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Dr. Russ Mittermeier: Secrets of the Rainforest & Exploring Biodiversity Across The World—OFF THE CUFF

Larry Sharpe

08/20/2020
By Larry Sharpe

This week we go Off the Cuff with Dr. Russ Mittermeier, one of the world’s leading environmentalists and an expert in biodiversity. Dr. Mittermeier has been described as a modern-day Indiana Jones and has been named by Time Magazine as a Hero of the Planet. Want to know what makes him such a legend?

Watch The Full Interview On YouTube

Dr. Russ Mittermeier Interview Key Points

In this interview, Dr. Mittermeier discusses the following topics:

  • What humans can learn from the animal world
  • Lessons from primates to make our lives simpler
  • Challenges relating to climate change
  • The loss of species around the globe
  • How inappropriate use of wildlife led to the Covid-19 pandemic
  • The End the Trade campaign
  • The implications for our own species in our impact on biodiversity

About Dr. Russ Mittermeier

Dr. Russ Mittermeier is the chief conservation officer of Global Wildlife Conservation. He is a primatologist and herpetologist, and the author of several books and more than 300 scientific papers. Between 1989 and 2014, Russ served as the President of Conservation International. Then, between 2014 and 2017, he was the executive vice chair of that organization.

Russ Mittermeier holding binoculars.
Russ Mittermeier is the Chief Conservation Officer of Global Wildlife Conservation

Russ’ research has taken him to more than 30 countries on all 7 continents. For the past four decades, Russ has been the chairman of the IUCN-Word Conservation Union Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. Before becoming President of Conservation International, he worked for more than a decade at the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. He was elected a lifetime honorary IUCN-World Conservation member in 2012.

Global Wildlife Conservation Instagram page
Global Wildlife Conservation on Instagram

Russ has been named as Hero of the Planet by Time Magazine. Russ has a passion for the discovery and description of new species. He has described a total of 18 new species and has 8 species named in his honor. Russ has worked with many tribal communities, helping them to implement a range of conservation measures. He has long stressed the connection between biodiversity and human cultural diversity.

