A Force for Endangered Species: George Schaller

By Patrice O’Shaughnessy of the New York Daily News

Tuesday, February 24th 2009, 1:24 AM

He’s an unassuming man, with gray hair, pale eyes and a measured voice. But if not for George Schaller, there’d probably be a lot less spectacular beauty in the world.

At 75, he has devoted half a century to saving endangered creatures and habitats all over the planet. It’s a never-ending task.

“You can never relax, and say something is okay,” he said, and noted a new threat.

The influx of Chinese workers to Africa, he said, has spawned a trade in lion bones, sent back to China for medicinal purposes.

“In Kenya, they put an insecticide in cow carcasses, and they kill off the whole pride,” he said. “There are only about 20,000 lions left in the world.”

Schaller is on the case.

And he says he’ll keep at his conservation efforts “for another 25 years.”

The senior conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Schaller has an office in the Bronx Zoo, but you’ll rarely see him there.

He visits animals in the wild, living for months or years at a time observing snow leopards in Pakistan, gorillas in Rwanda, lions in the Serengeti, pandas in China and the last Asiatic cheetahs in Iran to better learn how to protect them.

We caught up with him at the zoo last week, where he has been a researcher in animal behavior with the WCS since 1966, before he embarks on a round of trips to Iran, Brazil and Tibet.

Schaller was deemed “perhaps the greatest force for conservation in more than a century” by National Geographic magazine.

His efforts have led to the protection of threatened jungles and forests in Asia and South America, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Discover magazine said he is considered the finest field biologist of our time.

Schaller has spent 50 years up close with exotic animals, tracking them, jotting notes in a small notebook and taking photographs, doing it the old-fashioned way.

He conducted a groundbreaking ecological study of mountain gorillas when he was 25, becoming the first scientist to live in their habitat. Now he is focusing on Marco Polo sheep, notable for their majestic spiral horns.

“Professors said gorillas were too dangerous, but I found them very congenial. They’re big, beautiful hairy relatives,” he said.

“I started out because I like to watch animals; that’s the fun part,” he said.

“Then, you have to worry about livelihood of communities” encroaching on the habitats.”

At 14, after World War II, he came to the U.S. from Berlin with his American mother, and retains a slight German accent. His first field trip was to the Arctic slope in Alaska.

“The oil companies wanted to drill. Luckily, they didn’t,” he said. As of 2006, “the place is still beautiful .. . no roads, lots of caribou and grizzly bears.”

He and his wife, Kay, “the perfect co-worker,” raised two sons in exotic locales. She still accompanies him on some trips.

“The most wonderful place is Serengeti and Tanzania,” he said. “You literally see a million animals spread before you.”

He writes even more than he travels. Schaller has penned seven books and scores of articles with titles like, “Courtship Behavior of the Wild Goat,” and “Effects of a Snowstorm on Tibetan Antelope.”

On Thursday, Schaller will preside at a symposium at Rockefeller University on Manhattan‘s East Side.

It’s a commemoration of his years with the WCS, celebrating his contribution to science. A panel of international conservationists will examine the status of key species and landscapes that Schaller has brought to the world’s attention.

Is he excited about the symposium? He looked a little uncomfortable, and said, “Why do you think I am always overseas?”

Schaller is passionate, though, about his prized project, first conceived in the 1980s.

He envisions the Pamir International Peace Park, at the nexus of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. It will be a refuge for Marco Polo sheep.

“We had a meeting of all four countries,” he said.

He has never let war, strife, the political squabbles of humans or borders stop him.

As he wrote in one of his books, “I live in a geography of dreams. …”



Snow Leopard Photographer Steve Winter Wins World Press Photo Contest

On 13 February 2008, Steve Winter won first prize in the Nature Stories category of the 52nd annual World Press Photo Contest for his June 2008 NG article and photographs, “Snow Leopards: Out of the Shadows”.

