Tuesday, 10 Jun 2003

PALISADES, N.Y.

Yesterday was consumed with responding to press inquiries about the monkeypox virus and the dangers of getting sick from viruses in imported exotic animals in the pet trade. It is likely that, in addition to the monkeypox hitchhiking to Wisconsin on a giant Gambian pouched rat, West Nile virus traveled to the U.S. in a mosquito or bird in the pet trade. Global travelers — both wildlife and human — are increasing in numbers and bringing diseases to naive communities (ones that have not been exposed to a pathogen), and we have to pay attention to this trend.

Late in the afternoon I had to go into a radio studio to do an interview for NPR, so I missed my inoculations for Africa and will have to reschedule them. This morning in the elevator of my apartment building, a neighbor asked if mice might carry monkeypox. It is not out of the question, I told her, in that a prairie dog shedding the virus could conceivably pass it along. A colleague sends me an email this morning noting that some well-meaning people have been clandestinely reintroducing pet prairie dogs into former wild prairie dog habitat in the western U.S. Unmonitored reintroductions of monkeypox-infected prairie dogs would be a very efficient way to establish monkeypox in squirrel and rodent populations sharing the habitat. Not a great thought to start the day …

Some Wildlife Trust Alliance members.

Photo: Wildlife Trust.

But I’m really excited today because Claudio Valladares Padua comes in from Brazil for several days of meetings. Around 10:30, Claudio arrives from the airport, and we begin to discuss our plans for the upcoming year (our year runs from July 1 to June 30). Claudio is coordinator of the Wildlife Trust Alliance, which is a fantastic network of some of the most talented and committed conservation scientists you’ll find in the world today. Claudio and I share a vision in which the ideas and innovations of the best local practitioners of conservation science find an audience and replication throughout the world. To work toward that vision, Wildlife Trust helps develop and find support for research projects, and we identify and work individually with conservationists with outstanding potential. We work as career consultants, scientific advisors, mentors, brokers, and megaphones, to create an international voice for conservation and a network for mutual support, advice, and guidance. Claudio, from his base in Brazil, provides leadership for this effort.

Claudio and his wife Suzana were recognized in a special issue of Time magazine last year for their imaginative and sensitive work that brought the newly settled landless people in western Sao Paulo State into a community of environmental stewards. Instead of viewing local poor people as obstacles to conservation, at Wildlife Trust we see them as potential allies. Suzana and Claudio were able to build a program that involves the rural community as joint stewards of the mosaic of agricultural lands and wildlife habitat. Local peasants have helped build corridors, wildlife “stepping stones,” and buffer zones, all of which benefit people and wildlife, such as jaguars, tapirs, and black lion tamarin monkeys, for their mutual survival in the Pontal region of Sao Paulo State.

Claudio planting a wildlife corridor together with local community members.

Photo: Wildlife Trust.

You would think that most people would understand that local scientist-conservationists are the people in the best position to achieve lasting environmental conservation. Yet that is not true: The notion that people in developing countries have to be “saved” by foreigners from America and Europe is a persistent myth. In fact, I tell Claudio about an exchange of emails I had last week with a TV producer. With all the nature programming on television, we get a lot of requests for access to our wildlife projects. The producer informed me that he was filming a new series about “heroes” (is anyone else getting tired of this word?) of the environment, and he wondered if we had projects led by Americans or Britons in remote places. I responded that Wildlife Trust projects are mostly run by local scientists heroically dedicated to protecting and creating healthy ecosystems where they live. He told me that filming local people would not be as good a television story. He had one episode planned where the British woman in charge of a project says that she wants to make herself redundant one day. Didn’t we have some similar project with an American leader with some very good local assistants who could be praised? I told him (diplomacy is not my strong suit) that it would be a betrayal of the leadership and acumen of our field scientists around the world to give the erroneous impression that Wildlife Trust relies on Americans and Britons going into foreign countries. I also opined that it would be nice if, in the course of his career, he could find a way to influence American audiences to develop a more internationalist and respectful attitude toward the leading thinkers of other countries.

Claudio and I discuss the status of a joint paper the Alliance is producing on “Managing Endangered Species in Human-Dominated Landscapes,” and we go over the roster of projects, noting which ones he or I will visit during the course of the year. We also prepare for an important set of meetings tomorrow, with a potential funder and with the newest member of the Wildlife Trust Alliance.