Dr. Russ Mittermeier Named a Hero of the Planet, Time Magazine 1999

Read the Global Wildlife Conservation Article Here

Find Dr. Russ Mittermeier Online

Watch The Full Interview On YouTube

  • Welcome to another Off the Cuff one-on-one. I love this so much. I am very happy with who I have here today to have a nice, quick chat, but an interesting chat. Someone who is very, very special. Someone who literally has a PhD from Harvard, went to Dartmouth, traveled the world, all seven continents, over 150 countries. He is the current chief conservation officer of Global Wildlife Conservation. Someone who’s not just talked the talk, but walked the walk. I’ve got a modern day Indiana Jones with me today, the man himself, Dr. Russell Mittermeier. How are you?
  • Hi, how are you doing? I’m fine.
  • Did I give you a good enough bio? Was that kind of who you are?
  • Not bad, not bad.
  • There we go. I know you have a couple of things which really are the top of your list, and that’s bio diversity and bio survival. Am I right?
  • Yeah, biodiversity is my specialty, and I’ve focused on certain groups of organisms in certain ecosystems, particularly tropical rainforests for the better part of the last 50 years.
  • And that’s a piece I wanna bring up because someone like you who, you know, who’s been around, done so many things, been all over. You’ve kind of decided over your career to focus on basically two big areas, right? The Atlantic forest or Amazon, areas of Brazil and Suriname and Madagascar. Why those two?
  • Well, first of all, a little bit of background, I’m a primatologist and herpetologist by training, which means,
  • Okay.
  • Monkeys, apes, lemurs on the primate end, and I also study reptiles, particularly turtles. And I’ve been doing that ever since I was a little kid.
  • Okay.
  • In fact, when they asked me in first grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, jungle explorer.
  • Wow.
  • And not much has changed since then. In fact, even before they let me into the school, you know, I kind of grew up to influences, right? My mother, who was a housewife from Germany, really loved nature. And, you know, had she lived in a different time, she probably would have been a field biologist as well. And I grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn initially, and then Long Island in New York. And she would take me weekly to the Bronx zoo and the American museum of natural history. So that was a very strong influence on me
  • Sure.
  • Early in my career. And then I also very early on discovered the Tarzan books, the Tarzan movies, the Tarzan comics, and that had an enormous influence on my life. Initially focused on Africa, but really on tropical rainforest in general. And I went to… My mother tried to enroll me in a Catholic elementary school when I was six. And she had an interview set up with the head nun there, and the nun said, what’s your name? And I said, my name is Tarzan. And she said, well, we can’t call you that. And I said, if you don’t call me Tarzan, I won’t go to your lousy school.
  • There we go.
  • So my mother dragged me out, you know, had a little disciplinary action, and after that I shut up and they wound up accepting me. But this is, you know, this is deeply ingrained in my character and has been for a very long time, and- Russ, I’m not sure you’ve actually grown up.
  • No, who wants to grow up, man? That’s what I’m saying. I’m not sure you have. I love it.
  • It’s too much fun being a 7 year old, 12 year old, right?
  • I love it. You said your mom was from Germany, right?
  • Yeah, both of my parents were German immigrants. They came over at the time of the depression, which hit Germany earlier and more severely even then in the US, so they immigrated. And, you know, I was born in 1949, and I had a multilingual background because they would speak a mix of German and English at home. And I actually learned both languages at the same time, which really facilitated language learning for me from the get go.
  • Sure. And science.
  • I’m sorry.
  • And science.
  • And science. Yeah, and I very much focused. One of the things I focused on in my undergraduate career was adding to my language list, because I decided very early on that if I was going to work in the tropics, across the tropical world, I needed to speak the colonial languages.
  • Sure.
  • Which give you access to the vast majority of these countries. So
  • Right.
  • After German, I learned French then Spanish, then Portuguese, and was English.
  • Makes sense.
  • You’re basically able to travel in virtually, all of the tropical countries. And I added a couple of other languages after that as well, and various degrees of fluency. So I’ve always thought that speaking languages gives you a different world view. You’re able to understand
  • Sure.
  • Worldview of the cultures that you’re working with. And it also gives you more access and credibility, because if you always have to get translated or you’re forcing other people to speak English, the relationship is not the same. You know, I’ve worked for now 49 years in Brazil, which is considered by some to be a difficult country to work, but I learned Portuguese back in 1971, and you know, I’ve had an extremely close relationship with Brazilian colleagues ever since. I’ve never had any problems
  • It makes me think, if you’re gonna be traveling into these regions and studying these areas, you know, this is all about relationships, right? You can’t just walk into someone’s country and go, by the way, I’m gonna go look in your jungle and pull stuff out of it, right? So you’ve got to be able to have good relationships and talking. And they have to, something else I would assume, they have to trust you because you’re the foreigner, right? They’ve got to trust you.
  • Absolutely. It’s gotta be a relationship of equals and a relationship of mutual respect. You don’t go in there and say, hey man, I’m from America, I’m this cool guy. I’m bringing some money, so you guys have to do what I want. It doesn’t work like that. I learned that very, very early on in the game.
  • So let me touch that early on piece, right? In the early on you decide to, you deal with these trips, you’re going out. I’m assuming when you were first doing this, you weren’t leading the expeditions. I’m assuming you were part of one?
  • No, actually for some reason, I wound up leading expeditions really early on.
  • It was the Tarzan in you?
  • Well, a little bit of that, and it was just so hard to volunteer for different projects, so I decided that, hey, look, I’m going into areas that nobody’s been in before. I’m doing things that no one’s done before. I’m just gonna have to bite the bullet and organize these damn things myself
  • I love that.
  • Yeah, so I started doing that when I was 20, what was it? 22, I organized my first Amazon expedition, bringing along a number of other people who were more senior, basically looking at monkeys on the Brazil-Columbia border area. And then in 1973, when I was 24, I did an expedition, which to this day, I think is still my best expedition. A four month expedition, retracing the steps of two of the greatest explorer naturalists of the 19th century. Two of the greatest ever. One was Henry Walter Bates, both of them were from the UK. And the other one was Alfred Russell Wallace, who is famous for having basically co-discovered evolution at the same time as Darwin.
  • Wow.
  • And he was out in the field. He was really a field guy. And he was out in the field at Indonesia, after having spent four years in the Brazilian Amazon, particularly the Rio Negro, and he kind of came up with this theory and he wrote to Darwin and said, you know, let’s come up with this idea. And Darwin sees it. And after sitting on the theory of evolution for about 20 years, he said, oh my God, I better get this thing published. And there was great deal of mutual respect between these guys and, you know, they informed one another of what was going on. And Wallace said, yeah, I’m gonna stay out here in Indonesia. It’s more fun. You go ahead
