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Lifetime Achievement: Biologist George Schaller
The Megafauna Man: Biologist George Schaller's 50-year career has been dedicated to species conservation. Now he faces his greatest challenge yet.
Text by Scott Wallace

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A 50-Year Battle: Schaller's work with snow leopards, pandas, more >>

Video Exclusive: Schaller reflects on his work in conservation >>

A bomb had rocked the provincial capital of Fayzabad the night before Schaller, Wald, and I arrived there in mid-August of 2004. We immediately hired a pair of decrepit vans and drove down a washed-out road to Sarhadd, a Wakhi village of stone huts set beneath the towering Hindu Kush. There we picked up guides and pack animals and followed an ancient caravan route into the mountains. This part of Afghanistan was George Schaller's kind of place—rugged, wild, lost in time, where a herd of lumbering yaks could suddenly emerge from the vast emptiness and vanish into it again.

"I think I was misplaced by 150 years," he told me, with a reference to the era of the great scientist-explorers, such as Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, and Alfred Russel Wallace. "It's far more satisfying to me to be in a remote area, traveling slowly on foot or in a caravan. You look around, you see things, smell things."

A week after leaving the road in Sarhadd, we arrived in the broad central valley of the Little Pamir and, on its northern edge, a Kyrgyz encampment. A wedding was in progress, and the celebration resembled a medieval carnival: Boys led prancing horses through the crowd and girls cupped their hands to their mouths, whispering secrets. Children snatched at banknotes tossed into the breeze by the hosts of the feast. Out on the dusty steppe, horsemen jostled over a stuffed goat hide in a game of buzkashi, Afghanistan's free-for-all version of polo.

Schaller waited discreetly off to the side. A pep talk on conservation might have seemed a bit ill-timed at a wedding party. But with so many of the Pamirs' inhabitants gathered in one place, he couldn't afford to let the moment slip away. He suspected that the Kyrgyz, migratory herders who keep sheep, goats, and yaks, were hunting Marco Polo sheep for food.

As the feast wound down and the bride and groom disappeared into the nuptial yurt, Schaller stepped forward to address the men. Their high cheekbones and Siberian-style fur hats suggested a distant time of Mongol hordes and omnipotent khans.

"We come here because we've heard about the legendary generosity of the Kyrgyz people," Schaller began. "Last year I had the hospitality of the Kyrgyz across the border in Tajikistan." He paused to allow Sarfraz, an ethnic Wakhi from Pakistan, to translate his words into Dari, the lingua franca of the Wakhan's distinct ethnicities. "Many foreign hunters are coming to Tajikistan. They spend $25,000 to shoot a Marco Polo sheep. But local communities get nothing." A volley of disgruntled murmurs arose from the crowd.

"Some day soon, foreign hunters may come here to hunt Marco Polo sheep," he said. "If that happens, the Kyrgyz people must benefit." The men nodded approval. "Foreigners will spend big money to hunt, but only if there are big Marco Polo sheep with big horns." He let that sink in before making his final pitch. "That means the Kyrgyz people must protect the sheep so they can grow big, and you can make money from them." The meeting concluded with a hearty round of applause.

Though Schaller is no fan of trophy hunting, he is a pragmatist. If controlled hunting and tourism can bring income to the struggling Kyrgyz, it might provide them incentive to protect Marco Polo sheep from a slow slide toward extinction. "Conservation depends on the goodwill of the locals," he said. "You've got to get them involved, so they have a stake in the outcome."

A week after the Kyrgyz wedding celebration, in the pitch-dark of the predawn, I was awakened by a cheery voice outside my tent. "Scott, I'm leaving in ten minutes!" Schaller called. I looked at the blue glow of my watch face: 4:30 a.m. When I emerged from my tent a few minutes later, the biologist had already eaten his breakfast of tea and chapati and was on his way up the valley for the day's survey. A brilliant sliver of moon dangled above the dark ridge, and Jupiter shone like a luminescent boulder in the sky.

Two hours later I caught up to Schaller at the entrance to a narrow canyon. It was the kind of austere, postapocalyptic landscape I had grown used to over the past three weeks—jagged cliffs, barren slopes, a cobalt blue sky overhead. The sun was just clearing the mountaintops, melting the ice crust off the rocks in a nearby stream. I was panting and nearly doubled over. "At least you're getting to see what old-fashioned natural history is all about," he said.

For more than a half century Schaller's career has been defined by a single quality: impatience—an impatience to get into the field to collect data, an impatience to prove himself through his work, and an impatience to save the world's most imperiled species and landscapes. It is a characteristic that has not softened in the 30 years since he traveled the Himalaya with Matthiessen: "[Schaller] will not really be at ease until he reaches the land of the blue sheep and the snow leopard," Matthiessen wrote in The Snow Leopard.

But Schaller's impatience is borne of more than just a passion for collecting data. After years in the field, he has developed a near-cosmic connection with the landscapes he protects, and he feels most himself when out in the wilderness. "Most men enjoy adventure, they want to conquer something, and in the mountains a biologist can become an explorer in the physical realm as well as the intellectual one," he wrote in Mountain Monarchs, his 1977 study of Himalayan sheep and goats. "Research among the ranges affords the purest pleasure I know, one which goes beyond the collecting of facts to one that becomes a quest to appraise our values and look for our place in eternity."

It was typical of Schaller to be the first to break camp in the chill of early morning and to head out on his own across the desert steppe. "I don't like people on my heels," he said one day when I asked if I could join him. "It makes me feel rushed, and I begin to miss things." But sometimes Schaller's penchant for solitude was ill-advised, like the morning he slung his backpack onto his shoulders and vanished into the desert steppe without a word.

Several hours later, when he failed to appear and our caravan continued to lumber toward China, Wald and I scaled a nearby slope for a vantage point. The great expanse of the Wakhan spread before us motionless, save dappled shadows thrown from the clouds that drifted overhead. In the distance, snow fell in diaphanous curtains. Wald and I were stumped: A man in his 70s was out there alone, the temperature had plunged severely, and a rescue attempt amounted to a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. Fortunately, however, after scouting for most of the day, we found Schaller atop a dusty rise just before sunset. He seemed shaken. 

Continue reading on page:  1  |  2  |  3  Next >>

A 50-Year Battle: Schaller's work with snow leopards, pandas, more >>

Video Exclusive: Schaller reflects on his work in conservation >>

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