About the contest:

The annual World Press Photo contest is at the core of the organization’s activities. It offers an overview of how press photographers tackle their work worldwide and how the press gives us the news, bringing together pictures from all parts of the globe to reflect trends and developments in photojournalism.

How to Enter
The contest is open to all professional press photographers. There is no entry fee.
Not only photographers, but photo agencies, newspapers and magazines from anywhere in the world are invited to submit their best news-related pictures of the previous year. Both single images and photo stories are eligible. The results are published on this website. Entry forms for the contest come out in October. To enter the 2009 contest click here.

Judging & Results
Judging takes place at the beginning of February each year. The contest jury comprises thirteen picture editors, photographers and representatives of press agencies from different parts of the world, with widely divergent backgrounds.

This brings to the process a breadth of experience, a variety of perception, and a contrast in viewpoint that keeps judging dynamic and bolsters objectivity. The jury acts independently of World Press Photo, and the organization has no influence on its decisions.

Winners are announced at a press conference in the second week of February. Prizewinning photographers are invited to receive their awards at the annual Awards Days in Amsterdam at the end of April.


KaraFilm festival: Informative, thought-provoking films mark third day

Saturday, February 07, 2009
By our correspondent


The third day of the Kara Film Festival saw a flurry of activity with a screening of 11 films, seven short ones, two documentaries, and two feature films.

Within the short films section was the 48-minute local film, “Gurmukh Singh ki Wasiyat” (Gurmukh Sigh’s Will). Based on a short story by Saadat Hasan Minto, written and directed by Sharjeel Baloch, the story is set in Amritsar during Partition, and depicts the accompanying riots.

The film is centred around the family of a retired Muslim judge, Mian Saheb. Muslim families of the area migrate to Pakistan or leave to seek refuge, and Mian Saheb has great trust in his dear friend, Gurmukh Singh, a revered area elder.

While Gurmukh Singh’s son honours his father’s will to bring sweet vermicelli on Eid to the Muslim household, he remains powerless to prevent his peers from burning and looting.

Afterwards, Sharjeel thanked his crew and the actors who put in a lot of effort, shooting the film within five days at Kotri. He was thankful to the people of Kotri who welcomed the crew warmly in to their homes, many of which last from the pre-Partition era, thus giving an air of authenticity to the scenes and bringing alive the past.

The second documentary, a BBC production for their Planet Earth series, was about snow leopards in Chitral, NWFP. The unique aspect of this production is the visual documentation of the behaviour of the snow leopards on the steep mountains. Narrated by renowned wildlife documentary maker, Sir David Attenborough, the celestial beauty of snow-decked valleys, and the engaging delivery of Sir Attenborough drew the audience’s rapt attention.

Nisar Malik, veteran journalist and filmmaker, who was commissioned to seek out and film the rare beast, was also present at Friday’s screening. He said that within four years of shooting, they saw only four snow leopards.

Responding to a question about whether the documentary might further endanger the animal for hunters and poachers, Malik said that during their four years, they exposed numerous instances of trophy poaching and illegal hunting in the land of the Markhor. The authorities, however, turned a blind eye, he said.

Unfortunately, the only way Pakistanis will be able to see the documentary is either on BBC or on the Indian Discovery channel in Hindi, as none of the channels in Pakistan was willing to screen it, not even PTV.


Wildlife – Kashmir’s Other Conflict

ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Wildlife – Kashmir‘s Other Conflict
By Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, Feb 5 (IPS) – Decades of separatist militancy in Indian Kashmir and the massive response to it by the armed forces have taken a toll on human life. But, what is less known is the fact that this and other human activity have exacerbated dangers posed to the state’s wildlife.

“Human-animal conflicts have assumed alarming proportions in the region,’’ Asghar Inayati, regional wildlife warden, told IPS.

“Every now and then we receive reports of attacks by wild animals causing death, injuries (sometimes serious) to human beings and livestock. Over the last three years 49 people and 404 animals have died in these conflicts,” Inayati said.

But, in that period, more than 200 wild animals were also rescued and released into the wild by staff of the wildlife department who intervened in potential conflict situations.

