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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   Photograph by Beth Wald   Map by Laszlo Kubinyi

Photo: George Schaller
DESPERATE MEASURES: Scientist George Schaller (right) and a Wakhi guide examine the horns of an endangered Marco Polo sheep. The skull had been used to mark a shrine in eastern Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor.

After 50 years of fighting to save the world's endangered creatures, George Schaller has got it down to a science. But in Afghanistan—home to the Marco Polo sheep—the biologist must contend with murky tribal politics and rogue opium dealers. Scott Wallace reports from the wild.

Map: Afghanistan

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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 >>

The armed men came out of nowhere. There were a half dozen of them—ghostly silhouettes emerging from the driving snow with AK-47s slung on their shoulders. George Schaller, the world's most influential naturalist, stopped in his tracks and took stock of the group. From a distance he could make out tattered battle fatigues beneath their khaki woolen wraps; they were leading a cluster of shaggy, long-horned yaks.

"Who could this be?" he wondered aloud, his voice registering both curiosity and apprehension. 

Out here in the rugged Wakhan corridor of northeastern Afghanistan, there were only a few possibilities

The strangers hastening toward us were either gun-toting Islamic extremists, thieves trolling for targets of opportunity, or—we hoped—government soldiers on border patrol.

"Salaam aleikum!—Peace be with you!" yelled our guide, Sarfraz Khan, with an exaggerated wave meant to put the approaching men at ease. "George," he lowered his voice, "maybe you have the letter from the commander?"

Schaller nodded and reached into his rucksack for a note of safe conduct he'd received from a local warlord. With it, we could operate with a modicum of freedom and security in these forbidden lands. Without it, we faced a troubling and uncertain fate.

But before Schaller could produce the letter, Sarfraz's furrowed brow gave way to a broad, flashing smile. He had spotted an old friend in the group. "Border patrol!" Sarfraz shouted, rushing forward to greet the oncoming soldiers. Schaller and I exchanged looks of relief: We were safe.

At 73, the German-born scientist stands tall and slim, with deep-set hazel eyes and a small hawkish nose. He keeps his salt-and-pepper hair neatly combed and, even out in the wild, manages a clean-shaven appearance every morning. We had been hiking up to eight hours a day at elevations above 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) for more than a week, and he never seemed to tire.

Amid embraces between the soldiers and our Afghan guides and porters, Schaller located the hand-scrawled letter and passed it to a gaunt, bewhiskered man who identified himself as the ranking officer. What were we doing out here? the soldier asked, eyeing our group of a dozen donkeys, half as many Wakhi porters, and three foreigners—Schaller, photographer Beth Wald, and myself. Outsiders rarely visit the Wakhan (also called Vakhan) corridor, a narrow mountainous strip that projects like a crooked finger for 190 miles (306 kilometers) between Tajikistan and Pakistan to China. "Searching for Marco Polo sheep," Schaller replied. We'd left the last road over a week earlier, heading for the Little Pamir, on the northern edge of the Hindu Kush, and then on to the Wakhan Mountains.

The officer frowned. This was no place for an unarmed research party, he said. When he arrived at his base in a few days, he'd send some soldiers to escort us to the Little Pamir. Schaller bowed and pressed his hand to his heart, a customary gesture of respect and deference, and we took our leave. It was only August, but already snow had started to blow through the mountains.

Schaller had come to this remote corner of the western Himalaya in pursuit of perhaps the most ambitious project of his 50-year career: the creation of an international peace park in a vortex of strife that stretches across parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan. The proposed park's most celebrated inhabitants are dwindling herds of Marco Polo sheep—the world's largest and most magnificent wild sheep, which share the labyrinthine, windswept valleys of the Wakhan corridor with nomadic communities of Wakhi and Kyrgyz herders. Known for their spiraling horns that measure up to six feet long, the sheep have become a mythical trophy for international hunters and a rare source of meat for the impoverished Wakhi and Kyrgyz nomads. "The Marco Polo is a beautiful animal," Schaller asserted when we set out. "It has as much right to exist as we do."

As he has done with other so-called "charismatic megafauna"—animals such as jaguars and snow leopards, which can capture the public imagination through their startling beauty alone—Schaller intends to use the Marco Polo sheep as a symbol, a flagship species, to galvanize support for the protection of the entire habitat. "So you're fighting not just for the sheep but for the whole environment, all the plants and animals in this area," he told me. "My focus is on the sheep, because it's the most conspicuous animal here."

It's a strategy that Schaller, the vice president of science and exploration at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has employed again and again to become perhaps the greatest force for conservation in more than a century. "He is one of the finest field biologists of our time," says writer Peter Matthiessen, whose 1979 National Book Award–winning classic The Snow Leopard depicts Schaller as the intensely private, indefatigable "GS" during their shared trek through the Himalaya. "He pioneered the practice of turning regions of field research into wildlife parks and preserves."

Schaller's work as a biologist includes the first studies of mountain gorillas in central Africa (which later served as a field manual for Dian Fossey), lions in the Serengeti, giant pandas in China's Wolong Mountains, snow leopards in Nepal, and chiru (antelope) in Tibet. His conservation efforts led to the protection of large stretches of the Amazon and the Pantanal in Brazil, the Hindu Kush in Pakistan, and upland forests in Southeast Asia, as well as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Tibet's massive Chang Tang Wildlife Preserve—in total, more than 20 parks and preserves worldwide.

For the two years leading up to this trip into the Afghan Pamir, Schaller worked on the far side of the Amu Darya river in Tajikistan, lobbying officials and tour operators to share fees from foreign trophy hunters with local herdsmen. Thirty-one years before that, he convinced Pakistan's then president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to create Khunjerab National Park on the Wakhan Mountains' southern flank. And for the past 20 years, he has spent more time in China than he has at home in Connecticut, much of it on the highland steppes of Tibet and Xinjiang, across the Wakhan's eastern frontier, where he pushed the Chinese to establish the second largest protected area in the world, the 115,500-square-mile (299,144-square-kilometer) Chang Tang preserve. If he could convince Kabul to get on board, support for his 20,000-square-mile (51,800-square-kilometer) International Pamir Peace Park would reach critical mass.

But Afghan officials couldn't justify sanctioning the preserve until they had reliable census data. How many Marco Polo sheep lived in the Wakhan? What was their range? What threats did they face? No one had attempted a thorough study here for 30 years. That was why Schaller had come to Afghanistan. Over the next two months, he planned to survey some 500 miles (805 kilometers) of the Wahkan region—on foot.

If the mission seemed to border on the absurd—searching for an elusive animal in a country beset by armed conflict and on the verge of its first democratic elections—Schaller was not the least bit deterred. "If you waited for the world to be quiet," he said, "you'd end up staying at home."

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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 >>

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