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The man with a plan to save the planet
Russell Mittermeier doesn't believe that life on Earth
is doomed, but the clock is ticking. To conclude this
series, the dynamic scientist and president of
Conservation International takes ALANNA MITCHELL
deep into South America's equatorial rain forest
to demonstrate that, despite all the damage
humanity has done, Homo sapiens can co-exist with nature


Wednesday, June 6, 2001

'Lie flat on your stomach on the bottom of the boat and protect your head," instructs the scientist, wrapping his arms around his own neck and ears to show what he means.

"Remember, harpies don't bother to soar. They blast through the forest canopy and simply rip their prey out of the trees."

Or canoes.

We are in a leaky dugout canoe hacking our way down a vine-infested river deep in the Amazonian rain forest of Suriname not far from the equator. Somewhere near here, a local man has spotted a specimen of Harpia harpyja,the fearsome harpy eagle. Considered the mightiest raptor on the planet, it weighs up to nine kilos, boasts a wingspan of more than two metres and preys on sloths and other large animals. The bird is vicious and known to be aggressively unfriendly with trespassers. Small wonder that early explorers named it after the monstrous half-woman, half-bird of Greek myth.

Not that the harpy is the only threat around. The mosquitoes probably carry malaria. The water is filled with piranhas. On shore, the diamond-headed bushmaster snake rules the undergrowth with inch-long fangs that can sever a limb.

So why are we here? Because the harpy is so rare that in his 30 years of working in the jungle, the scientist, Russell Mittermeier, has seen just two. He anxiously scans the treetops until the guides suddenly point to the upper branches of a towering kapok tree. There sits a mother guarding her young. Sharp eyes unblinking, she is immobile. For the moment.

Some of us shriek. But not Mittermeier. It's his best harpy sighting yet. He whips out his binoculars, chortles and settles in to watch. "That is really cool, guys," he says. "Really cool."

In many ways, Russell Mittermeier is like the harpy eagle. As president of Conservation International, an organization that has gone from splinter group to cutting edge in only 14 years, he is considered by many to be the world's mightiest environmentalist.

An eminent primatologist with a PhD from Harvard University (and a lifelong Tarzan fixation), he does not hesitate to blast through obstructions in the hunt for solutions. As a result, he racks up successes -- a quality that makes him a rare bird in today's rather luckless fight for the future of the planet.

"For conservation to be a success, you have to understand you're fighting a war -- you cannot be timid," explains Peter Seligmann, CI's fierce chairman and chief executive. In 1989, he lured Mittermeier away from the World Wildlife Fund because "normal barriers don't seem to bother him. He's adventurous. He's willing to go places other people don't want to go to."

And Mittermeier is driven. He carries a stopwatch and two spiral-bound journals -- one personal, the other scientific -- so that he can time everything he does and compare it with his previous best. He has more than 350 scientific publications under his belt. In 1999, he was named "hero of the planet" and given cover-story treatment in Time magazine.

This high-test approach also pretty much sums up the way CI operates. Forged over a weekend in January, 1987, when Seligmann and about 50 others grew disillusioned with the Nature Conservancy, the organization marches to its own drummer. It believes that countries can build an economy on conservation principles. That means taking the needs of local communities into account -- and working with companies.

  • Russell Mittermeier
  • Conservation International
  • Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname
  • Places
  • Virtual tour of Suriname's Rainforest
  • Map of Suriname
  • English version of Die Ware Tijd, Surinamese newspaper
  • Science
  • Rainforest Information Centre
  • Early Amazon cultures
  • Suriname before Columbus
  • Some environmentalists consider co-operating with business heresy, and Seligmann insists that CI has no truck with corporate villains. But businesses are needed to help to build an economy, he says. And they are appealingly vulnerable -- to shareholders, markets, press and profits. "Could we win the war without them?" he asks. "Absolutely not."

    All this urgency is prompted by the mounting scientific evidence that humans are doing great harm to the biological processes that keep the planet alive. As this damage mounts, we are becoming a force so powerful that we rival the ancient four fundamental elements thought to make up the universe.

    Unlike earth, air, water and fire, though, we -- the fifth element -- are malignant. So Mittermeier and his colleagues have set themselves an ambitious goal: to preserve as much of Earth's remaining biological real estate as they can. And they have decided that some of that real estate is more important than others.

    CI concentrates on so-called "hot spots of biodiversity," a slender roster of countries -- largely in tropical areas -- that make up 1.4 per cent of Earth's land surface but contain about 60 per cent of all terrestrial species. If they are lost, the consequences to nature -- and the humans dependent on it -- would be incalculable.

    It's a threat of extinction rivalled in scope only by the spasm that extinguished the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. And Mittermeier's controversial strategy -- indeed, his own fiery drive to implement it -- is considered by many to be the best hope of avoiding the carnage.

    I have accompanied Mittermeier to Suriname to see how he does it. And therefore, what the hopes are.

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