Given all the strife in places like Iran and Afghanistan, how do you get people to pay attention to protecting wildlife?
We choose animals valued by the locals. For example, in 2001 I started a project in Iran. I went there and asked how I could be of assistance. They told me, “The last Asiatic cheetahs are here; only 50 or 60 may be left.” Now we have a cheetah project there, and some of the animals are wearing radio collars, and Iran is very supportive in that work. If you choose a conspicuous animal like a cheetah, which Iran considers one of its natural treasures, not only does the government pay attention, but suddenly everybody’s aware.
When you are near a mountain gorilla, you recognize it as kin. You feel as though you might put your arm around it and have a chat.
Why do people respond so strongly to certain animals?
I suspect it’s because they’re charismatic, they’re beautiful, and you can see them easily. If the panda were all black, like a black bear, nobody would pay much attention to it. People feel they are helping to save one special animal to which they feel an emotional attachment, not realizing perhaps that the only way to do that is to preserve its whole life system, its territory, its food sources, and so on. When the giant panda became famous, the attention also benefited thousands of other plant and animal species that inhabited the same mountain forests.
Has any animal gained a special hold on your affections?
When you are near a mountain gorilla, you recognize it as kin. You feel as though you might put your arm around it and have a chat. When I first saw a gorilla, I felt a desire to communicate with him, to let him know that I intended him no harm and only wanted to be near him. And I wondered if he shared this feeling of kinship with me. Never before had I had that feeling meeting an animal. You don’t get that feeling when you see a tiger, but your mind almost glows with the sight—they’re absolutely gorgeous—and to see a tiger is one of the great wildlife experiences. I can also get enamored of capybaras, which are giant rodents and look like big guinea pigs, and even wild pigs. I have had two kinds of pig, a warthog and a white-lipped peccary, as pets. They are just as intelligent and social as dogs. I have an attachment to all the animals I’ve studied and keep involved in what’s happening with them. Emotionally, they cannot leave me.
You’ve written that some of your happiest experiences in the wild have come when you felt accepted by another animal.
Because we’ve hunted big animals for so many thousands of years, every single one of them is shy. You’d be able to interact with them close-up if only man’s behavior had been different. During this last trip in northern Tibet, a wolf wandered into camp and looked around—he’d probably never seen people before. And that’s the way it would be, a sort of Garden of Eden. I used to watch gorillas by climbing low branches of a tree so I could look down on them and they could keep an eye on me. One time a female gorilla climbed up and sat next to me and just looked at me. I remember once in the Serengeti, I was following a cheetah on foot, and she got nervous and moved away from me. Then she went and killed a gazelle fawn, and I lay down near her and moved slowly closer until we were about 10 feet apart, and she simply looked over her shoulder and ignored me because she sensed I wasn’t going to harm her.
A lot of the conservation news seems very grim these days. How do you keep going in moments of discouragement?
I don’t get up each morning and say, “I’ve got to save the world, starting with the United States government.” I have very specific projects, where I can see progress. And that keeps you going because, in a small way, I see that I can have an influence. And especially if you teach others, and have students and assistants to work with, and can find a way they can continue the work—that’s satisfying.
You have said that recent decades have seen a revolution in our relationship with animals as humans overcome cross-species barriers, achieving intimacy with humpback whales, chimpanzees, lions, mountain sheep, wolves, and many others. If the problem for wildlife is no longer ignorance of their plight, what is the major obstacle now?
People may be aware, but it’s still peripheral to their minds. If you ask people here, “Should we save the tigers in India?” 95 percent would say yes. But if you ask them, “Should we have mountain lions here in the neighborhood? There’s some chance they might eat your dogs,” then the answer is, “Oh no, no, no, we don’t want them.” So people are not willing to sacrifice anything. But that can be changed with proper education. In the end it’s the community that will save the environment. Whether you’re talking about an African village or Tibetan nomads, basic human attitudes are not that different. People simply have to be stimulated. In countries like China, you can’t own the land, but the Buddhist monasteries are setting up sanctuaries that, in effect, become little reserves. I’ve been to two festivals in a Tibetan province where nomads have come together of their own accord to celebrate and protect wildlife. They’ll say: “Oh, our wild yak are disappearing. We’re not going to allow grazing on this mountain range. These flats are for Tibetan antelope.” So every community can do this if something stimulates them.
What about steps we can take right here in the United States?
We have an overabundance of everything. I’ve got two cars sitting in the garage. People must understand that everything they do is an ecological act. How much does it cost to bring grapes here from Chile (pdf)? Not just the grapes, but the fuel spent in carbon emission? If you have a cup of coffee, that means some rain forest in Colombia is being cut down to make coffee plantations. Do you have a cell phone? OK, inside it there’s a mineral called coltan, mined mostly in the eastern Congo by a lot of the Rwandans who fled after the genocide, and they’re living in the forest, and they’re killing gorillas and elephants for meat because they don’t have much else to eat. I’ve got two lights on in here. [Gets up and turns off a light.] I don’t need two lights on in here! You know, this is endless.