Live Blogging: Wildlife Conservation Society, George Schaller’s long reach in conservation

Text by Ryan Bradley and Mary Anne Potts

I’m sitting here at Rockefeller University’s Caspary Auditorium in New York City for a daylong lecture series featuring several of the world’s most interesting field biologists who are carrying the torch George Schaller lit more than six decades ago. It’s sure to be a remarkable day.

I walked in as Peter Zahler spoke on the conservation efforts in the Western Himalaya. Interestingly, Zahler and his colleagues have found that engaging the U.S. Military (specifically the Air Force) to help curb the illegal wildlife trade has been especially effective.


Now: Gorillas! Schaller pioneered mountain gorilla research and even inspired Dian Fossey. He is wonderfully meticulous in his research–even noticing that a large percentage of gorillas begin beating their chest with their left hand, rather than their right.

“George really set the standard. He not only set the standard, but wrote prolifically and wonderfully about nature.”

Mountain gorilla research continued, of course, from Schaller’s work in the 1960s. He identified 40 species of plant the gorillas picked out. Amy Vedder, in the 70s, found there were 130 or so–and they were picky eaters, even fighting over especially rare and sought after greens.

Conservation was slow-going in Rwanda in the 1970s–locals basically said “Why don’t you save gorillas in America?” They didn’t realize they had something special. Ecotourism began. Today, particularly in Rwanda, it is booming. A lot of people focused on the murders of the mountain gorillas last year, but, in that same time, there were 28 births.

Some words on Schaller: Dr. Schaller is arguably the most famous, important field biologist in the world, having studied some of the most iconic and endangered species on the planet. In the 1960s, lions and gorillas in Africa. In the 1970s, snow leopards and Marco Polo sheep and other species in the Himalaya, as well as tigers in India. In the 1980s, pandas…I could go on. But most impressive is Schaller’s ability to focus attention to one iconic species and, as a result, lobby to protect entire ecosystems.


Craig Packer is about to speak; he’s described as “the Dian Fossey of the lion world.”

Packer thanks George right off for his work and his book, The Serengeti Lion, which was nominated for a National Book Award. “George’s work made people realize that predators were not a threat to the system. That predators, in fact, were healthy for the system.” But, since that time, there’s been a lot of bad news.

“It’s one thing to have a gorilla come into your garden and pull up some celery, it’s another to have a lion come into your bedroom and kill you in your sleep.” Yikes. Apparently there is a lot of human lion conflict raging nowadays in Africa.

This is especially true around Tarangire National Park, in Tanzania, where lions travel far outside the park boundaries during the dry season and into villages. There’s been a 20 percent decline in the lion population in less than five years (about 40 animals killed by humans, from the looks of the graph, in that time).

Craig Packer is now detailing human-lion conflict, which in parts of Tanzania is brutal. There are places, near the parks, usually, where there has been an average of one attack every month for the past 15 years.

The retaliation for attacks, both on humans and livestock, are extreme. Packer tells the grisly story of a husband poisoning his wife’s half eaten body to kill the lions that killed her. Another problem is children/teenagers tending herds–lions can tell the difference between a child and an adult.

Hope for the future: Trophy hunting could be reformed, restricted.

There are real problems in East Africa with China, including a lot of illegal timber exports. There’s also the unfortunate realization that the Chinese are replacing tiger medicines with lions. So there’s a lot of demand on the illegal trade.

“The reason I’ve been focusing on Tanzania is that it’s the last large population–it’s really the last holdout for the lion.” (Besides Kruger, which is fenced, and Okavango, which is also fenced…but Tanzania isn’t.) “Is it time to think about fencing East Africa parks?” Packer concludes; now questions from the audience.

Packer continues on recommendations for trophy hunting. There are too many young male lions being hunted and killed. “You’re setting up a system with so much instability by killing young males–there’s no chance for offspring to survive. As populations are declining, the hunting companies are catering to a market that almost guarantees a kill. We’re trying to get the countries to inspect kills and institute age limits.”

“The problem with the hunting industry is that there’s no oversight. They just want to run it themselves. There’s a lot of insecurity in the hunting industry–it’s very short term, high exploitation, and few concerns about the long term. If there was a system in which people had more incentive to invest over the long term, it could become a positive.”

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Someone in the audience asks a question about cheetah conservation in Iran….

Packer’s response: “The Asiatic Cheetah used to range throughout the Middle East, but today there are only about 50 to 100 animals left…how the conservation program goes forward is a big question. A big problem is the lack of prey. There is very little left for the cheetahs to actually eat. And there is occasionally local killing, which with a population of that number has a big effect. But we’re hopeful.”


Packer: “There are a lot of countries, like Afghanistan, still getting a lot of foreign aid. And a lot of species, like mountain gorillas, that still capture people’s imagination and pocket books. But my worry is the places that we aren’t hearing about.”