“Animals are often get killed, captured or are harmed in retaliation and these conflicts are a major threat to the continued survival of many species,” A. K. Srivastava, chief wildlife warden of the region, reported to the government recently.

In the winter of 2006 a frenzied mob burnt a bear to death in a hamlet of Kashmir‘s Tral township. Over the last few years there have been many such incidents where people have tried to capture the animals or kill them.

This despite the fact that killing the Asian black bear, which has been declared an endangered species under the Indian Wildlife Act, carries a prison sentence of 2-6 years.

Srivastava believes that the steadily decreasing forest cover, a result of legal and illegal logging operations and human encroachments into the forest, is a direct cause for increasing encounters between humans and animals.

Since the start of the armed insurgency in Kashmir in 1989, the central government has massively boosted the presence of army and paramilitary forces which are mostly deployed in the forest areas, particularly along the fenced Line of Control (LoC) that divides Indian Kashmir from the Pakistan-administered part of the territory.

“The conflict between the military and the militants in Kashmir is indirectly contributing to the increase in the number of man-animal conflicts,’’ a forest official who cannot be identified because of briefing rules told IPS.

“Due to human movement in the forests and the fencing of the LoC, the natural habitat of the wild animals has got disturbed; this is one of the reasons that they stray into human settlements,’’ he said.

Unofficial figures put the number of army and paramilitary troops deployed in the state at around one million, but the government disputes this figure saying it is “far smaller than that’’.

The army and paramilitary have set up camps in the forest areas where they believe militants often take refuge. “Presently there are over 671 security camps in Kashmir which occupy more than 90,000 acres of land,” says rights activist Gautam Navlakha.

Following a ceasefire agreement with Pakistan in 2003, India erected a patrolled, security fence along the 742-km-long LoC.

India accuses Pakistan of training Kashmiri militants on its side of the LoC and pushing them into Indian Kashmir. “The fence may have stopped the militants from crossing over to this side of LoC, but it has had an impact on the natural habitat of wild animals in the process,” says the forest official.

“There are several other factors also responsible for increasing incidents of conflict between wild animals and humans. These include shrinkage of habitat due to expanding human population, livestock and developmental activities, changes in the land-use pattern, decline in the natural prey base, climate change and urbanisation,” says Abdul Rouf Zargar, a wildlife warden.

According to Zargar, wild animals endangered by conflict with humans include the Asiatic Black Bear, Common Leopard, Rhesus Monkey and Langur.

Kashmir is home to several animal species that are listed as endangered like the Kashmiri red stag called ‘Hangul’ and the Snow Leopard (also called ounce). Hanguls were once a major attraction in the mountain-ringed forests of Dachigam near Srinagar, summer capital of Kashmir.

The Hangul is the only surviving sub-species of the red deer family in the world, and after its population declined to about 150, the wildlife department began, this year, a programme of captive breeding to save it from extinction.

Efforts by the wildlife department to save the Snow Leopard, listed as ‘endangered’ in the IUCN (International Conservation Union) red list of threatened animals, include helping sheep and goat farmers to build better barricades and shelters for livestock.

While the Snow Leopard rarely attacks humans, its predatory habits lead them into livestock shelters, entering through ventilators or broken doors and windows. Here they are often trapped and killed.

Wildlife authorities have issued advisories to the citizens to try and minimise chances of conflict with the wild animals and have supplemented it with a number of guidelines for them to follow.

“We cannot stop these incidents entirely, but we are making efforts to minimise them,” says Inayati. “We have taken a number of measures like the constitution of coordination committees, comprehensive management plan for handling the conflicts, and research studies on conflicts and animals involved.”

Recently, the wildlife department began a programme of studying the Asiatic Black Bear’s home ranges, habitat use, breeding nature and behavioural traits. “We fixed radio collars around the neck of the bears and tracked theri movements,‘’ says Intisar Suhail, wildlife warden in central Kashmir.