  • Wow.
  • And publish the theory of evolution. That’s a simplification, of course, but- No, but you’ve just shown… That’s really special, in that each person, right? They have a thing that they want to do. Somebody wants to be writing this up, and somebody wants to be in the jungle looking at monkeys, right? And each one of them is required to make this work, and each one of them is important. Just different people want different things to kind of make this all work together.
  • Exactly. And Wallace was truly exceptional because Wallace was one of the very few explorer naturalists that actually worked and spent a lot of time in two continents. And he did it in two tropical continents, because in those days, if you want it to be an explorer, you would go out. And it was about a 90, 95% chance you would die of a disease. You would get eaten by something, or you get killed by some people whose tribal territory, you stepped into uninvited. So most of these guys died. A few of them managed to work on one continent, and Wallace managed to do four years in the Brazilian Amazon in the Rio Negro, and then he did something like 11 or 12 years in the Malay Archipelago, which is now
  • Wow.
  • Indonesia. So he was really exceptional. So anyway, I decided in 1973 to do an expedition, basically tracing the steps of Bates and Wallace.
  • Okay.
  • And also looking for a kind of monkey called the, Uakari, which is a very unusual monkey. You almost never see them in zoos. There are three different kinds. One is black, one is red, one is white, and they have long shaggy fur, and the white and the red ones have brilliant red faces, right? And they also are the only South American monkey that has short tails. And I saw one of these when I was a kid at the Bronx zoo. I think I was about six or seven years old.
  • Yeah.
  • About this big and long white shaggy fur and this brilliant red face. And this was about the time that story’s about the abominable snowman- Oh, yes.
  • Coming in from the Himalayas. And I looked at this monkey as a little kid and said, damn, this thing looks like a mini abominable snowman. And I fell in love with this monkey, and I decided I’m gonna see this thing in the wild.
  • I’m gonna go back again. You did not grow up.
  • No, I did not grow up. In 1973, I carried out this expedition living on riverboats in the Brazilian Amazon, and with the all Brazilian crew, I spent, you know, four months sleeping in hammocks and not speaking a word of English. And I found all three of these animals in the wild. And this had turned out
  • Wow.
  • I was the first non-local person to ever see any of these monkeys in the wild, because Bates and Wallace reported on them, but what they saw was pet animals that had been brought into captivity in villages.
  • I see.
  • Those guys went mainly on the big rivers, which was the only thing they really had access to back then
  • Sure.
  • Because during the period that Bates was there, for example, they didn’t even have steamboats yet.
  • Sure.
  • Imagine going up river in the Amazon without steamboats, and the steamboats came in at the end of his expedition. So they didn’t get into the remote tributaries, I did, and I found these monkeys.
  • I wanna go down that path for a second here, right? Here you are. You’re four months in this foreign country, not speaking English. Did you bring a bunch of people with you in the expedition or was that kind of just you?
  • I had one friend who came with me for the first month, and then he couldn’t take it anymore and he left.
  • That was my question. Thank you. You walked right into that one.
  • Yeah
  • How in the world do you have someone… How do you or your colleagues handle that serious culture change? I mean, that’s gotta be culture shock, like you’re being smacked in the face. You’ve got to feel like it’s a physical change in everything you’re doing. You’re speaking different language, eating different foods, different smells, sights, everything. How does someone handle that? Or do they not?
  • Well, first of all, remember that, you know, I grew up bicultural. Even though it was a European culture, I did have this bicultural view of things. Remember I also came from the Bronx and Brooklyn, I initially talked about it.
  • Me too, by the way.
  • Oh, yeah. Okay, I thought I detected in the accent.
  • Yes. And so you’re kind of used to crazy things anyway. And I guess I’ve just by nature, always been fairly adaptable and change doesn’t bother me all that much. I mean, talk about change right now. This is the longest. I’ve gone for months now at home without traveling. That’s the longest I’ve gone without traveling in about 45 years.
  • Wow.
  • And you know, people are saying, are you going nuts? Are you going nuts? I’m like, no, you know, you go with the flow. You just have to have enough flexibility to adapt to changes because change is what life is all about, but if I have to go- So if I get what you’re saying is you’re saying, you growing up in a changing multicultural country, and I think something else from what I hear, what you said, you jumped onboard doing this right away. You were still in your 20s when you were out there doing this kind of thing. This has kind of become a lifestyle for you, and like change has become part of your lifestyle?
  • Yeah, change doesn’t bother me, as long as it’s interesting. As long as there is something cool happening, you adjust to it, adapt to it. And I actually did my first tropical field trip when I was 17, and then while I was 19, I spent six months in Germany and France just, you know, strengthening my languages. And then I did a three month trip all around 18 different European countries, and I was doing the cultural scene, going to museums and opera, and you name it, but I also always gravitated to zoos. And when I went to the zoos, I always gravitated to the reptiles and the primates. And on that trip,
  • There we go.
  • When I was 19, I decided that, look, these primates are kind of cool. There is this link with Tarzan because, you know, Tarzan of the apes and all that. And so I decided to focus on primates, came back, wrote up a thesis that was basically a compilation of all the known information of Amazonian primates at that time, that’s about a 300 page document, and that kind of laid the foundation for my graduate work, and fortunately I was able to get into Harvard with one of the pioneers of primate research, a gentleman named Irven Devore, who actually worked on baboons rather than South American primates, but he was a really… You know, there are certain professors that teach you and there are others that are basically facilitators,
  • Right.
  • That bring together a group of students.
  • Sure.
  • And the vast majority of the learning is from the students. So these professors that are magnets for smart people are really exceptional, and I was fortunate in having Irven Devore as my main advisor. And then I also had another one of these facilitator type professors in the museum of comparative zoology, a gentlemen named Ernest Williams, who was one of the great herpetologists in history. So I had- For those people don’t know herpetologists, that’s reptiles, right?
  • Reptiles and amphibians, yeah.
  • There we go.
  • And I focus on reptiles Okay, so make sure people do that. Started off with snakes and turtles. Kind of left the snakes to the side after a while, but I still liked them and still have a few- Well, I wanna go there for a second. I mean, for someone like you to go as deep as you have to go, and many people in your world go deep into a certain area.
