By Patrice O’Shaughnessy of the
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.
“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.”
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
Schaller was deemed “perhaps the greatest force for conservation in more than a century” by National Geographic magazine.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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. …”