John G. Mitchell
When did you first become interested in the natural world? As a kid, I collected lizards and snakes and kept opossums, and I liked to roam around the woods watching birds. But it wasn't until I got to the University of Alaska in the early 1950s that I discovered how a boyhood pastime could actually become a legitimate adult profession. So what I'm basically doing now is continuing what I have done as far back as I can remember.
What were your studies at the University of Alaska? I started in wildlife management and found out that wildlife management meant raising animals for hunters to shoot, which was not my interest. Later, I drifted into straight field biology, and I stuck with that because it's so satisfying. I was very, very lucky that the New York Zoological Society, now called the Wildlife Conservation Society, took me on staff in 1966. They sponsored my gorilla work in Africa, and over the years they have provided the perfect home base for me. I have the freedom to determine what I think is important in research and conservation. The Wildlife Conservation Society has a kind of vision that stimulates you and continually pulls you toward conservation goals.
You've been credited with having helped establish several of the world's greatest reserves, including ones in the Amazon Basin, the Gobi desert, Myanmar, and Tibet. How cooperative have you found most governments in your efforts to set aside reserves? Let us first be very clear. As a foreign guest in a country, you don't establish anything. Establishment is up to the government, and all one can do, and all I do, is collect information on the wildlife and the distribution of people and make suggestions. If they are reasonable suggestions, I have found most countries very willing to listen. In fact, it is one of the pleasures of working in other countries, especially ones not overrun with NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], that government officials do listen, and they appreciate your efforts. If it is feasible and makes sense within their system, they will move ahead and do something. For example, the Chinese government has done tremendous work over the past 15 years or so in Tibet. Relatively pristine land, with few people living on it, is still available there for refuges, and now one-third of Tibet is officially under some sort of reserve status. For some reason, the Chinese government doesn't advertise this kind of thing, but the Chang Tang Reserve is about 120,000 square miles (310,000 square kilometers), and the government is working to protect other tracts. The end result could be as much as a quarter million square miles (650,000 square kilometers) of reserves.
Why do we need parks and reserves? It's essential that each country keep part of its natural heritage untouched, as a record for the future, a baseline to measure change, so people can see the splendor of their past, before the land was degraded. And if we ever want to rehabilitate habitat, we need to see how things used to be. These parks and reserves, these untouched places are also genetic reservoirs, where plants and animals that don't exist elsewhere still survive. They can be invaluable to the human species as sources of food or medicine. If we destroy the parks, they're gone forever, and we may be losing something invaluable to us.
In what other large areas has your work helped galvanize government action? The Pamirs in Pakistan. I surveyed them in 1974 and wrote a report, which through friends I got to the prime minister. I had suggestions for a reserve, and he said they'd establish it. Then across the border, again with a little bit of urging from me, China established another reserve. At that time, in the 1980s and '90s, Tajikistan and Afghanistan weren't open to an American wandering around. Now it's no problem, so in the past few years I've been working there, and we're getting the four countries together to try to set up a big transfrontier reserve.
Tell us about Iran. The government there is interested in trying to hang onto the few surviving Asian cheetahs? They are very interested. I've been going there since the year 2000, and the government is very supportive. There are only 50 or 60 Asian cheetahs left. Iran has lost its tigers and lions, so you can understand why it doesn't want to lose the cheetahs, too.
You were just over there during two very tense weeks, politically, between the United States and Iran. That didn't interfere with your work? Oh, no. It has nothing to do with the Iranian people. They're tremendously friendly. It's a joy to be in a country like that, with its wonderful culture and its willingness to do something to save its wildlife.
We keep hearing about "charismatic megafauna"—elephants, lions, tigers, grizzlies, giant pandas, and other big animals that capture the public's interest. Has that term become a cliché? Does it adequately describe the animals you've been studying? I enjoy watching big, beautiful, interesting animals. But you can't just sit around watching them. You have the moral obligation to help protect them. The advantage of studying these animals is that they draw attention. It's easier to get money to study a panda than it is to study a leech. Now that doesn't mean that the panda is necessarily more important biologically than the leech. It simply means that when you get the funds to study and protect a big, beautiful animal, you automatically protect the leeches and ants and all the other species in the area. We're always talking about biodiversity, but that's an abstract term. We're not saving the panda because of biodiversity. We're saving it because it arouses our emotion. And the emotional component is extraordinarily important to get the public behind conservation.
You were among the first to study the mountain gorilla, and you reported that, instead of being a brute that wanted to tear you apart, it was in fact a very intelligent, gentle creature. You wrote, "No one who looks into a gorilla's eyes can remain unchanged. . . . We know that the gorilla still lives within us." What do you recall of the first time you looked into a gorilla's eyes? The first time was so close. I was entranced and apprehensive, because gorillas, like most large animals, are individuals, and I did not know how she would respond. Some are temperamental, some are very placid. But her eyes were kind, and as with all gorillas when they are somewhat apprehensive and are trying to avoid prolonged eye contact, she slowly turned her head from side to side.