  • Uh-huh.
  • There were other areas that you obviously can’t work on, right? Like you can only go and do this at any given time. And when you’re doing A, you’re not doing B or C. Is there a stress that comes from not being able to do enough? I mean, I know you do a lot, but is there also, almost like a fear of missing out, right? Oh my God, I spent my time in here, so I can’t go here.
  • Well, I like multitasking, and I like engaging in different things, but my problem now is that, I’ve got about somewhere between 50 and 100 years of more stuff to do, but I’m 70, so, you know, what do I got? 10, 15, 20 years left. So it’s a little frustrating, because there’s so many things that I wanna do. There’s so many books that I still wanna write. I’ve done about 40 books, but I’ve got another 10 minimum that I wanna do. And yeah, that’s the annoying thing is that, you know, you probably don’t have enough time to do everything that you wanna do, but that’s exciting. Certainly, there’s never a dull moment, right? You’re always focusing on one thing or another. And by working on primates, I also got very much into the whole tropical forest conservation issue. About 90% of primates are tropical forest species, and most of the world’s biodiversity, most of the world’s richness in species and ecosystems and ecological processes are found in there. large portion is found in the tropical rainforest. So to come back to your very early question about why Brazil, why Suriname, why Madagascar? If you look at the way primates are distributed, you know, they’re around the, mainly in the tropical belt, although some of them go up into the temperate zones, especially in Asia. There are several countries that are exceedingly rich in primates. Brazil, Madagascar number one and two.
  • There we go. Okay.
  • So that’s why I’m here, right?
  • Got it.
  • Number three is Indonesia, and I spent a fair amount of time in Indonesia. Number four is the democratic Republic of Congo and the Congo forest of central Africa. I’ve been there a number of times, but it hasn’t been my main focus. And Suriname, I wound up doing my thesis in Suriname because it’s a really exceptional, unusual place. And it is the greenest country on earth. It has 93% forest cover, and you know, there’s no place in the world that has that percentage of rainforest remaining. So that’s a very unique
  • Wow.
  • And special place. And I have this
  • Sure.
  • Historical link to my thesis research that I did there in the latter part of the 1970s. So that’s why Brazil and Madagascar, but my remit, now I’m chair of the international union for conservation of nature primates specialist group. The international union for conservation and nature has six commissions. One of them is called the species survival commission, which has about 9,000 members. They’re organized into about 160, 170 specialist groups. And I’m the chair of the a primate specialist group
  • Got it.
  • And have been for a long time. So my remit is really to look at primate conservation worldwide. I spend a lot of my time fundraising
  • Sure.
  • To bring in the resources, so we can support people from the tropical countries where most of these animals occur.
  • Right.
  • To further their careers in conservation. And we’ve been very successful in being able to do that. But we also support experts, I mean,
  • Sure.
  • Americans, Europeans and others- Let me walk down that primate road for a second.
  • Yup.
  • And I wanna connect that to us, right? Obviously, they are our closest cousins. Is that the right phrase? I don’t know if I’m saying the right phrase.
  • Yeah.
  • But they’re close to us.
  • Closest to be our relatives.
  • There we go. So you’ve studied them, you know, extensively. So have you learned about humans by learning about primates? Is there some kind of relation that you can say, Ah ha, yeah, that’s… Any of that?
  • Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, primates are mostly very social animals to begin with. And in terms of genetic relationships, we’re extremely close to the chimpanzees, a tiny bit less to the gorillas and the Orangutans, but we share 98% plus of our DNA with them. In terms of social structure, I found the target animals for my advisor at Harvard to be particularly interesting, and those are baboons.
  • Ah, okay.
  • Baboons live in large social groups. They form bonds within a social group that are very similar to the way humans work in organizations, and so I would say… You know, president of another organization called conservation international for 25 years, I was a vice president at world wildlife fund prior to that for 11 years. And I learned a lot about how people interact based on what I had observed with primates. So it’s always been very informative to me. Now, you know, when you get further away from the great apes and some of these animals, like the baboons, you get into the lemurs and the prosimian, some of these smaller primates that, you know, it’s a little bit more distant, but nonetheless, these social bonds that are formed are very informative to someone who’s, you know, running an organization, for example. Well, big primates
  • Yeah, what I’m saying here, can you tell if the primates are happy? Can you tell if they’re well? Can you tell?
  • Oh yeah, you can tell if they’re well, because you can look at certain physical characteristics, like those Uakari monkeys that I went looking for in the Amazon, they have red faces, right? And bare red faces, they’re sometimes called bald Uakaris. And a healthy male has a bright red face.
  • Got it.
  • This is a sign to the female that, you know, this is a male that I want to associate with. And if they’re pale and they don’t look very healthy, you know, there are all these different visual signals. And also in terms of the social behavior, dominant male, many of the primate societies, the males are dominant, and they’ll fight with each other for access to females. Interestingly, in many of the lemur species in Madagascar, the females are dominant. So the females kind of beat the hell out of the males and they have very strong hierarchies within the female community as well. So you know, one size doesn’t fit all with the primates, but the great variety of behaviors within primate societies around the world. We’ve got about 700 and change primate species globally, and there’s just a vast diversity of social systems that are at play. So you can learn a lot from many of them, both the male dominated and the female dominated society.
  • Can you see, and maybe this is kind of off the cuff, that’s what this is about, right? But can you see, or have you learned something that you could pass on to us that is a more simpler way of us being better, either socially or happier that you saw in primates, and you say to yourself, why can’t humans just do that? Why can’t we just do this?
  • Well, you know, life in the wild is a struggle. You know, peace is not always the game, right?
  • Oh, okay.
  • Life can be very difficult surviving in the wild. You’ve got predators, you’ve got parasites, you’ve got internal stresses, competing for access to females or to males, competing for food sources. So life is an ongoing process. And, you know, it’s not all peachy keen and friendly. So I think that what you can learn there is you just have to adapt and make the best of your situation and try to be respectful of other creatures, while at the same time, maintaining your own identity as an individual and as a member of a social group.
  • Wow. I love that. And you’re kind of saying, look, life’s struggle and can be tough in a sense of change, but when you’ve got it, good, enjoy it. Enjoy what you have now, enjoy where you are now, and, you know, next week, we’re gonna fight for food again.
