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Saturday, June 22, 2024
Conservation king

George Schaller: Schaller in Tibet, 1985. Schaller has become a major force in the enivronmental conservation movement worldwide.

Conservation king

Considered the world's finest field biologist, George Schaller has been a giant in the conservation community for the last 50 years. Schaller's message for today's students: Every student that goes to any university should have a mandatory course on the environment, whether they're going into law, medicine or physics. They can't have economic degrees and not think about the environmental consequences."" In other words, along with English comprehension and world history survey courses, students should also gain some ecological literacy. 


For as long as he can remember, Schaller was always attracted to the outdoors and to other creatures, but he focused on outdoor research while pursuing his doctorate degree in zoology at UW-Madison. His mentor here was John Emlen, a renowned naturalist and ornithologist.  


""He was a terrific mentor and teacher who was a huge influence because he taught good science and concern for conservation,"" Schaller said.  


Through those qualities, Schaller also gleaned from Emlen a respect for solid research and ethical values as they apply to research.  


Environmentalism and ethics are natural bedfellows in Schaller's worldview. He cautions: ""Unless you can convince people of the spiritual value of the environment, the cause is lost."" 


This view seems to have started when Schaller began his doctoral work at UW from 1955-1962. He took a life-changing trip to Congo with Emlen to study mountain gorillas. Although Emlen returned to UW a few months later, Schaller remained in Africa to continue the project. The most important lesson he learned was caring about the future of the animal being studied.  


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""By the future, I don't mean tomorrow, but generations thereafter,"" Schaller said.  


Spending time with mountain gorillas impressed on him the evolutionary and environmental connection humans have not just with the gorillas, but with all other animals.  


From that experience, Schaller spent decades traveling the world studying a variety of animals: Marco Polo sheep in Afghanistan, tigers in India, lions in Tanzania and giant pandas in China, among others. He has written scores of books and was most famously referred to throughout Peter Matthiessen's ""The Snow Leopard,"" published in 1978. 


Schaller increasingly finds himself in the role of global political advocate for the environment, with the constant struggle over whether to destroy natural heritage for quick profit, or save it for future generations. Closer to home, he helped in promoting the establishment of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a historic American preserve in 1960. He has been fighting for its preservation ever since. ""Here's America's greatest wilderness area. Fifty years later, we are still trying to keep administrations and oil companies from drilling oil there. It's hard to get people to care.""  


For Schaller, the frustration lies in two phenomena. The first is that Americans are more distracted than ever by the noise in the political and social landscape. ""The environment is very peripheral to people - they're concerned about making a living and raising their families."" 


The second phenomenon lies in what Schaller views as the laziness of the media to make environmental and conservation issues important. The reality, says Schaller, is that ""everybody needs to be an environmentalist because everybody uses and needs the environment. Without a healthy environment we don't have a healthy economy."" 


Recent focus on climate change, and the projected societal and economic fallout from doing nothing, has raised the level of awareness. From Schaller's perspective, our every act has ecological ramifications: turning on the light switch, the water tip, driving the car or eating food.  


""If people want a good quality of life for the future, they have to fight for it. It will take a change in culture and character. That is not so easy,"" he said.  


Harder still is acknowledging that our bounty has come at the hands of the environmental degradation of other countries, and that it's catching up to us. 


Although raising consciousness may seem like an uphill battle, Schaller is optimistic about what incoming students can do to change this dynamic. For starters, they must follow their own vision and do something beyond themselves - contribute to society in some way.  


""In this century, everybody has a moral responsibility in some way or other to contribute to conservation ... be sure your efforts do the least amount of damage,"" Schaller said.  


Schaller points to Wisconsin as a state that has produced such icons in the conservation movement as John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Hailing from Portage, Wis., Muir planted the seeds of what we now recognize as the U.S. conservation movement. Leopold, the ""father of wildlife management,"" became  

UW-Madison's professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department in 1933. ""Leopold's Sand County Almanac, published in the late 1940s, is the bible of conservationists,"" Schaller said. 


Americans are in the throes of an intense election cycle, and students have discovered that their voices are finally being heard and taken seriously. With the environment equally at stake as the economy, the war in Iraq and health care, Schaller reminds us,""The right to vote is meaningless unless you have the knowledge to vote with a little bit of wisdom.

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