Joel Berger, senior scientist WCS, specializes in “getting inside the brains of the animals. He sometimes goes one better and gets into the skins of the animals. He is known to the world as the guy in the moose-suit.” He’s been especially involved recently in the migration of the pronghorn and written the book, The Better to Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World. He works in Alaska, Mongolia, is hoping to work in Bhutan (to study yetis, perhaps?).

Berger begins by highlighting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where Schaller did some of his first work 50 years ago and helped lead to the park’s establishment. Then he compares Schaller to Brad Pitt in his role as Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet–Schaller and Harrer led a first ascent on Mt. Drum. “George climbs mountains. He goes places where no one has been before. He does things first.”

Berger on to highlight some of the major challenges facing the Arctic today. They are, basically, twofold: human development and climate change. Here are some interesting (terrifying) details:

– Frequency of tundra fires. “We don’t think of fires on the tundra.”
– Arctic fox in the mouth of a red fox–animals that are not native, and from warmer climes, creeping upward.
– Polar bears are getting stranded on the arctic coastal plane.
Some good(ish) news: “As glaciers recede we’re developing habitats”–Berger shows mountain goats on a hillside where a glacier used to be.

– Oil infrastructure–poles and buildings–have created habitats for birds of prey where there were none, thus effecting the nesting cycle of migratory birds who once came to the tundra because it was mostly predator free.

Berger then talks about musk ox, which he describes as “the quintessential arctic land mammal.” They have, he says, “elephant-like qualities.” Musk ox live in matriarchal social groups, have a protective herd structure, and as newborns are introduced to the herd. It’s a Pleistocene throwback. They’re a relic, and help us look backward while also looking forward. They’re going extinct throughout the world–they are only in North America and Greenland now. But there’s been a population collapse–from 400 to 10 left in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. GPS collering on the musk ox, plotting their movements, trying to understand growth rates, tracking how much weight they gain each year.

“The Arctic is spectacularly fragile. it’s not an area that sustains a lot of wildlife. Vast open areas are needed to sustain populations–the challenges are our impact and climate change. We can’t put our head in the sand on this–we need to preserve wide open wild spaces for these animals,” Berger concludes.


Amanda Fine is the Mongolia Country Program Director, and she is going to talk about conservation programs mainly on the Mongolian Steppe and primarily about the Mongolian gazelle.

The Eastern Steppe grasslands are ten times the size of the Serengeti–it’s an enormous space, one of the largest grasslands on Earth, and the most remote. There are about one million gazelle on the Steppe. An individual gazelle will range as much as 25,000 square kilometers in a year–that’s a range twice the size of Yellowstone. A single herd observed was roughly 200,000 individuals, virtually “a sea of gazelle on the steppe.” But this gathering was probably caused by a drought on the Steppe, which concentrated the population to one small, fertile area. So though it was encouraging (and the largest herd ever observed in Asia), it could mean bad things for the future.

The Mongolian gazelle is a true nomad–there is a totally unpredictable distribution throughout the Steppe. There aren’t certain movements at certain times of year. No seasonal migration. The range reduction has been severe–from about 1.1 million square kilometers to less than half that today, in large part due to a railroad, that cut the rangeland in half.

Its threats: overhunting, habitat destruction, and habitat change. The good news is that large-scale commercial hunting has been banned, but household hunting is not. There’s not a huge international market for the gazelle, like the Tibetan chiru, but it’s meat is popular locally. The proliferation of 4×4 vehicles and ATVs has made it easy to hunt and kill more than is necessary.

Fragmentaion on the Steppe is an issue: border fences between China and Mongolia limit gazelle movement. Concern, too, about more rail and conversion of pasture land to agriculture.

Fine is a trained veterinarian, and studied the relationship between the gazelle, nomad livestock, and Mongolian nomads. “Most of my time is now spent with people: communities with livestock herders, local officials, policy makers, those in the position to determine the future of the eastern steppe in Mongolia.”


Lu Zhi, director of the Shanshui Conservation Center, and the Executive Director of the Peking University Center for Nature and Society, on Conservation in China:

Zhi began her career researching giant pandas, then studied genetics in the US. Between 1995 and 2000 she led WFF’s Panda Program, and then led Conservation International’s program in China. She is ridiculously accomplished.

“What the panda symbolizes is far more than the panda itself.” Panda researching begin in earnest in 1980, with George Schaller. “In the 1980s, when people will still worrying about all of these political and economic changes, the panda program brought conservation to the forefront and was really the first of its kind.”

“I was always amazing by George Schaller–working in all sorts of different places and with differnet animals, but also in different political regimes and cultures…he’s survived it all.”

Zhi’s research: “Like many wildlife researchers, I started with poop.” (she shows slide) I large part of her reseach was figuring out how pandas survive off of such coarse, nutirent poor food like bamboo. It’s not a deficiency–it’s not why the panda is endangered, in other words. The other problem was the panda’s sexual habits–sex isn’t a problem for pandas, but it is in captivity (as is well known). She recalls the story of pandas at the Berlin and London zoo that were having problems mating, and only after months was it discovered they were both females.