  • Yeah, if you’re at the top of the pile, which is the case in many of these societies, these social groups, if you’re at the top of the pile, make the best of it while you’re there, because next week you may be displaced by a younger male or a younger female coming up in the hierarchy. So life is a struggle. And, you know, with our cultural overlays, we can make the best of it.
  • Yeah.
  • But you know, the biological underpinnings are gonna be there all the time, and, you know, they drive a lot of what we are, and who we are as species.
  • We just talked about respect, and then you talked about getting knocked off from the top, right? Does it matter if I’m a primate and I’m now the top of the pile, and then some young primate knocks me down, does that mean I’m done? Does that mean I’m, you know, I might as well just go, you know, jump off of a cliff, or does that mean if I’m respectful, I can still be part of this society in some way, even though I can’t be at the top?
  • Well, what’s very interesting, particularly with baboons, which where you can see this very clearly, because they’re savanna animals, and either they’re hiding in the trees half the time. You can actually see them interacting. If a male is dominant and he senses that his dominance is starting to slip, then he starts making bonds with others.
  • There we go.
  • Other males of comparable status, or even sometimes with younger males to sometimes fend off other younger males that may be trying to displace him. So it’s a matter of developing alliances and bonds, and it’s a constantly shifting situation. But even if your power, your strength declines, you can, through social processes, maintain your position in a social group or in an organization, or something like that. So that was very informative to me, and something that I’ve always kind of had in the back of my mind.
  • Sure.
  • express it. And also, you know, a very good thing, and this is something that I’ve always had as a basic premise of the way I operate in an organization. In a primary group, you know, engage those who are stronger than you because they can help you.
  • Yes.
  • And if you’re in an organization, hire people who are smarter than you.
  • Yes.
  • Don’t be intimidated by people who are smarter than you, because they might harm you in some way, rather see them as allies to make yourself and your organizations much, much more powerful. So I’ve always looked to get people who I think are way smarter than me. I’m not threatened by that. I think that’s great.
  • Well, this goes back to you, you talked about the professors who aren’t the best at teaching everything, but are the best of facilitating the smart people that come to them.
  • Right,
  • It’s exactly that, yeah.
  • I mean, a lot of professors will basically bring in graduate students to be their servants on some of their projects, data collectors on their projects, but the really impressive ones are the ones that create an atmosphere of learning, and a social network that brings the really smart people together. And then the learning process is peer to peer. I would say in my graduate experience, 95% of what I learned was from interacting with my peers.
  • Yes.
  • Not from interacting with my professor, not from going to classes, but in the social processes of learning that take place, you know, in an informal level with your peers, going out into the field together, you know, traveling together. That to me has always been the way to go. And that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t go into academia because I didn’t wanna be a talking head that would get up and… I respect greatly professors and teachers, but for me, it was not something that I wanted to engage in as a career, and so the interactions that I’ve had with people have always been on more of an informal level,
  • Yeah.
  • Like we’ve trained and brought along a lot of people, but it’s never been in a, I’m the professor, you’re the student relationship. Same thing with my kids. I mean, my kids now, I’m very happy that all three of them are in the same business. My oldest one, who’s now 34. He started out with reptiles and he’s now doing birds. And he’s in the top 50 in the world in terms of
  • Nice.
  • Birdwatching, the number of species that he’s seen. He went to Yale, then he went to Oxford to do his PhD. He just started the job here in Washington with a very good organization called the American Bird Conservancy. He followed in my path in terms of travel. He’s been to 120 countries already.
  • Wow.
  • And I never really told him what he should do, I just created an atmosphere in which he wanted to learn, and I took him on many different trips.
  • And this is what I wanna touch here. You’re walking right down the path I want you to walk down. Thank you. What I see throughout everything we’ve talked about is not some guy who’s talked about putting his head in books, who’s talked about just knowing things, but communication has been a critical piece of everything you’ve done, from reading the Tarzan books, to having a multi language household, to showing people how to do things by your example, through learning language, all these things have been that communication piece, and that’s how we’re able to have those relationships. So you are a big proponent of things like biodiversity and things like that, but the average person probably doesn’t even know what that means. So the average person in the street is worried about, you know, going to work, taking care of their kids, whatever is the thing they’re worrying about. How does the average person get to understand the value? How can you communicate the value of that to the average person in the street? I mean, obviously you’re raising money, so you’re doing something right, but help us to understand how we can even get someone to care.
  • You know, one of the issues, one of the problems with both biodiversity and climate change, which are the two, I think the two most important issues that we face these days, are that the impacts are not necessarily tomorrow.
  • Oh, got it.
  • But maybe, you know, a year or two or five or 10 or 50 years down the line. And that’s starting to be understood now with climate change, because we’re seeing the glaciers melting, we’re seeing some of the impacts of climate change around the world. Unfortunately, in this country, our government still hasn’t embraced it, but maybe we’ll see some changes in November, we hope, but you know, what’s happening with climate change doesn’t necessarily impact you tomorrow, unless you happen to be in one of these hurricane zones or tornado zones or something like that. And with biodiversity, the loss of species, the loss of other life forms on the planet, much of that is happening in more remote places.
  • Oh, so we can’t see it?
  • Much of it is happening in the tropical forest. Much of it may be happening at a very micro or very small scale level, and not very slowly, but slowly in terms of our immediate priorities. But then it comes and bites us because what we’ve seen now with the coronavirus, with COVID is that that emerge from inappropriate use of wildlife. Live capture of wild animals, brought into very unsanitary markets, and I’ve seen these markets. And so you get disease spread, this time more than likely from bats, but it’s SARS, and it’s Ebola, and it’s MERS, and it’s Zika and all these things. You know, these wildlife trade origins. So being respectful of biodiversity, maintaining the full range of biodiversity out there is in our own best interests. And we’re now involved in a campaign called, end the trade, which is really trying to put an end to this really unsustainable, unsanitary wildlife trade, especially for these markets, these bush meat markets, as we call them or wet markets. Because there are direct implications for human health, and so this is an example, and as bad as this Coronavirus issue is, I hope that people pay attention to the origins and recognize that we’re pushing very hard now to make sure that it’s recognized, that this is a biodiversity basis. If you disturb these tropical systems, if you pull pieces out and stick them into your cities and make a general mess of things, the implications for our own species can be extremely serious as is the case right now.
