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George Schaller Speaks Out for Animals, the Environment

American biologist George Schaller has spent his life studying wild animals in more than 25 countries: from gorillas in Congo to snow leopards in Nepal to alligators in Brazil. At 75, he is being honored for his achievements in animal conservation with this year's Indianapolis Prize, given by the Indianapolis Zoo.

In announcing the award, Zoo president Michael Crowther called Schaller "the George Washington of conservation biology," noting, "there are generations of people, of conservationists, now, who grew up learning about conservation from George Schaller." In fact, primatologists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall were both inspired by his work.

Work Begins with Mountain Gorillas

Mountain gorillas were George Schaller's first great subject. In 1959, at the age of 26, he moved to Central Africa to live in the wild with the little-known beasts. He recalls they were far more beautiful than he had expected. "They are these great big longhaired, black-haired cuddly animals with soft brown eyes. You know they're your relatives, your kin. The biggest task was to be able to observe the animals so they don't run away. So, you slowly get them used to you until they see, 'Oh there's that Schaller again,' and forget it, and go on with their normal life. And that's the way you want it."

That was the beginning of a lifetime of discoveries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the 1970s, Schaller became one of two westerners to see a snow leopard in Nepal for the first time in nearly three decades. In 1988, he and his wife, Kay, were the first Westerners allowed into China's Chang Tang region to study giant pandas. His research led to the rebounding of panda populations, which Schaller showed were threatened by frequent capture for zoos.

With fellow biologist Alan Rabinowitz, Schaller discovered a new species of goat in Laos, the Saola, in 1994. In the same decade, he rediscovered the Vietnamese warty pig and the Tibetan red deer, species that had been both thought extinct.

Conservation Remains Primary Motivation

Yet the German-born Schaller says that the pleasure of studying animals is not his primary motivation. He says it is conservation that matters most -- and that poor countries like Rwanda and Congo have taken the lead in that. "[They are] extremely poor countries, yet they've preserved their forests, they've preserved their gorillas," he observes. "This is something the United States can learn from. We've been fighting for 50 years to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from being destroyed by the [administration in] Washington and oil companies, because they want to get in there, greedily get the oil." He calls it an act of ecological vandalism. "Nobody wants to think of the future. They want everything now."

Schaller says it will take the dedication of local communities, not just scientists, if the environment is to be saved. "If you really love something, if there's something that should remain as a country's natural heritage, you have to keep fighting, forevermore. Everything we have, this whole so-called civilization, is all dependent on environment: on the clean air, the water, the soil, the food… and unless communities start fighting for a healthier environment around them, there's not much hope."

Current Projects

George Schaller's current projects include a vast wildlife park in the Pamir Mountains, to be run jointly by Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. He's also working with the Panthera Foundation, to save tigers and other large cats.

Schaller says he'll use the $100,000 Indianapolis Prize to train local conservationists in the countries where he works. "They will train people who will then have students. So, generation after generation, the little bit that we started from, will increase in the country. So, you leave something behind that will be valuable, long after everybody's forgotten me."

American biologist George Schaller will receive the Indianapolis Prize at a ceremony in that city later this year. The organizers say it's meant to inspire the public to care about conservation, and to recognize field biologists as heroes who face down dangers and hardships to do their work.

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