The Rainforest Whisperer

Conservation International

Russ Mittermeier is a primate and reptile expert who has spent more time in the rainforest than just about anyone on the planet. He's also found the time to write more than 300 scientific papers and discovered a dozen new animal species, including turtles, lemurs, and Amazonian monkeys. Most recently, he came out with a paper that shows how salamanders can fight climate change and the big role small species have in balancing ecosystems. We talked with Mittermeier about how he got the world's largest collection of blow guns, how tourism can save species, and why saving bees matters as much as Rhinos.

Apparently you have one of the biggest collections of blow guns in the world.
I've been collecting tribal art and weapons for about 40 years, and have about 120 pieces from most cultures that make them. I don't like guns but I'm very interested in things like bows and arrows and spears and blow guns, also called blow-pipes. They're basically a long tube that indigenous people in South America and Borneo hunt with. Hundreds of dart poisons existed in the past and they're rapidly disappearing because the cultures that make them are switching to shotguns and things like that. 

How do you get indigenous cultures on board with conservation?
In Madagascar, for example, I'm working to encourage indigenous people to take on more ecotourism. Madagascar is a terrific place especially for primate ecotourism because they have the second highest primate diversity in the world, with 106 species of lemurs. The local people are very good at guiding people around and it's become a major industry for them.

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And lemurs are currently all over pop culture.
It's great. The Dreamworks Madagascar movies were not biologically accurate and the last two movies barely took place in Madagascar, but they did put the name on the map. Then there was an IMAX film that came out last year about lemurs (Island of Lemurs). Everybody loves the animal; they're really cute. That's really been pushing this idea of, like birdwatching, doing primate watching. 

Primate watching?
Birdwatching is a multibillion dollar industry. It's a smaller scale for primate watching. With birds there are 10,500 species and they are all over the place, so it's very easy to be a birdwatcher. Primates there are only about 700 species and 90 percent are in tropical forests so it takes a little more effort, but nonetheless you can really become one and a lot of people are starting to get into it.


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Your research acknowledges that the planet is in the midst of an extinction crisis right now. What can we do?
The most basic starting points are what the pioneers of conservation did 50, 60, 80 years ago: protect species the ones people most identify with — larger animals, mammals, birds, larger reptiles. Then push for more protected areas, both by traditional means like national parks and biological reserves and indigenous and community owned areas. For example, I just came back from Northern Maryland where I was out with state environmental agency biologists looking for bog turtles. They're beautiful little turtles, four inches long, on the endangered species list. The state of Maryland has these protected habitats all over. We were at one area, basically a suburban housing development, this tiny little wetland where we were able to find some, and we went to some little state parks and we were able to find three animals there.

In your most recent paper you focus on small species. How can you drum up interest in birds and bees over, say, elephants and orangutans?
I spent a lot of of my career working with charismatic species. Look at the enormous interest now in elephants, and wildlife trafficking, and in rhinos, it's attracted the attention of the Clintons, Prince William, and all these other people. Charismatic species are always going to get people's attention. But we also need to teach kids that other species have a role and all of them are very key components of ecosystems. One that really gets overlooked in pollination services. You lose pollinators from the system and we're going to be in big big trouble — billions of economic value.

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