“We captured one aggressive bear a couple of months ago and kept it under semi-captivity at Dachigam National Park. We released it to study its behavioural pattern of this animal using the radio collar and then recaptured it when it started attacking humans again,” Suhail told IPS.

“Now we will subject him to the ‘aversion technique’ by which animals are subjected to unpleasant stimulus so that it avoids human populations and stays in the forest areas,’’ he said.


Shafqat Hussain honored for work with snow leopards


Eli honored for work with snow leopards

Ilana Seager

Staff Reporter

Published Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Love is blind, and Shafqat Hussain GRD ‘08 learned this the hard way. Despite having devoted his professional life to his passion for saving snow leopards, the closest he has come to one is the zoo gift store.

Yesterday, Hussain, a doctoral student in anthropology and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was officially named one of 10 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2009 for his work with snow leopards in northern Pakistan. The $10,000 research grant, which recognizes adventurers for their contributions to world knowledge, will allow Hussain to continue to work with local communities to ensure the survival of this endangered species.

Hussain first appeared on the international radar when he pioneered Project Snow Leopard in 1998, a self-funding livestock insurance scheme that offers Pakistani villagers compensation for any livestock they lose to snow leopards. But some environmentalists remain unconvinced that insurance is the only way to save the majestic cat.

“Our program is still expanding,” Hussain said in an interview with the News. “We don’t have any grand visions or plans. We just somehow want to see that large conservation projects that are funded by international agencies can see that the approach of separating human society from the environment is not the answer.”

Hussain dreamt up Project Snow Leopard after witnessing the threat snow leopard populations pose to local villages in the Skoyo and Basha valleys of north Pakistan. The cats hunt the villagers’ livestock — their only source of income. The villagers, in return, hunt the cats to protect their livelihood, creating a vicious circle of predation.

The idea has taken off since it was put into effect in Pakistan and serves as a model for similar projects in India, China and Nepal, Hussain said.

“Shafqat Hussain’s Project Snow Leopard is an example of innovative thinking and the ability to balance the needs of individuals, communities and the environment,” said Cheryl Zook, National Geographic’s manager of Emerging Explorers and Special Projects. “It is an example of forward-thinking, holistic conservation work.”

But Hussain is not your average conservationist. With an undergraduate degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in economics, a master’s in biology — and soon enough, a Ph.D. in anthropology — the son of a Pakistani civil servant has sampled a wide range of disciplines. His heart, though, has remained with the imposing mountain landscape he recalls admiring in his childhood.

“When I was young I used to go to the hills,” Hussain said. “I found out there were these amazing mountains in the north, and I knew that I wanted to go back and work there.”

His own fascination with nature convinced him that the solution to problems of conservation was not to artificially separate humans from their natural surroundings.

This view has shaped his outlook on national parks, which he sees as sources of historical conflict and as an ineffective means of preserving nature.

“The whole idea of the national park is enshrined in this philosophy that there is wilderness and pristine nature and that it’s timeless,” he said. “But historical records show that there is no part of the world that hasn’t been touched by humans.”

But Todd Remaley, chief ranger with the Appalachian Trail, argues that Hussain’s idea — that nature and humans should coexist naturally — is not in opposition to the thinking behind a national park.

While he acknowledged that there is no one right way to tackle all problems of conservation, Remaley remained doubtful that programs like Project Snow Leopard could be entirely effective without the environmental preservation that the national park framework provides.

“On the surface it sounds like he’s found a solution, but what is he doing to preserve the habitat?” Remaley said. “One of the biggest problems facing endangered species today is the destruction of their habitats.”

But Hussain argues that such thinking — conceiving of an animal’s habitat as wilderness — represents a “typically first world view of nature conservation.”

“A habitat is separate from human society,” he said. “Humans have been part of the same habitat for millions of years, so clearly it is not their presence, but their behavior and

practices that are [at fault]. And that is what we are trying to address.”

Only two sightings of snow leopards have taken place in the past fifty years.