An Old Biologist Who Never Quits

Animal conservationist George Schaller lays the groundwork for continuing the battle after he's gone.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Photo by Beth Wald

The battle between conservationists and oil people never ends," George Schaller laments. "A half- century after we established the Alaska Artic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), the Bush people are trying to destroy it. They want to trash the area for a quick profit. I call it ecological vandalism, and if the American public doesn't fight hard enough, all will be lost."

At 75, Schaller, universally acclaimed as the world's preeminent field biologist, has pretty much earned the right to say whatever he wants. In 1956, as a student at the University of Alaska, he went on an expedition with famed naturalist couple Olaus and Mardy Murie that lead to the establishment of the Alaska reserve in 1960. By then Schaller was in Central Africa living with and studying the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains—groundbreaking work that preceded that of Dian Fossey and Louis Leakey.

At this point in his career, having established more than 20 major wildlife reserves around the world, including the 200,000-square-mile Chang Tang Nature Reserve in China, Schaller has hardly slowed down. If anything, he operates with a renewed sense of urgency as he pursues his most ambitious goal yet: the Pamir International Peace Park, which will span the junction of four countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan—in the process saving the magnificent spiral-horned Marco Polo sheep from extinction.

I interviewed him shortly after he received the 2008 Indianapolis Prize, the world's most prestigious award for animal conservation. Not surprisingly, Schaller plans on using the $100,000 he received to pay for some of the scholarships he provides to upcoming biologists.

"I am encouraged that more and more people are ecologically aware," he says. "But most don't seem to have a national sense of purpose anymore. We need to understand that everything we is do is an ecological act—turn on the light, get a cup of water, etc. We need to change attitudes, expectations, and perceived privileges. Everyone has to be involved; conservation is a moral issue."

"Just how do you get these governments to set aside such vast tracks of land?" I ask.

"First," he answers, "I identify a large animal that they have reason to care about, which I call a charismatic megafauna. The preservation of these animals can have a direct economic benefit. And then I explain to the appropriate government official what it will take to protect the animal and its habitat."

Schaller continues. "The beauty of this is that you're not just protecting the Marco Polo sheep or the lions or giant pandas, but the whole environment—all the plants and animals in the area."

"I basically get knowledge through my field trips," he adds, "and then make suggestions to the government. All four countries involved in the Peace Park have agreed to the concept and the borders of the park, and now all they have to do is sit down and work out a lot of details—how to manage, cooperative research, etc. It is a step-by-step affair that gains momentum as it goes along."

Photo by Beth WaldSchaller (right) and his Afghani guide examine the horns of a Marco Polo sheep.
Photo by Beth Wald
Schaller (right) and his Afghani guide examine the horns of a Marco Polo sheep.

Amazingly hearty and strong, Schaller is heading back to the mountains of Tibet as soon as they allow researchers in after the recent uprising there. To bide his time, he is instead going to the "Indian part of Tibet" where they have a subspecies of the Marco Polo sheep.

I ask Schaller what will happen when he's no longer physically able to go on these trips.

"I hope it's not over," he says. "But I find young biologists in these countries and take them with me. I hope they absorb the science and have the motivation to continue what I've started, and then they will have students who will, in turn, do the same. Long after I'm gone, the work will go on."

Editor's note: Schaller asked us to let readers know that he is working with the Panthera Foundation, which was set up to save in situ populations of the world's 36 wild cat species and their habitats around the globe. To learn more about the foundation's work, go to

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