  • So it goes to when we see crisis, whatever that crisis is, we then don’t just go, let’s fix the crisis. Obviously we do,
  • Yeah.
  • But we also look into, what’s the origin,
  • Yeah.
  • hey, let’s not encourage this. This goes back to your concept earlier about the idea of changing the environment of how people think. What’s the culture, right? What are we thinking about? Maybe we should be thinking differently.
  • Yeah.
  • Do you think social media is helping, hurting?
  • No social media is great, and social media enables us to achieve a scale that just was never possible. Look, when I was growing up, you had telephone.
  • Yep.
  • And then Xerox machine. Oh my God, how wonderful. And then a fax machine. When I was young, I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be neat if we could take something and just put it on a machine and have it set as a document somewhere else. And then the fax machines came in, and it was, oh my God, this is a miracle. And now we’ve got this incredible internet, social media, everything, and it’s mind boggling. And the impacts that one can have in a given day are so many orders of magnitude more than we ever had. When I was traveling in the 1970s, phone calls were difficult to make, or almost impossible in most cases, and very expensive. So how did I communicate back with my family or with my friends? By mail.
  • Right.
  • Which sometimes would take back and forth, you know, a couple of months if you were lucky, and now it’s instantaneous. So yeah, I mean, there’s nothing like it. I mean, it has this negative aspect as well, but it’s phenomenal.
  • Isn’t there a problem, right? I mean, we like biodiversity, and I know you also care about cultural diversity also and all these things.
  • Yeah.
  • But when it comes to, you know, social media, don’t we wind up kind of fracturing ourselves and putting ourselves in our own little pipelines, our own silos of, these are the people who think and act the way I do, and these are the people who think and act the way you do, and I don’t wanna talk to those people. Do we have that problem? Do you see that in your community?
  • In our community, not so much because in our community people are very well traveled and very much engaged in, you know, not just the biological aspects, but also the excitement of cultural diversity. So I don’t see that so much in our community, but yes, there is always a risk of that. Any kind of new thing like, social media, which is still, certainly from my perspective, my age is a relatively new thing. There’s always gonna be negatives, but I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. And you know, for me, the cultural aspect has always been extremely exciting as well. Although I’m a biologist and I focus on certain groups of animals. 95% of my work is with people, and very often the places that I work, like in the Amazon, with indigenous people, you know, Indian tribes, other groups. I’m also very interested in the material culture. You can see on the wall behind me, a bunch of blowguns, which is the ultimate rainforest weapon. And, you know, I collect tribal artifacts. I really like to get into the material culture of how these people can take things from the forest, wood, other plant materials, animal products, and, you know, turn them into a lifestyle in very basic conditions. So I admire greatly indigenous people, and I’ve worked with many, many different groups over the years, and I continue to do so. Right now, they’re facing a serious challenge with this COVID, but particularly with Amazonian Indians, and native Americans across the hemisphere, they have suffered from disease brought in by other other cultures since the first contact,
  • Right.
  • More than 500 years ago. And again, this is potentially impacting some of these remote tribes, where an entire tribe may have 300, 500, 1000 individuals. And I just got word yesterday that one of the greatest heroes of Amazonian Indian culture, a gentleman named, Drowny, who became famous in the late 80s because he hung out with Sting and traveled all around the world.
  • Ah, okay.
  • One of the last of the Kayapo people who wears a lip disk.
  • Oh, right. right, right.
  • You’ve probably seen He’s a good friend. He’s about 90 now. And I just found out that he was diagnosed with coronavirus just yesterday.
  • Oh!
  • You know, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, But this guy- I’m very sorry to hear that.
  • I mean, this guy is comparable to, you know, Jeronimo or Sitting Bull, or Crazy Horse the great figures of the North American continent.
  • You’ve just brought up something else that I love, is the idea that, you’ve said, even in more simpler environments, right? People find ways of taking their environment and making the tools they want and creating a culture. So they create happiness. I mean, you’re in both worlds, right? You’re out there where they’re using blowguns and then, you know, three months later, you’re on Facebook and you’re on Twitter, right? So you’ve seen both. So does that show you, and please tell me if I’m wrong here, that humans can find happiness, regardless of what’s around us. We can find culture and happiness, and sometimes it must make you crazy when you look at what we have and people are so unhappy, and you’ll look at someone else, then they’re not.
  • I’ll be careful also just saying simpler systems. I mean, the systems in which these cultures live, like let’s say the Amazon rainforest are extremely complex, but in terms of material culture, they are not comparable to what we have- Oh, I see. Different, I get it.
  • They are able to extract from the forest a way to live sustainably using the materials of the forest. And, you know, for instance, the Indian cultures of South America don’t use metal, right?
  • Okay. Sure.
  • And so everything that they make is out of some sort of biological product or sometimes stone, things like that. So being able to survive like that, I think is extremely admirable. We’ve gotten a little bit spoilt because our technology has made it so much easier for us to survive. We don’t have to go out and hunt our food, we just go to the store and buy it. But yeah, I think… The exciting thing about my job is that before we stopped being able to travel four months ago, you know, I could be one day out there in the middle of the Amazon, and the next day I could be meeting with a head of state. I’ve met with probably 50 head heads of state now in various countries, out, you know, with donors in a luxury area. It’s just constantly changing, and the variation and the diversity of it, I think is what really makes it exciting for me. And all of it is exciting, and all of it is pleasing, although given the choice, I’d sure as hell much rather be out there in the rain forest with the indigenous people than in some meeting or in some fancy setting.
