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Man of Nature


A freewheeling chat with environmentalist George Schaller.


Demanding: G.B. Schaller.

DR. GEORGE B. SCHALLER, the renowned naturalist, was part of the first expedition to the Arctic in 1956. The mission was to make an inventory of the wonders of a practically untouched wilderness. Their survey set in motion the efforts to protect what is now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the nursing ground for wildlife like the caribou, polar bears and white wolves.

Dr. Schaller returned to the same area to celebrate the golden jubilee of that voyage. What worries Dr. Schaller is that this protection may not last long unless immediate steps are taken to counter development and oil exploration in this region.

Greed and politics

Probe further and the polite, thoughtful, friendly, Dr. Schaller becomes quite disturbed: "It is so disgusting. You would think something is safe in the United States once it's established legally. But there is too much greed and politics. The Arctic Refuge was set up only in 1960. It was known that there was oil nearby. Since then they have been trying to get into the Refuge. They already have 96 per cent of land for oil drilling. We are just trying to save a tiny, little bit," he said on the eve of the 4th World Congress on Mountain Ungulates at Munnar.

"You have a rich country with a lot of educated people, supposedly, and you can't keep a preserve safe. What kind of message does that send to countries fighting to protect the environment and the wildlife? I studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda (Congo). It is one of the poorest countries in the world, heavily populated. Yet they are proud of their gorillas. In spite of years of civil war and genocide, they saved their gorillas," he continued.

The need, Dr. Schaller says, is to treasure something. "Whether India treasures the tigers, or America treasures the Alaska, you can never turn your back. You have to obviously be alert and fight for it. So, if you die of old age, the new generation has to take over or it'll get lost. You can see how quickly things turn around with leopards and tigers in India. There was one shipment that China confiscated from India in 2003. It had 33 tiger, 581 leopard skins and some 800 other skins. Tiger trade is still on here. The Indian elephants are lucky that most of the males don't have tusks."

Significant projects

Recognised by many as the world's pre-eminent field biologist, Dr. Schaller considers his research on the gorillas as one of his significant projects. Little was known of the life of these animals in the wild until he published his findings in the landmark books Year of the Gorilla and The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behaviour.

"I was fortunate. I started on this kind of work when it was just beginning. There were so many wonderful animals often easy to see but had never been studied. I began at a time when any animal I spotted was relatively unknown. So any bits of information you got was actually listed as providing insights on their lives. The gorilla was my first overseas project. I was asked if I wanted to go and study the animals. That was far easier than what people had anticipated because these animals are cautious, gentle and friendly. Animals, I knew, always tried to stay out of your way. If you go quietly near them they slowly come to accept your presence. I did the same with the gorillas. I went near them day after day, which was fairly easy because they form cohesive social groups. Soon, I knew them as individuals, both their faces and behaviour. If you look at it scientifically, my study of lions in Serengeti was most comprehensive, while the most difficult one was the one on the Giant Panda. I was in the forest for two months before I saw one."

The success of a project, according to Dr. Schaller, is not just coming out with new observations. If, at the end of a project, one does not have more questions than what they started out with, the job cannot be said to be fruitful. "You are never finished with a project. See, I studied lions in Serengeti for four years. People continue to study the same lions. Not the same, the next generation. And they are coming up with new, interesting information because they have new questions to ask."

Dr. Schaller is one of the few prominent scientists who strongly believe that reports of the sightings of the Bigfoot or the Yeti are worthy of further study. "There are so many human-like creatures in different places. But after all these years there is not a single bone, a single hair. There is no physical evidence other than tracks. There is one film, taken in 1960, and it has been played endlessly for years analysed, but they can't say it is fake. A hard-eyed look is absolutely essential. The best thing to do would be to set up camera traps that automatically take pictures of the animals. If this is monitored for a year you may get nothing, but may end up with some interesting wildlife pictures," he says with a hearty laugh.

Tremendous track record

The tough, unyielding scientist has a tremendous track record of rediscovering some rare species of animals that were thought to have been extinct. He was responsible for uncovering the Saola, one of the world's rare mammals, in Laos; the Vietnamese Warty Pig; the Tibetan Red Deer and is one among the few who have seen the Snow Leopard in the wild.

"I'm not one to say that something does not exist. Look at the Himalayan area. Even today not much is looked at for wildlife. People will have to look, keep their eyes open. In Indo-China and Vietnam, the best way to find animals is to go to the villages. The villagers eat everything. They keep the horns and antlers in their huts. Or go to the market, visit every stall, see what's for sale. You will then find all sorts of new things. People said that the Javan Rhino was extinct. We started talking to local people and one of them said that a rhino was killed recently. He brought out a horn that was selling for a very high price. Local people know a lot, you have to ask the right questions."

Dr. Schaller has often been said to be tough and demanding on the field. Peter Matthiessen, who accompanied the scientist on a quest of the elusive snow leopard, has in his book The Snow Leopard recounted how he used to march his hiking companions until their boots were "full of blood". "You know you have a job to do. And you are using somebody's money. So you want to come back with good results. You want to do a job that's different from any previous jobs. When you are out there in the mountains all these months, you need to be demanding to keep the porters going. And then Peter is a Buddhist, a different person."

Dr. Schaller undertakes projects on his own or is often commissioned to do some. One of his projects is watching the animals of the Himalayas and in Tibet. "Everything begins with the enjoyment you get by simple being outdoors, in the wild, in the mountains. Working for the WCS has been wonderful. You know that you have an organisation to back you, one that really cares. I have been with it since 1956. We work on several projects in numerous countries. At this stage of my life I would like to turn back to areas to keep things going. If I find a country that has nobody, like Iran, which has been ignored for several years, I want to see if I can be of some help. Perhaps work for the protection of the cheetahs here that are on a decline."

And for conservationists Dr. Schaller has this advice: "Any conservation project becomes a social, economic and cultural issue and so forth. Everybody has a social responsibility. One way to show this is be concerned about the future of the environment. Remember, if the environment is poor you automatically have poverty for most people."

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