The man who helped save the panda

In one of the oldest eco-systems on earth, where animals big and small fight daily for survival, time and people seem to move slowly.

“After my wife, kids, and I lived in Serengeti Park for four years continuously, [returning to the United States] is a culture shock. You adapt to the local situation, then suddenly everything is much more ‘rush, rush, rush,’” says Dr. George Schaller, one of the most widely respected American conservationists.

“You’re exposed to different aspects than just going out each day and watching animals and doing notes. It’s a simple life compared to the hectic.”

Mr. Schaller, who will visit Wilton Library the evening of Thursday, Feb. 19, as part of the Green Speaker series, is a Roxbury resident whose field research on mountain gorillas, pandas, blue sheep, and other creatures has defined him one of the most respected naturalists in the world.

However extensive his conservationist résumé might be, his first experience with culture shock came as the result of war, not animals.

As a teenage German immigrant after World War II, he moved to the United States to live with an aunt and uncle in Missouri. Since that move, he’s never given up wandering, he said during an interview last week.

“There was certainly a culture shock after being in Europe during the Second World War,” he said. “But, when you’re a kid, you adapt more readily. I was put immediately in the first year of high school even though I didn’t speak English. That was a bit stressful, but one adapts readily. I made friends, and we went wandering in the Ozarks.

“I like to wander. And I’ve continued doing that for decades.”

The first research assignment to land him in a remote area of wilderness took place in the Arctic stretches of northern Alaska, where the best part of the environment is “that there aren’t any towns or villages,” Mr. Schaller said.

“My first formal expedition was in 1952 in Arctic Alaska to make a list of birds that occurred there and to list which birds summered over northern Alaska and came from Siberia,” he said. “There was no town name [for where I was.] The one well-known place was Point Barrow, the farthest north place in North America.”

Since that first assignment, Mr. Schaller has spent substantial lengths of time in some of the wildest places on earth. He was the first scientist to document the behavior of mountain gorillas — proving they were more gentle and intelligent than expected — and the first Westerner allowed to study the panda in China — proving humans were the largest cause for the decline in the panda population.

Though he has been able to identify major trends and behaviors of animal species, he is quick to point out that “each animal is its own world, its own perfection. Animals are individuals. I can’t just say tigers all do certain things. Some things they do similarly and some have their own idiosyncrasies.”

As a field researcher, he has long focused on the human populations that surround his subjects, as well as the animals themselves.

“Yes, you go over and collect information, but the reason for you to do that is the conservation of the animal and its habitat,” he said.

At first “I would go overseas to study an animal because I just enjoy watching them. I am curious about their lives, and I hoped the information would help with conservation,” he said

But, as the focus of conservation changed, so did his methods.

“Now, you really have to work with the local community because they must decide to protect or exterminate the wildlife. You have to educate them and convince them it is in their interest to keep some wildlife. I spend more time working with localities and governments than I do out in the field,” he said.

“You have to find out what the local problems are. What the local people think about solving problems. Their concerns for their families and future, and that varies naturally from community to community.

“Some are tightly knit and others are individual households without a communal history, which is a much more difficult task. It’s a slow but central task to figure out what communities want and how to figure out how to achieve that.”

Counterintiuitively, Mr. Schaller said working with, and studying human populations is more difficult than the study of animals.

“Humans are difficult to study. Even though they can talk, they don’t necessarily tell you the truth… You can deduce something about their behavior and why, but I certainly can’t be sure, because how do you measure mental processes in either people or animals?”

At the library next Thursday at 7 p.m., Mr. Schaller will discuss wildlife species facing possible extinction, make a presentation, and participate in a Q&A session with Wiltonian Daryl Hawk, a travel photographer and Wilton Go Green member.

The program is free, but registration is highly recommended. Visit wiltonlibrary.org/events for more information.