  • So let me ask this. I mean, you’re walking right down the road I want you to walk down. Thank you. You making this very easy for me. You are actually named hero of the planet by Time Magazine. You’ve got a lot of other awards and accolades, but you don’t talk about that. You’re talking about heading back into the rain forest. So I gotta ask you. I mean, what really moves you? I mean, you’ve told me you’re not done. You still wanna write 20 more books, you still got 100 years worth of stuff to do. So I know you’re not satisfied yet. You’re not ready to lay down yet, I got that. But what moves you?
  • Look, at heart, I’m a 19th century explorer naturalist. What I love is getting out and seeing new places, places either that I myself have not yet seen, which is why I’ve been to, you know, 169 countries. I wanna see every country in the world. Again, that’s another thing, I don’t know if I have enough time for, but, you know, I’m trying to get out to at least one or two new countries every year. Because every time you go to a new place, I don’t care what you’ve read about it, I don’t care what you seen about it on television, you go and experience it firsthand, and you learn things that you didn’t expect. Every single country that I’ve ever been to, but you know, getting out into the field is what motivates me the most. Because I like exploration. I like discovery of things that no one has seen before, which is why going back to that 1973 expedition, I went looking for monkeys that no one had ever seen in the wild. In 1974, I rediscovered a beautiful monkey, the yellow-tailed woolly monkey in the Peruvian Andes, that was first described by Alexander von Humboldt, another one of the great explorer naturalist, even earlier than Bates and Wallace. He was in the early 1800s. He was the one that described… It was only known from five specimens, hadn’t been seen in 50 years, and over the course of my career, I’ve been responsible for the description of, I think we’re up to 21 or 22 species, new to science.
  • Wow.
  • That were not known before. And this is always in collaboration with colleagues because this is all, you know, a collaborative effort.
  • Sure.
  • I’ve been a describer of either 20, I haven’t counted them lately. Either 21 or 22 species new to science, including monkeys, lemurs, turtles, a bunch of other things. And then I have an even greater honor is that I have eight species named after me by colleagues.
  • Wow.
  • And some of these are species that I discovered and handed over to colleagues. Like I’m not an expert on frogs, but I have what? One, two, three. Three species of frogs named after me. One of which I actually found in the wild, and it wound up being described by a frog expert. Same with lizards. I’ve got, not lizards, I’ve got, what do I have? I have an aunt named after me,
  • An ant?
  • Three frogs. Yes. A monkey, two lemurs and, oh, yeah, and a lizard, right.
  • Look, the thing that I keep hearing throughout this, which I love is, again, every single part of the way since you were a kid, you’ve always had some type of mission, some type of goal, something out there. And even now, you’re now in your 70s and you’re telling me you still got goals, and you still got… You’ve mentioned like four of them already just in this conversation. I love the fact that you’re so goal orientated, and just so mission oriented, but I’ve got to ask you a question now. Have you ever wanted to quit? Was there ever a time when you were like, you know what? I’m done? That’s it. Something bad happened or something tough happened, and you were like, you know what? I’m out.
  • Are you kidding? No way, man. No way. I mean, if I could find a fountain of youth, that could go on for another 100 years, I’d have, you know, I’d have another 100 missions. No way. I mean, why are we tired? To do what? You know, now I just got way too many things to do. You know, I also had, when I was a kid, I kind of had a, you know, what they now call a bucket list. Although we didn’t know back in those days. I had whole bunch of species that I wanted to see in the wild, and little by little I’ve been ticking them off. You know, a few years back, I finally saw a giant panda in the wild. It was hellishly difficult. It took me six tries over something like 27, 28 years.
  • Wow.
  • And one of my goals was to see all primate genera in the wild. You know, you have 700 different kinds of primates. They’re organized into 80 genera. Genera, genus, which is the next highest level of organization of species. And there are 80 different genera of primates in the wild. And 2018, I finally got to see the 80th genus. I was lucky in that I had a BBC film crew with me, and that was featured in a three part series that BBC just ran a few months ago in the UK. It’s gonna run in the US shortly. So that’s been a goal. I also wanna try to see all primate species in the wild. I don’t have enough time for that, but I do have a large life list of anybody, and I started a few years back based on a birdwatching model. You know, birdwatching is a huge industry, right?
  • Oh yes, absolutely.
  • Bird watching,
  • I get it.
  • I think It’s like a 50 or $60 billion industry in the US alone, and I think it’s about 50 million- Wait, you’re not the bird guy, you’re the reptile and the primate guy? Right, right, but listen, My son is a birdwatcher.
  • Oh, got it.
  • So he became a bird watcher when he was about 10, and I watched how incredibly networked and interconnected globally the birdwatching community is. I mean, he can find a place that he wants to go to, go to one of many birdwatching websites, find somebody and say, hey, I wanna come and bird watch with you. Goes to the other side of the world to, you know, the Island of new Guinea or someplace like that, connects up with somebody, and they go out happily looking for birds. Talking about being happy. They’re very happy people
  • Yes.
  • When they find new birds. And I thought, why not try to do this for primates? So about 20 years ago, I came up with the concept of primate watching, primate life listing.
  • Ah, okay.
  • Primate ecotourism. And it’s not just an ego trip, it also brings people to remote corners of the planet, where they might otherwise not go, and in so doing, they support local communities living there, and it creates a whole infrastructure around going and seeing these animals- And the social infrastructure interaction that you talked about, that whole thing.
  • Absolutely. And it shows local people that these animals have value beyond going into the cooking pot or something that’s just, you know, irrelevant to them. All of a sudden, they say, oh my God, these people are coming from the other side of the world and they’re paying us to go and see these animals. So around the world, many countries, particularly where I work in Madagascar, you have local guide associations of local villagers who make a very good living, they probably make anywhere from 10 to 100 times, your average rural Malagasy leading tours, to see lemurs
  • Wow.
  • Or bird or whatever- And that’s how they now find value in keeping this bio-diversity?
  • Absolutely. This has become a really major push. I think soon ecotourism could be the major foreign exchange earner for a country like Madagascar. Unfortunately right now, it’s all on hold because everything is shut down because of this damn virus. So we’re having to sustain those communities with small grants to get them through until, you know, we can travel once again, but this- So is Madagascar all your favorite place on earth, or is it Suriname or someplace else?
  • Well, I like lots of places, but my three favorite countries are Brazil, where I’ve been to more than anywhere else, and I know Brazil better than I know the US, then Suriname, because of its very special nature, and I have this long history. And Madagascar because of the tremendous diversity. If you wanna talk about biodiversity? I mean, it’s just what we call a biodiversity hotspot. If you want of 36 areas on the planet that are responsible for an enormous portion of the planet’s biodiversity in a very high percentage of the biodiversity that’s at greatest risk, and Madagascar is probably the number one biodiversity hotspot, because it not only has a lot of species, it also has genera and even families, another higher level of organization that are found nowhere else.
