George Schaller's Eco Crusade

The naturalist is leading the charge to protect species

In the remote Chang Tang plateau of northern Tibet, a few hardy nomads and thousands of antelope, yak, and wild asses roam. With its subzero temperatures and almost year-round snow cover, the starkly beautiful plateau is one of the world's last untouched wildernesses--and, at 125,000 square miles, one of the largest. But commercial interests are coming even to this distant, forbidding place. And the Chang Tang, and its way of life, might not survive.

Each year, to obtain shahtoosh, the prized wool of the Tibetan antelope that is woven into shawls for wealthy Westerners, Tibetan nomads and Chinese hunters slaughter hundreds of antelope. If left unchecked, this lust for the rare wool could decimate the antelope and lead to the destruction of the Chang Tang wilderness. For a long time, few knew of the threat to Chang Tang, and fewer cared. No longer, thanks to the interest taken by one scientist. He is George B. Schaller, and his efforts may help avert disaster in the region.

Schaller is one of the world's preeminent field biologists, a naturalist's naturalist who has identified new species, written 11 books, and published dozens of scientific studies. He has blazed a trail for other scientists--he studied gorillas before Dian Fossey did--and when he is interested in a region or species, other biologists follow. His accomplishments include navigating the bureaucratic thickets of China, where he was instrumental in promoting the preservation of the giant panda in the early 1980s. Schaller also helped persuade the Chinese to begin setting aside 25% of Tibet's land as a nature reserve.

Schaller's new book, Tibet's Hidden Wilderness, is but one entry in a wave of books and films fanning interest in that Asian land. But unlike others who focus on human rights, Schaller is concerned with preserving the mystical and harsh beauty of Tibet's wildlife. To Schaller and other biologists, there is a pressing need to ensure that the gene pools of endangered species survive, so that their characteristics can be studied. For society as a whole, Schaller makes the case that conserving the diversity of species around the world is critically important because hundreds of species have both documented and yet-to-be-determined value to humanity.

Of the estimated 50 million species on earth, including microbes, fewer than 2 million have been identified. With some species, we may be "too ignorant to measure or know the effect" when they are lost, says Schaller. With others, the loss can have a domino effect, threatening or stunting the growth of plants and wildlife that depend on them. But Schaller says species are worth saving even if they're of no apparent use: Biodiversity "keeps your options open for the future."

At 64, the energetic Schaller looks very much the naturalist--tall, slender, and weathered. Born in Germany, he left with his American mother during World War II and lived for a while in Denmark before settling in the U.S. An only child growing up in St. Louis, he collected birds' eggs and kept a mini-zoo of salamanders, snakes, and opossums. When he got to the University of Alaska, he was delighted to find that he could pursue his interest in wildlife as a field biologist. For the past 45 years, he has studied a wide variety of large mammals in the wild--from the giant pandas of China to the rare mountain gorillas of Zaire. He has tracked Asia's snow leopard and helped identify new species, such as the Tibetan red deer.

"FREETHINKER." Schaller chooses his subjects, whose behavior and habitat he studies for months at a stretch over several years, because they are rare, remote, aesthetically appealing, and biologically interesting. "I want to present a biography of their lives," says Schaller. "That's the first step in understanding, knowing, and helping to protect animals."

For the past 10 years, Schaller has been science director at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a research and educational organization headquartered at New York's Bronx Zoo. He is admired by many of his peers. "He is one of the great pioneers of field biology of this century," says Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International in Washington, D.C. "He tackles the most difficult animals to study." Alan Rabinowitz, director of science for Asia at the WCS, regards Schaller as his mentor and hails him as a "freethinker" who "looks for the biological blank spots."

Schaller relishes arduous fieldwork. He has toiled in horrendous conditions, enduring bone-chilling winds in northern Tibet and soggy tent life in the bamboo forests of Sichuan province. His wife Kay, an anthropologist, sometimes accompanies him, as did their two sons when they were growing up. Sick animals--a wart hog and a lion cub in the Serengeti and a peccary in Brazil--were nursed back to health as family pets. "A lot of people would consider camp life a hardship," says Schaller. To him, though, the life most folks lead is a hardship. Phone calls, E-mail messages, and other interruptions "constantly intrude on the pleasure of a quiet mind," he says.

Schaller's accomplishments as a naturalist give him the authority to speak out in favor of conservation and against what he deems to be bad public policy. He lambastes the Clinton Administration for bending to the business interests of Western ranchers who graze their cattle on federal lands at below-market prices. He derides media coverage of threatened species for reducing environmental debates to a simplistic argument over jobs versus animals. And he bemoans the trend toward freer international trade, worrying that multinationals will push for the development of resources for short-term economic gain.

Yet Schaller is no firebrand. He believes that any single conservation issue involves "moral ambiguity--you have to juggle principles and practicalities." Schaller notes that more studies are establishing the economic benefits of conservation. According to a recent Cornell University study, ecotourism is worth $500 billion worldwide, while pharmaceuticals from plants yield benefits worth an estimated $84 billion.

"CULTURE AND CHARACTER." In the U.S., says Schaller, environmental awareness is greater at the local level, but he finds corporate interest woefully low. He does reserve praise for specific actions, such as Exxon Corp.'s $5 million grant to support tiger preservation in Asia. And he lauds wealthy individuals such as media mogul Ted Turner, who is buying large tracts of land in Montana for a nature preserve.

Globally, though, the biggest threat to biodiversity is poverty. The image of local innocents leading a simple life has long since been supplanted, says Schaller, by the reality of poor people deplet-ing plant and wildlife to earn an income. Villagers should be introduced to alternative income sources, such as new perennial crops, and governments should be helped to establish reserves. He calls on governments to negotiate limited culling of herds by nomads or villagers.

Preserving biodiversity, says Schaller, is much like ensuring that all the bricks in a wall stay secure. It may be possible to lose a couple, but you can't know when the wall will become unstable. "We still have a large amount of biodiversity," he says. What we need now is the "culture and character" to make the adjustments necessary to preserve the environment and the species that live in it.

Schaller continues to do his part by studying some of those species anew. He's in eastern Tibet this month to survey wildlife. Then, it's on to the forests of China's Sichuan province to track snow leopards, white-lipped deer, and other animals. Later in the year, he hopes to head for the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia, to check in on a bear project. The wild is calling.

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