Championing the wild

Shayan S. Khan talks to a heavyweight from the world of conservation.
Friday, January 4th, 2013

Dr.Russell Mittermeier speaking at WildTeam office. Photo: WildTeam

By almost any measure you may care to mention, Russell Mittermeier is a colossus in   the field of conservation. One of the world’s foremost primatologists, he is also trained as a herpetologist, and is an established authority in in the field of biological anthropology as well. Since 1989, Dr Mittermeier has served as the president of Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organisation based in Arlington, Virginia of the United States, with a stated mission to protect nature, and its biodiversity for the benefit of humanity.


Listed in the top 100 charities in the US by Forbes, CI employs over 900 people in 30 offices around the globe, and is said to have contributed to the protection of more than 260 million acres of land and sea. That being said, CI doesn’t have a program in Bangladesh, and why not is one of the first questions I put to him on a cold December morning in Dhaka recently, during his first visit to the country that was hosted by WildTeam, formerly the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh.


“We started off mainly as an organisation focused on South America and a few Central American countries,” Dr Mittermeier tells me, alluding to CI’s beginnings in the late Eighties by two former employees of the Nature Conservancy. “When I got in, we moved into Madagascar and a few other African countries. We used to have a heavy focus on rainforest areas, more recently we moved into Cambodia, China. But we just never got to this region, although now we’re supporting some projects in the Western Ghats of India.”


Soon into its existence, CI committed itself to the protection of biodiversity hotspots, and has thus far identified 35 such spots around the world, the latest addition to the list being the forests of East Australia. It joined the likes of New Caledonia, the Eastern Himalayas, and the tropical Andes in an impressive roll call of nature’s greatest bounties.


A biodiversity hotspot, by the way, is defined by Norman Myers, a British environmentalist, as “a biogeographic region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity under threat from humans”. The obvious question on my mind was whether there was any likelihood of our very own Sundarbans one day joining this list. It is, in its entirety, the largest mangrove forest in the world after all. The ecological significance of the Sundarbans cannot be questioned after all, with its complex ecosystem comprising two distinct ecoregions – the freshwater swamp forests, and the mangroves.


I was burdening under the impression that many conservation projects are the outcome of effective communication, even lobbying, campaigns, that are carried as much by the weight of dollars and celebrity as the substance informing the urgency of protecting the gifts bestowed by nature or providence. I came to learn however that the definition of a biodiversity hotspot was subsequently refined, with certain parameters set to help identify them beyond merely subjective reasons. The 34 regions CI worked with before the latest addition all qualified on the basis of meeting those parameters.


What is most interesting about the Sundarbans, according to Dr Mittermeier, is the proximity of wildlife to the human population. He had touched upon a similar theme at the start of our meeting, when he expressed his interest in finding out “how a country with the highest human population density in the world also manages to have one of the most important wilderness areas in the world.”


He returns to that topic now, and what makes it really interesting and relevant, by expounding upon an important trend in worldwide conservation efforts.


“The  action now in conservation is really in working with local communities. Governments are important, and they can talk a lot. But ultimately, if the local communities are not fully engaged, no conservation effort will succeed in reaping the benefits it desires.”


That interplay between local communities and wildlife makes for particularly interesting observation in Bangladesh, due to the relatively small size of the landmass and high population density. He is full of praise for the work being done by WildTeam (formerly the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh) in breaching the gap between local communities and the wildlife they often live alongside, singling out initiatives such as the Tiger Teams trained by them under their Sundarbans Tiger Project as worthy of replication elsewhere.


“I think it’s brilliant, and could be replicated anywhere there are tiger populations, especially given that wherever there are tigers, the human population density tends to be high as well.”


Of course, while talking about the Sundarbans, one cannot avoid the topic of its “flagship species”, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Even though he admits tigers are not his area of expertise (from amongst Bangladeshi wildlife, he expresses his greatest interest in the Hoolock Gibbon, a primate, and the freshwater soft-shell turtles famous for washing up on the shore of the Bayazid Bastami shrine in Chittagong), he concedes their “enormous importance” by dint of their symbolic value across cultures, including in regions where they don’t occur.


“Just given their cultural significance, the few countries that still have viable tiger populations such as here, need to do everything they can to conserve them,” according to the man often hailed as The Indiana Jones of Conservation. Incidentally, the real Indiana Jones, Hollywood legend Harrison Ford, serves on the CI board as its vice-chairman.


Having said that, given the majestic stature of the tiger, is there a risk of it monopolising attention as far as conservation efforts go in a country such as Bangladesh, away from other species that may be equally in need of such efforts being directed towards them?


Dr Mittermeier answers in the definitive, and immediately mentions the case of the Hoolock Gibbon. The Hoolock is a special primate. It is the only ape in South-Asia. Together with the South-East Asian gibbons, they are called “lesser apes” or “small apes”, since they are significantly smaller than the great apes: chimpanzees, orang-utans, gorillas and bonobos. But over the last few decades, their numbers have dropped rapidly, till now it is estimated less than 200 remain in the country.


“Primates in general are very important collections. The Hoolock’s not at the level of the tiger, as far as global heritage species go. But it’s at the next level down. Your freshwater turtles are important too. All your biodiversity is worth conserving!”


Before I take his leave, Dr Mittermeier goes on a rant against the scourge of poaching, branding “wildlife hunting to serve the huge Chinese market” as the biggest danger to the biodiversity of high-priority hotspot areas, overriding other ills such as climate change. For this to happen, he highlights the critical importance of a “concerted effort to control it at the source of demand as well as the point at which it occurs”.


As we wrap up the conversation, closely watched all the while by a CI communications officer from Japan, somewhat clumsily I ask whether he believes there is still “hope” for the tiger. He sounds almost offended at first. Yet in one of those strange moments of journalistic good fortune, this gaffe ends up producing the most inspiring answer for anyone involved in the conservation effort for tigers in Bangladesh.


“As long as you still have a viable population, there’s hope. If you were down to two or three tigers, it could have gotten tricky, but you’ve got one of the best populations left, and 10,000 square kilometres of habitat, which is bigger than any one habitat in India, possibly even Russia. Clearly you’ve got one of the most important tiger populations in the world, so there’s plenty of hope.”


He proceeds to recount tales of a host of species that had come back from the brink, even as low as “half-a-dozen individuals, and yet now are said to be “thriving”, such as the California Condor. And in any case, for “Russ” Mittermeier:


“Even if you’re down to one last pregnant female, there’s hope.”

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