  • Wow.
  • what I call endemic species endemic genera, endemic family. So if you look at the primates, there are 16 families of primates, higher level of organization. We’re in one of those families along with the apes. Five of those families are found only in Madagascar and nowhere else.
  • Wow.
  • Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy. And 15 genera found nowhere else, and 100 and what are we up to now? 112 different species found nowhere else. And it’s lost 90% of its original natural vegetation.
  • Wow.
  • So you have all of this incredible primate and other biodiversity crammed into an area that is probably the size of two or three New Jerseys, and you as a New Yorker know New Jersey is not a very big state, right?
  • That’s right, yes, that’s right.
  • All of the globally important biodiversity crammed into a tiny area, so protecting that is an enormously high global priority, which is why I focused a significant part of my career in Madagascar.
  • So you’re doing a lot of stuff in a lot of places. I’ll ask a simple question. How do you recharge? How do you go, okay, just did that, now, let me grab a breath. How does a guy like you recharge?
  • I guess I’m on kind of a constant recharge mode. Okay.
  • I mean, it’s like, there’s so much- So you’re not actually working then? You’re not really working?
  • It’s a lifestyle, but for me, your work ideally should be a lifestyle as well. It should be part of who and what you are. If you hate your work and you go out every day and just sit there and just can’t wait until you can get back home again. I mean, I feel bad, I think that’s the case for some people, but I feel bad about that. You know, your work should be your life and you should absolutely love it. And as I said, I’m really lucky that my family’s into it too. I mean, I’ve been married twice. My first ex-wife is a real committed naturalist. We’re still very good friends. My second ex-wife has become kind of a media superstar focused on especially marine issues. Her name is Christina Mittermeier. I think she’s got like 1.3 million followers on Instagram. Wow.
  • So she’s doing quite well. We’re close friends. I just talked to her before this interview. My second son, again, started out with reptiles, but now he’s become like, one of the global experts in aroid plants, things like- I don’t know what that is.
  • Philodendron, Monstera, these very large leaf, beautiful plants.
  • Yeah.
  • That are often houseplants, and he’s discovering and describing new species of those things hand over fist.
  • Oh!
  • And so he’s into plants. And then my daughter, who’s up in Canada now. She’s finishing up an undergraduate degree in anthropology. So more than likely, she’s gonna be in the same game. So being able to interact with your family members on an ongoing basis like that. And my girlfriend is the same. She’s very much interested in natural history. So I mean, you know, it’s part of my life. My family, my work. I mean, you can’t really separate them.
  • You’ve kind of put it all together in an area where your wellness, your wellbeing, your ability to stay as active as you are and happy, and excited as you are in your 70s, and many people, as you know, aren’t, it is amazing how you’re able to do that. So is there any advice you would give someone, I don’t know, say who’s in 50 or so.
  • Yes.
  • How they could stay excited and effective, or maybe someone younger in their 20s, who’s now thinking about what’s my next career, right? And maybe they’re not ready to do an expedition into Brazil at the moment, right? But what advice could you give someone to stay both excited, number one, but two, also effective in getting done what they wanna get done?
  • Do something that inspires you. Do something that you’re passionate about. You know, don’t let other people try to tell you what you should be doing. You should be passionate about something, and even if it’s sometimes difficult to follow that path, try, try your best to make it happen. But, you know, I think that there’s nothing more important than being excited about your life and about your lifestyle, and about your career and everything that goes into it. So, you know, follow your passion, that’s the simplest thing I can tell people is whatever it is that you love, whether it’s music, whether it’s sports, whether it’s, you know, conservation, wildlife, whatever, follow your passion.
  • Well, I also feel like something else you’ve done, and I don’t know if you’ve said it, but I think it’s come through. Because you’ve been so passionate about what you feel, and you’ve been so involved, you’ve kind of created a circle of people around you who are also passionate. They’ve been drawn to you. You’ve become that professor, whether you wanted to or not. You’ve become that professor, but something else which I know from behind the scenes that we may not realize, you’ve been able to raise money for this for a long time also.
  • Yep.
  • Which means people are getting that. Your excitement and enthusiasm has been an infection and people have been copying it.
  • Well, one of the ways I do fundraising is not just going… You go to somebody’s office and you say, oh, hi, how are you doing? I need money. You’re there for, you know, 30 minutes and half the time they’re probably reading their text messages
  • Right.
  • Or a phone call come in. What I do is I invite people to come with me into the field.
  • Oh, you bring them into your circle?
  • I do what I call, sometimes called donor tours or really just friends tours, and then I take them out. And I never take more than six, maximum eight people, sometimes just one or two. And I take them to Madagascar or Brazil or Suriname or East Africa, or whatever, and I show them what I do, rather than telling them about it, rather than handing them books. I do that too. I hand out a lot of books, but rather than just doing that, I say, look, come and experience it with me. And I don’t know how many times I’ve had people say, wow, that was a life changing experience. And then you don’t even necessarily have to ask them for support. Very often, they will be so excited that they will offer it. And that’s the way I like to do it. You engage people at a personal level and you give them that firsthand experience. And that to me is the essence of what I try to do, in terms of imparting my knowledge and, you know, being successful in bringing resources.
  • Well, I have to tell you, I am so pleasantly surprised, talking to someone like yourself with your pedigree, with your background, you would think it’d be someone’s gonna start telling me just about book knowledge, but you’ve actually shown that one of the biggest things that’s made you successful has not just been that you’re the smartest guy in the room, it’s been that you’ve been one of the most social, excited people, you’ve brought other people to be happy around you. There’s a bigger aspect of what’s made you successful, and I wanna say thank you for shining a light on that. I really appreciate you coming to talk to us today.
  • Thank you. It’s been great. I really enjoyed it.
  • Absolutely. So for more information, please go check out, Dr. Russell Mittermeier over at the global wildlife conservation. Please go do that. This has been Larry Sharpe, off the cuff. Thank you so much.
  • Thank you. Take care. Come with me on a trip some time.
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