George Schaller searches for Tibetan antelope and other wildlife on northern Tibet’s Chang Tang Plateau, an area that has been a major focus of Schaller’s internationally acclaimed work in biology and conservation for over 25 years
Renowned wildlife biologist George Schaller once gave Janet Rose, now the executive director of Missoula’s International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF), advice that set the course of her life. As Rose remembers it, she was planning to switch from a career in media—20 years in television had landed her at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), where she worked alongside Schaller—to biology fieldwork when Schaller advised against the move, saying, “We know what we need to know about the science of saving wildlife. What we don’t know is how to change people’s minds.”
Following Schaller’s advice brought Rose to IWFF, which celebrates its 30th annual festival beginning Saturday, May 12, and includes a Friday, May 18, ceremony where Schaller will receive an IWFF Lifetime Achievement Award for five decades of work in wildlife biology and conservation.
Schaller has continued working with Rose during her tenure at IWFF. Specifically, Schaller has collaborated with his protégé to return wildlife films to the people of the countries where they were shot.
“For half a century western film companies have gone to Africa and Asia and made these wonderful wildlife films,” says Schaller in a recent telephone interview. “We take them home, show them and then they disappear. The people in the countries where the films were taken never see them—and the local people never see the wildlife to begin with—so we need to get the rights to good nature films so countries like Afghanistan can put them on their local television and can translate them so they can go into schools.”
Schaller doesn’t have any trouble thinking globally. As vice president of WCS’ Science and Exploration Program, he spends most of his time in the field. Although Schaller is 74, he shows no signs of slowing down, peppering conversation with references to trips past and planned. This week, he’s just returned from Afghanistan; after visiting Montana, he leaves almost immediately for Mongolia.
Over his 50 years of fieldwork, Schaller has been involved in a host of significant conservation projects, beginning with the 1956 survey of Alaska’s Sheenjek River Valley that supplied a basis for its designation as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Though Schaller describes his role in the designation as “very minor,” he has been a staunch protector of ANWR during the decades since as oil companies attempt to drill there.
More recently, Schaller’s efforts persuaded the Chinese government to place conservation protections on significant portions of Tibet, a first step toward preserving habitat on the Chang Tang, a high plateau where Schaller has been working since the 1980s. This February, Schaller crossed the Chang Tang in the dead of winter, traveling 1,000 miles on the plateau with a party sponsored by WCS and the National Geographic Society. “It’s all above 16,000 feet,” says Schaller, “so not too many people want to live there. Still, there’s a fair bit of wildlife up there and that was the reason for going: to see what was up there in the winter…The daily temperatures were about 25 below,” adds septuagenarian Schaller with breeziness belying the audacity of the trip, “which is not so much out your way [in Montana], but if you’re in a tent all the time you feel it.”
In addition to such fieldwork, Schaller has also written extensively for a general audience. His pioneering work with gorillas, documented in the 1964 book The Year of the Gorilla, opened the way for researchers like Dian Fossey (made famous by the film Gorillas in the Mist). Later in his career, Schaller spent years similarly immersed with lions and pandas, also turning those experiences into detailed studies of the creatures.
“I don’t think you can really interpret an animal very well unless you are emotionally involved and really try to put yourself into that animal’s place,” says Schaller. “I mean, how do you respond to your dog and cat? It’s no different than when you’re watching a tiger. You want to interpret what it’s thinking and feeling…Some of these animals are closely related to us, and they most certainly have many of the same emotions we do, which we can interpret. So having empathy helps your science.”
Empathy is also essential to the conservation mission Schaller has increasingly championed over the course of his career.
“One reason I have basically studied large mammals is, for conservation, those are the ones that draw attention,” says Schaller. “Those are the ones that people will have an emotional involvement with and the emotion is really what drives conservation…Scientists talk so much about saving biodiversity but that doesn’t turn on anybody. But saving a giant panda because it is big, beautiful and cuddly reaches people’s emotions, and they want to respond to that. When you save a tiger in its natural habitat—and they need a fairly large range—you automatically save all the other plants and animals within that area.”
Emotional and aesthetic involvement with an animal can also move people from an intellectual commitment to the sort of shift in attitude that makes a lasting difference.
“There’s been an awareness that to get a good quality of life, you need a healthy environment,” says Schaller. “The trouble is the environment is very peripheral in people’s consciousness. Everyone is for saving tigers in India but they don’t want to be inconvenienced by a wolf in this country. There has to be a change in moral values and ethics and view toward life.”
In wildlife filmmaking, Schaller sees the chance for effecting this change but only if films become “more informative and environmentally oriented.” And when it comes to the current state of wildlife films, he’s especially critical.
“At present most nature films have the same formula as 50 years ago,” he says. “Nature films have gotten into…‘claws and paws.’ You have lions pouncing on wildebeests. You have crocodiles snapping at wildebeests. But there’s no context. You can have a little preserve with a few animals that are easily photographed and the viewer never realizes that two miles away is nothing but fields and people…The photography is more and more spectacular—it’s absolutely beautiful—but you watch it almost as virtual reality. [Once] the television is turned off, you don’t think about it anymore.”
Schaller believes one of the most egregious contributors to this trend is bad writing. With more engaging and compelling copy, he thinks wildlife films may transcend their current limited scope.
“Scripts are so bland and insignificant that people don’t learn anything much,” he says. “There’s virtually no information about how to save these animals, what action people can take or what the situation is. I don’t mean you have to show them films of tree stumps and poached animals. You can have beautiful photography but you need to put it into context. In fact, it would be far more interesting.”
George Schaller signs his latest collection of essays, A Naturalist and Other Beasts: Tales From a Life in the Field, Sunday, May 13, at 1 PM at Fact & Fiction. Schaller also gives the keynote lecture of the International Wildlife Film Festival Friday, May 18, at 5:30 PM in the Montana Theater of UM’s PARTV Center. Both events are free.