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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 few hours earlier, he told us, he'd been surprised by three "disreputable looking" men who emerged from a deep gully. As they came into view, Schaller noticed they had no cargo—a suspicious way to travel in such a far-flung place. Forgoing the customary Muslim greetings, the group asked Schaller if he was alone and motioned toward his pockets and the binoculars strung around his neck. Schaller assessed the situation: He was at least a few miles away from the caravan. If something should happen, no one would hear his calls for help. His only way out, he decided, was a quick retreat. As the men inched closer, Schaller replied that, in fact, he was traveling with a "very big group" and, before they had a chance to respond, he scrambled away across a steep talus slide.

As Schaller told us the story, he seemed, perhaps for the first time since we'd entered the wilderness, unsure of himself.

Later that night, as we rested by the fire after dinner, the same trio of men turned up in our camp and wedged themselves in among the group. Schaller discreetly pointed them out, and Sarfraz nodded gravely. "They sell afim," Sarfraz whispered. "Opium dealers." The night proceeded without incident, but still Schaller seethed with anger. "I had good reason to be suspicious," he said. "These people are stealing the future of the Kyrgyz people."

"George, look," whispered Mohammed Saqid, one of our guides, pointing toward a line of dots moving across a large snowfield high above us. "Marco Polo!"

After four weeks on the trail, we had reached the peaks marking the border of China at the far end of the Little Pamir. Along the way, we'd passed through several Kyrgyz camps scattered throughout the valley, each consisting of a half dozen large felt yurts. When we arrived at a settlement, Schaller would endear himself to the children, handing out candy and blowing up balloons to squeals of delight. Only then would he ask the adults where we might find Marco Polo sheep. The answers were usually vague—deliberately so, Schaller suspected. We'd seen a few small herds from a distance, but as soon as they caught a whiff of us, they would bound away across slides of black shale. To Schaller that meant the animals were probably under continuous fire from the Kyrgyz herders, a fact they would not be keen to share with nosy strangers.

But now some 25 males were scattered in the snow just above us like dull brown rocks. As he scribbled notes, Schaller passed me his binoculars for a look. It was the first time I'd seen Marco Polo sheep from close enough to make out their flared horns silhouetted black against the snow. Some faced up the slope; others had turned down. They seemed paralyzed with indecision—afraid to move into deeper snow on the mountain crest, but equally fearful of us. "Well, they're not the smartest animals in the world," Schaller said with a chuckle. They were magnificent creatures, some the size of donkeys, but after watching their confused dance for a few more minutes Schaller suggested we head back toward camp, some three hours away on foot.

Over the previous several weeks, our meals had been drab affairs—rice or noodles flavored with onion and Tabasco and prepared by Saqid over the dung fire. But a few days after sighting the sheep, we returned to camp to find a pot full of meat, a gift from a shepherd encamped in a stone hovel down the slope. Saqid mixed the meat in with tomato paste and rice, and we devoured the slow-simmered stew, all the while pondering its provenance. Was it yak? Ibex? It was far more tasty and tender than any of the lamb we'd been offered. Only the next morning did we learn the truth: We'd had a dinner befitting Marco Polo himself.

"I would have eaten it anyway," Schaller was quick to say. "It had already been killed, no point to it going to waste." What about having one shot to order? I asked. It was meant as a joke, but Schaller didn't laugh. "Up here, I wouldn't have even a hare shot to order." 

By the end of september we had explored 13 valleys in the Little Pamir, recording 549 Marco Polo sheep, about half of the estimated population in the Afghan Pamir.

The national election had gone off peacefully and Schaller had briefed officials in Kabul about his findings in the Wakhan region. The next step: to bring together representatives from all four countries to discuss the peace park concept, a process Schaller began this fall and expects to finish by early 2007.

When we parted ways at Dubai International Airport, I was eager to get home to see my family. But Schaller was going in the opposite direction, boarding a plane for Ürümqi, China, to reconnect with acquaintances and promote the park. Later he'd stop in Tajikistan for further talks, risking a Thanksgiving away from home.

As Schaller ambled away across the shimmering tarmac, I thought back to a morning early in the trek, when I asked him how long he could maintain this breakneck pace.

"I don't know," he replied. "I think I'll keep on walking until I just fall apart."

Continue reading on page:  1  |  2  |  3 

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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