This austral summer Conservacion Patagonica had the pleasure of hosting renowned field biologist Dr. George Schaller to Patagonia Park. Known for his incredible conservation efforts around the globe, Dr. Schaller has lived in the far reaches of the world studying some of the world’s most threatened and enthralling megafauna, including China’s giant pandas, Brazil’s jaguars, Afghanistan’s Marco Polo sheep, and Tanzania’s Serengeti lions. Vice President of Panthera and Senior Conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. Schaller is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Geographic Society’s Adventure magazine, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the China Environmental Prize, and many more.
Author of 16 books including The Serengeti Lion, The Last Panda, and Tibet’s Hidden Wilderness, one of Dr. Schaller’s greatest achievements was his role in the designation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). During his visit to Patagonia Park in January 2015, President Barack Obama had just proposed increased protection and regulation for 12 million acres of ANWR—great news for Dr. Schaller and his colleagues who have worked to protect this area since the 1950’s.
Dr. Schaller toured Patagonia Park with Wildlife Director Cristián Saucedo, observing huemul deer, guanacos, and meeting the park’s first rehabilitated baby Darwin’s rhea (also known as ñandu). It was a treat to watch him observe our rambunctious guanaco with his famed skills of patience and observation.
During his visit, Dr. Schaller presented some highlights of his life’s work to a packed room of park staff, visitors, and a lucky group of volunteers. George regaled us with stories of living amongst gorillas in Central Africa, tigers in India, and shared amazing photos of his sons playing with lion cubs near their old home in Tanzania.
“Every morning when I would go out, I would find something exciting” shared Dr. Schaller about his time in Tanzania. “We couldn’t let our children out without checking carefully first, because the lions would lie right by the house.”
After the presentation Dr. Schaller was kind enough to let us interview him on his relationship with wildlife, his opinion on national parks, and how much Patagonia has changed since his last visit nearly 30 years ago.
CP: It’s been a long time since you have visited Patagonia. What differences, if any, have you noticed in the landscape and wildlife?
GS: I have only visited Patagonia once before in 1986. This visit was brief too, but I was delighted to note that the area retained its extraordinary beauty, more tourists have come to appreciate the country, and that the government and individuals like Doug and Kris Tompkins are so devoted to protecting this beauty for the future of Chile.
CP: Do you recall your first meaningful encounter with wildlife?
GS: I suspect that one is drawn to nature for various reasons. Ever since I can remember, I liked roaming forests and meadows as a child, and, later, in high school I collected snakes and lizards for my terrarium and kept wild pets such as raccoon and opossum. Not until I went to the University of Alaska and helped in the wildlife department did I become aware that one could make a living observing animals and roaming around.
CP: What role have national parks played in your work? What do you see as national park’s role in regards to protecting megafauna?
GS: My first overseas studies, on gorillas, tigers, and lions, were all in parks where animals were moderately abundant, observable, and provided for the first time insights into their ecology and behavior. Then I purposely broadened my studies to survey and promote the protection of wildlife and habitats outside of parks. Given explosive population growth, resource consumption, and habitat destruction, national parks and other protected areas for many reasons are essential for the future of humankind, providing plant and animal species with a healthy environment and the functioning of ecosystems, preventing erosion, protecting watersheds, and so forth. Sadly, people and governments still don’t realize that, together with climate change, the decades ahead will see shortages of food, fresh water and other essentials because of our careless destruction of the environment.
CP: While studying gorillas in the Congo, you were instrumental in promoting gorilla tourism. What were your strategies for convincing the community to refocus on tourism? Has the program been successful?
GS: I made the first detailed study of mountain gorillas in 1959-1960 in what was then the Belgian Congo. I showed that when approached in a friendly manner they readily tolerate a person near the group. I did not promote tourism: my study was prematurely stopped during the turmoil during the Congo independence movement. The tourism program was developed by Amy Vedder and Bill Weber, a husband-wife team from the Wildlife Conservation Society in the 1980s. Using my techniques they habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda (though the Congo side of the national park remains periodically in turmoil). The government charges a fee—currently $500 per person for one hour with the gorillas—with most of the money going to communities for health and education. There is a dedicated guard force and guides who know every gorilla by name. It is an excellent program.
CP: During your visit to Patagonia Park, President Obama moved to ban energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What has been the reaction in the conservation community?
GS: I was a member of an expedition to the Brooks Range in northern Alaska in 1956 as a result of which the area became a reserve in 1960 and was enlarged in 1980. After oil was discovered near the reserve in the late 1960s, at Prudhoe Bay, the oil companies have wanted to invade and destroy the coastal area of the reserve, now called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America’s greatest wilderness, with the pipelines, roads drilling rigs and oil spills (Prudhoe Bay has 500 spills a year). This has been a major conservation fight now for decades with the two Bush presidents promoting drilling and our dysfunctional Congress too even though 70% of the public favors protection. President Obama wants the region set aside as a Wilderness area, but that needs approval of Congress which seems unlikely with so many of its members bought off by oil and other corporations. Shell is threatening to continue drilling offshore this year. Obama on his own could declare the area a National Monument.
CP: In your presentation, it was clear you put a large emphasis on incorporating local scientists and workers into your field studies. Has this made a difference in the continuation of those projects?
GS: Countries must be responsible for taking care of the own future by doing the science, managing the landscape and passing adequate laws and policies. Foreign nationals, if wanted, can help train people and offer advice. Each country in Latin America now has an excellent core of persons concerned with the environment, and various other countries, from Kenya to China, do too, but some still lag. I try to help by taking local staff and students with me in the field. After all it’s one important thing you can leave behind: someone to continue the work with enthusiasm and dedication and that person training the next generation.