Wednesday, 11 Jun 2003

PALISADES, N.Y.

Coming on the heels of the SARS scare, the current fear about the new monkeypox virus that spread from Africa to the U.S. Midwest via imported Gambian giant rats has led more and more journalists to the understanding that something systemic is going on. At last, the scientists at Wildlife Trust have opportunities to help the general public understand the connections between environmental disturbance, global travel, and the spread of disease.

Fear may be the motivator, but still, this is an opportunity to inform people about how we can start to make healthy decisions about our land use and consumption patterns. At last, we can make the case that wildlife and habitat conservation are not esoteric pleasures for the well-to-do, but instead the actual underpinning of human well-being everywhere. Members of our staff are being lined up for radio and television interviews. I am told that a film crew will arrive on Thursday or Friday to interview me about wildlife and human disease links. The challenge will be to ensure that people understand that biodiversity, i.e. lots of species, is actually a buffer against disease. We cannot demonize wildlife; it is human disturbance that forces disease-causing agents to leave their reservoir species and jump to us and our domesticated animals.

A real black lion tamarin and the Wildlife Trust logo.

Photo: IPE Brazil.

After dropping my son Seth off at the zoo, and before joining Claudio Valladares Padua, our visitor from Brazil, I have a meeting with the Positioning Task Force of the Wildlife Trust board of directors. It is a small but exciting group of professionals: a designer, a marketing executive, and a wildlife exhibit designer. Among us, we have identified a key problem facing our organization: visibility. Wildlife Trust has a truly unique niche in the conservation world, with our innovative science (for example, we were central in creating the new field of conservation medicine, which links ecosystem health to wildlife, livestock, and human health) and our fabulous field-based leadership through the Wildlife Trust Alliance (see yesterday’s diary entry). Yet our name and tagline (“Saving Nature Together”) do not differentiate us from the pack of conservation organizations.

What to do? We take a look at our official mission statement: “Wildlife Trust conserves threatened wild species and their habitats in partnership with local scientists and educators around the world.” Where is the innovation? The cutting-edge science? The conservation medicine? Our flexibility, our responsiveness? At least we have one of the best logos in the business — symbolic of the very real recovery of Brazil’s black lion tamarin from near extinction.

Rodrigo and a little ursine companion in Mexico.

Photo: Rodrigo Mendellin.

After the task force meeting, Claudio and I discuss plans for a pre-congress workshop he is organizing for young primate biologists before the next meeting of the International Primatological Society. We then race off to meet Rodrigo Medellin for lunch. Rodrigo is a prominent ecologist and internationally recognized mammologist visiting New York on sabbatical at Columbia University. He is the leading scientist at the Institute of Ecology of the National University of Mexico. We discuss the possibility of him and his team joining the Wildlife Trust Alliance. He is not only a superior bat ecologist; he also has a flair for public education. I also admire how he designs his conservation programs so that he can measure his effectiveness with great precision. He has documented how he combines applied research, policy recommendations, and public education to achieve tangible results in terms of restoration of populations of endangered species. His work and his generous interest in building careers of Latin American colleagues are real winners. We discuss ideas for his future collaborations with the alliance.

There is not enough time; suddenly it is 2:30 and we have to rush off to meet the head of a new foundation that has been created to help the people of Brazil by tapping into the interest and wealth of the growing Brazilian-American community in New York. Claudio and I hope that we can enlist the support of this foundation for our brand of community-based, science-based wildlife conservation.