ExplorersBio

Wade Davis

Anthropologist/Ethnobotanist

Explorer-in-Residence, 2000–2013
Explorers Council

Photo: Wade Davis

Photograph by Mark Thiessen

Wade Davis is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia and the high Arctic of Nunuvut and Greenland.

An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing Passage of Darkness (1988) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller later released by Universal as a motion picture.

His other books include Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990), Shadows in the Sun (1993), Nomads of the Dawn (1995), One River (1996), which was nominated for the 1997 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction, The Clouded Leopard (1998), Rainforest (1998), Light at the Edge of the World (2001), The Lost Amazon (2004), Grand Canyon (2008), Book of Peoples of the World (ed. 2008) and The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, the 2009 Massey lectures. His books have been translated into fifteen languages, including Basque, Serbian, Korean, Mandarin, Bulgarian, Japanese and Malay, and have sold approximately 800,000 copies worldwide.

Davis’s latest books include: Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, published by Knopf 2011 and The Sacred Headwaters published by Greystone, also in 2011. In 2012 and 2013 three additional books will appear including a second book of photographs covering Davis’s work 2000-2010. Davis will edit the journals of Oliver Wheeler, and also produce a work of literary nonfiction on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Sheets of Distant Rain will follow in 2014.

Davis is the recipient of numerous awards including: The Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers Club (2011), the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (2009), the 2002 Lowell Thomas Medal (The Explorer’s Club) and the 2002 Lannan Foundation $125,000 prize for literary non-fiction. He has been granted Honorary Degrees (Doctorate of Sciences) from University of Victoria (2003), University of Guelph (2008), and Colorado College (2010), and (Doctorate of Laws) from the University of Northern British Columbia (2010) and the National College of Natural Medicine (2011). In 2004 he was made an Honorary Member of the Explorer’s Club, one of twenty. In 2012 he will receive the David Fairchild Medal, the most prestigious award for botanical exploration.

A native of British Columbia, Davis, a licensed river guide, has worked as park ranger, forestry engineer, and conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies of northern Canada. He has published 185 scientific and popular articles on subjects ranging from Haitian vodoun and Amazonian myth and religion to the global biodiversity crisis, the traditional use of psychotropic drugs, and the ethnobotany of South American Indians. Davis has written for National Geographic, Newsweek, Premiere, Outside, Omni, Harpers, Fortune, Men's Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Natural History, Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, and numerous other international publications.

His photographs have appeared in some 20 books and more than 80 magazines, journals and newspapers, including National Geographic, Time, Geo, People, Men’s Journal, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure. They have been exhibited at the International Center of Photography (I.C.P.), the Marsha Ralls Gallery, Washington, D.C., the United Nations (Cultures on the Edge exhibition 2004), the Carpenter Center of Harvard University, and the Utama Center, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Select images are part of the permanent collection of the U.S. State Department, Africa and Latin America Bureaus. Davis is the co-curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and currently touring Latin America.

A first collection of Davis’ photographs, Light at the Edge of the World, appeared in 2001 published by National Geographic Books, Bloomsbury and Douglas & McIntyre. A second collection is under contract for fall 2013 publication with Douglas & McIntyre.

Davis’ research has been the subject of more than 900 media reports and interviews in Europe, North and South America and the Far East, and has inspired numerous documentary films as well as three episodes of the television series, The X-Files.

A professional speaker for over twenty-five years, Davis has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, California Academy of Sciences, Missouri Botanical Garden, Field Museum of Natural History, New York Botanical Garden, National Geographic Society, Royal Ontario Museum, the Explorer's Club, the Royal Geographical Society, the Oriental Institute, Musée du Quai Branly, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, the Chattaugua Institute, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank as well as some 150 universities, including Harvard, M.I.T., Oxford, Yale, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Pennsylvania, Tulane and Georgetown.

He has spoken at the Aspen Institute, Bohemian Grove and on numerous occasions for the Young President’s Organization and at the TED Conference. His clients have included amongst others Microsoft, Shell, Hallmark, Fidelity Investments, International Baccalaureate, Bank of Nova Scotia, MacKenzie Financials, Healthcare Association of Southern California, National Science Teachers Association, Promega, NDMA (Non-prescriptive Drug Manufacturers Association), International Baccalaureate, European Council of International Schools, Canadian Association of Petroleum Geologists, Canadian Association of Exploration Geophysicists, American Trial Lawyer’s Association, American Judges Association, American Bankers Association, Centaur Technology, Canadian Association of Actuaries, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, as well as several leading pharmaceutical companies including Warner-Lambert, Bayer, Miles, Bristol-Myers, and Abbott Laboratories.

An Honorary Research Associate of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, he is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, Fellow of the Explorer's Club, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Davis was a founding board member of the David Suzuki Foundation and he recently completed a six-year term on the board of the Banff Centre, Canada’s leading institution for the arts. He currently serves on the board of the Amazon Conservation Association. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey lectures, Canada’s most prestigious public intellectual forum.

Davis was the series creator, host and co-writer of Light at the Edge of the World, a four-hour ethnographic documentary series, shot in Rapa Nui, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Nunuvut, Greenland, Nepal and Peru, which is currently airing in 165 countries on the National Geographic Channel and in the USA on the Smithsonian Network. He is a principal character in Grand Canyon Adventure, a 3D IMAX film, released by MacGillivray Freeman in 2008. Currently playing in 55 theatres worldwide, the film has grossed $30 million. Other television credits include the award winning documentaries, Spirit of the Mask, Cry of the Forgotten People, Forests Forever, and Earthguide, a 13 part television series on the environment, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 1990. Davis has recently completed a new four-hour series for the National Geographic, Ancient Voices/Modern World, which was shot in Australia, Mongolia, and Colombia. It is currently airing worldwide on the National Geographic Channel as the second season of Light at the Edge of the World.

Davis is a member of the International Advisory Board, Hunt Consolidated, PLNG, and is also currently engaged in a three-year campaign, Journey to Zero, an effort sponsored by Nissan and TBWA to support zero emission vehicles.

When not in the field, he and his wife Gail Percy divides their time between Washington, D.C., Vancouver and the Stikine Valley of northern British Columbia. They have two daughters, Tara 23, and Raina 20.

Inside National Geographic Magazine

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    Sierra Nevada Indians

    In a bloodstained continent, the Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta were never truly vanquished by the Spaniards. Descendants of an ancient South American civilization called the Tayrona and numbering perhaps 45,000 today, the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa peoples fled death and pestilence four centuries ago, seeking refuge in a mountain paradise, whose peaks soar more than 18,000 feet above the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Kids

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    Nat Geo E-Team

    What are Wade Davis and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.

News

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    Save the Sacred Headwaters

    In a rugged knot of mountains in the remote reaches of northern British Columbia lies a stunningly beautiful valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, on the southern edge of the Spatsizi Wilderness, the Serengeti of Canada, are born in remarkably close proximity three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers, the Stikine, Skeena and the Nass.

In Their Words

The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.

-Wade Davis

Videos

  • Photo: Wade Davis

    CBC Interview

    Author and adventurer Wade Davis talks about WW1, Everest, and what it's like studying zombies.

Books

Audio

Listen to Wade Davis

Hear an interview with Davis on National Geographic Weekend.

  • 00:11:00 Wade Davis

    National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis joins Boyd to talk about the early explorers who took it upon themselves to conquer the world’s tallest mountain and a final frontier of exploration: Mount Everest. Davis gives a sneak peak of his upcoming book Into the Silence.

Speakers Bureau

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