Baby pandas, she says, are “small, fragile…but loud!” Mother’s are doting: in one case the panda mother didn’t leave the den or eat anything for 28 days. That’s probably why panda mothers in captivity often crush their babies–they are fed too soon after birth.

Zhi is a comedian! She tells a story about climbing into a den and imitating a mother’s call and the baby climbing up her. “I was a little embaressed,” she says, “Because I couldn’t offer much.”

“The point of all this reseach is that pandas don’t have an internal problem, as a species…the problem is with us.”

Logging is plauging panda habitats. The timber industry in China is huge, and local governments depend on most of their revenue from logging. Finally, it seems like it is tailing off because such severe erosion has caused terrible flooding.

Right now, panda are living in a pretty stable system. But we can never lay back because of past sucesses. Development has moved faster than conservation measures. “Panda corridors” between protected areas, are the next step.

Zhi brings up a really interesting point that economists often cite: that a society cannot really begin to focus on conservation in earnest until its GDP reaches a certain point. The challenge, then, is getting to that point without your consumption (and ecological destruction) going through the roof. The western world isn’t a good example of how to get there–certainly not the US.

Zhi goes on to use the example of Tibetan Buddhists, who are remarkable conservationists (though not with tiger skin ceremonies) despite being very poor. There’s a culture, a worship, to the land. Mountains are sacred, animals holy…these things don’t cost money to instill in your children.


Read about a very exciting tiger announcement here >>

Part II: Afternoon Sessions


“George Schaller brought this region to the world, he was the first person allowed in by the Chinese government,” notes Aili Kang, who manages the Western China Program and translated Schaller’s book Wildlife of the Tibetan Plateau. She tells how Schaller followed the relationship between the Tibetan antelope and the local people and wrote the “Bible” for conservation in Chang Tang. He still goes back almost every year.

The Chang Tang is such a remote area that many of the animals had never seen people. Kang tells a story of how a wolf walked around her tent totally unaffected by their presence on a recent trip.

After 20 years, many changes have happened on the Chang Tang, from conservation to local culture. The good news: now people know about
wildlife and conservation. The chiru, the highly coveted antelope whose fur is worth a bundle in black markets, was the mascot of the 2008 Olympic games in 2008. The local government also set up a good protection system–each county has 30 local rangers. People now know that the animals need to be protected. As a result, locals say they are seeing the animals, that populations are coming back.

But things are changing on the Chang Tang. People have started living in houses instead of tents. Young people use motorcycles instead of horses and yaks. They are no longer nomadic. This causes new challenges for conservation efforts. Poaching has been controlled, but local policemen say that if they stop working, all the progress disappears. This is because the international underground trade is so profitable. Anti-poaching efforts must be ongoing. So is development good? For local people, yes, it makes for a better life, but development without consideration of biodiversity causes big problems. Motorcycles are destroying grassland. Livestock can overgraze grasslands. Lifestock frences block wildlife migrations, can cause direct death of antelope.

Who is the problem? Some of the wildlife species is the problem to locals, like the brown bear, who kills sheep and gets into house. Dr. Schaller told asked conservations to speak to local people, listen to their ideas. The important step is to learn how to live together. “If we can try our best, we will get closer
to that kind of vision.


“Conserving Jaguars in Floodplain Ranchlands: The Rancher’s Approach”
Rafael Hoogesteijn, Pantanal Jaguar Project, Panthera

Brazil’s Pantanal, “south American Serengeti,” is 90 percent in private hands, which is a good thing, but then gets used for production of cattle. There are some 25 million heads cattle there, most living in floodplains. The area is now popular for sport fishing, so the jaguars have grown accustomed to watching people go down the rivers in boats. Jaguar tourism is also growing in the area, which results in new income for the community. One interesting note is that ranchers are finding ecotourism can generate higher revenue that what they can get from raising cattle.

The conflict between ranchers and jaguars is complex, and Schaller imparted his worry about the well-being of the ranchers, in addition to the jaguars. Panthera’s aim is to show that ranching can be profitable even while the jaguars are being protected. They are working on developing profitable ranching management while protecting the jaguars.

Conservationists are encouraging ranchers to consider water buffalo, which have many advantages over to cattle. Water buffalo are adapted to environment. They also know how to anticipate jaguars and have defensive behavior. Cattle, on the other hand, just scatter when a jaguar approaches. “Then when one cow goes down, the others think “what happened?” For the jaguar, it’s like going to Burger King,” notes Hoogesteijn.

Another effective strategy has been to vaccinate cattle for diseases. This actually gives the rancher 10 to 20 percent fewer cattle deaths, more than making up for the deaths due to jaguars.

Hoogesteijn remarks that it’s the person who has a cat living in back yard needs to receive our conservation efforts, which seems to be the overall theme of these talks. If the local community’s needs are not met, conservation is doomed to fail.

Photographs from top: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS; William Conway/WCS; Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

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