The wonderful thing about gorillas is that they have given Rwanda an identity. Here you have this extremely poor, overcrowded country, yet in spite of its history of civil war and genocide, the government has said we must protect and save the gorillas. And the government is doing that. I think that is an absolutely tremendous thing for a country like that to do.
How do you deal with local people who may live on the fringes of protected areas and want access to the area for subsistence? Obviously, there are certain areas where human activity should not be allowed—ever. Because, yes, you can say there are only a few people now, but in 20 years there will be twice as many, and pretty soon the whole area could become degraded. But we should try to find ways to help local people have reasonable access to some resources. At one park in Nepal, outside companies were putting up little hotels and making all the money, and the locals didn't benefit. So a number of communities got together and decided to turn their fields back into high grass and brush. Then rhinos, tigers, and other animals started to come out of the park into those old fields, and the local people themselves were able to cater to the tourists. They made far more money than they would have from continuing to farm the fields. But that's a rare exception. Ecotourism generally sounds like such a good idea. Everybody talks about it, but when you look at the statistics, often only a small percent of the money spent by tourists goes to the local people. Because it's the outside tour companies, outside hotel owners, outside porters who are making most of the money. Unless tourism is set up specifically to benefit the local people—as in the Nepal example—the locals are not going to get much out of it.
In a few weeks, you'll be off to Alaska to retrace part of the trek you did half a century ago with conservationists Olaus and Mardy Murie, when the drumbeat started to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What are your memories of that adventure? It was 1956, a wonderful summer. We spent most of it on the south slope of the Brooks Range. Apart from our scientific studies, the Muries emphasized what Olaus called the "precious intangible values." That had a great impact on me, because here was a well-known biologist in his late 60s who began each day with a sense of adventure, a sense of joy and curiosity. I remember walking across the tundra with him. He came upon a soggy pile of bear droppings, cupped it in his hands, and poked through it to see what the bear had been eating. To me, at the time, that was impressive. As for helping to establish the Arctic refuge, I did little except write a few letters. The refuge was basically set up by Alaskans. One person who did do a tremendous amount to have it set aside is now the senior senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens. He worked in the Department of the Interior at the time. Maybe that's something he'd prefer to forget. Anyway, the refuge was established in 1960, and then President Carter enlarged it under the Alaska Lands Act.
And now the Bush Administration and Senator Stevens are looking for a go-ahead to drill for oil on the refuge's coastal plain. How do you feel about that? It's a warning that you can never give up if you really treasure something. Nothing is safe. About 95 percent of Alaska's North Slope has already been opened for oil leases. Can't we save the rest? What kind of people are we if we don't? There are leased fields on the North Slope that haven't even been drilled yet. But now the oil companies are trying to get into the refuge, because if they can get in there, they can get in anywhere.
Where do you think we're heading with global warming? You can argue endlessly over how much is natural climate change and how much is caused by humans. But the fact is, climate is changing very rapidly, and the scientific consensus is that much of it is caused by people burning fossil fuels. If you raised the fuel efficiency of cars to 40 miles per gallon (17 kilometers per liter), which is perfectly feasible, and you eliminated the special deals for SUVs, each year you would save ten times as much oil as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would likely produce. This is what's very peculiar. We are supposed to have an educated public, but where is it? Our schools and universities have failed to instill an environmental awareness. Conservationists have also failed. All you hear from some of them these days is talk of "sustainable development."
Do you have a problem with the idea of sustainable development—finding ways to use but not deplete natural resources in national parks and reserves? There are certain natural treasures in each country that should be treated as treasures, and it is up to conservation organizations to fight on behalf of the special places. Too many of these organizations have lost sight of their purpose. Their purpose is not to alleviate poverty or help sustainable development. Their purpose must be to save natural treasures. What are we going to do? Invite the homeless to move into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Taj Mahal? Those are cultural treasures. It's the same with the Serengeti, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Virunga volcanoes with their mountain gorillas. I've heard some conservation organizations argue that local people should have the right to manage those reserves and use them as they please. Well, I consider that utter nonsense. It is tremendously worrisome that we don't talk about nature anymore. We talk about natural resources as if everything had a price tag. You can't buy spiritual values at a shopping mall. The things that uplift the spirit—an old-growth forest, a clear river, the flight of a golden eagle, the howl of a wolf, space and quiet without motors—are intangibles. Those are the values that people do look for and that everyone needs.