Species Seekers and Spies
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 20, 2011
Here’s the latest column in my Specimens series for The New York Times:
There’s a scene early in the 2002 film “Die Another Day,” where James Bond poses as an ornithologist in Havana, with binoculars in hand and a book, “Birds of the West Indies,” tucked under one arm. “Oh, I’m just here for the birds,” he ventures, when the fetching heroine, Jinx Johnson, played by Halle Berry, makes her notably un-feathered entrance.
It was an in-joke, of course. That field guide had been written by the real-life James Bond, an American ornithologist who was neither dashing nor a womanizer, and certainly not a spy. Bond’s name just happened to have the right bland and thoroughly British ring to it. So novelist Ian Fleming, a weekend birder in Jamaica, latched onto it when he first concocted his thriller spy series in the 1950s.
The link between naturalists and spies goes well beyond Fleming, of course, and it might seem as if this ought to be flattering to the naturalists. While the James Bonds and Jinx Johnsons of spy fiction are trading arch sex talk in the glamour spots of the world, real naturalists tend to be sweating in tropical sinkholes, or wearing out their eyes studying the genitalia of junebugs. (That’s not a joke, by the way: Genitalia evolve faster than other traits and often serve as the key to species identification, especially in insects. The Phalloblaster, a device worthy of Bond, was invented to make the job easier by inflating the parts in question.) And yet, as I was researching my book The Species Seekers, I found that naturalists don’t actually like the connection at all. The suspicion that they may be spies just complicates the difficult job of getting access to habitats and specimens in foreign countries, which are often already leery of their odd collecting behavior. It can also get them jailed, or even murdered.
So is there a basis in real life for the persistent idea of the naturalist as spy? Spies have at times certainly pretended to be naturalists. The most public of them was Sir Robert Baden Powell, better known as founder of the Boy Scouts. As a British secret agent, he thought it clever to pose as “one of the exceedingly stupid Englishmen who wandered about foreign countries sketching cathedrals, or catching butterflies.” His detailed maps of enemy fortifications were concealed within the natural patterns of butterfly wings and tree leaves, and he sometimes showed off these sketches to locals, secure in the sad knowledge that they “did not know one butterfly from another—any more than I do.”
Rival nations and their spies have also frequently targeted natural history treasures. Persian monks visiting China in 552 A.D., for instance, brought back silkworm eggs concealed in a hollow cane. This pioneering act of industrial espionage established the silk trade in the Mediterranean and broke a longstanding Chinese monopoly. That kind of resource grab got repeated on the grand scale during the colonial era, for products from quinine to rubber, one reason international rules on collecting expeditions are now so strict.
Naturalists, or people with a naturalist avocation, have at times also had careers as spies. Maxwell Knight, the British counterintelligence spymaster (and one of the models for James Bond’s boss M), actually worked on the side as a BBC natural history presenter and author. In the late 1950s, he hired a young man named David Cornwell to provide bird illustrations for one of his books, leading Cornwell into a stint as an MI5 intelligence officer in Germany — and later to a career as the novelist John Le Carré. Likewise, the novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen worked briefly for the Central Intelligence Agency after graduating from Yale.
But instances of naturalists using their work as a cover for espionage are scarce. Maybe that’s because the people involved tend to be secretive. Or maybe it’s because the naturalist connection has mainly served to advance a career, as in Le Carré’s case, or to put a social and intellectual gloss on otherwise dirty work. The simple delights of birding were no doubt a relief from the double-dealing world of espionage for S. Dillon Ripley, who ran secret agents for the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s predecessor agency, during World War II and later served as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It could also be a form of redemption (or not quite): James Schlesinger, for instance, served a brief, tumultuous tenure as head of the C.I.A., and a shill for Richard Nixon, in the aftermath of Watergate. When I chatted recently with Nicholas Dujmovic, a historian at the C.I.A., he remarked, “The only nice thing I’ve ever heard about Schlesinger is that he was a birdwatcher.”
Dujmovic is the author of a recent article that reads a bit like a C.I.A. recruiting pamphlet for naturalists. It’s about Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon in Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Maturin was “the kind of intelligence officer we need these days,” according to Dujmovic: “A doctor by profession and a natural scientist by vocation, Maturin is well respected — and indeed publishes — in both fields, a situation that provides him with excellent cover for travel to exotic places and for establishing and maintaining contacts worldwide.” The article goes on to list traits that make Maturin “the ideal intelligence officer” not just for his time, but for ours: He is discreet, skeptical, and ideological (though with a knack for deception and a willingness to bend certain principles for the cause). He‘s also comfortable working in a compartmentalized, need-to-know culture, and he is “like every intelligence officer at his core, a collector.”
I’d add a couple of traits that might seem to make other naturalists excellent spies, too: They often spend years becoming invisible, or at least innocuous-seeming, to the animals they study, so they can observe them behaving naturally at close range. And they are adept at spotting nuances and subtle shifts that are often the first signs of coming upheaval.
But this suggests what may be a better idea. We no longer live, if we ever did, in a James Bond and Dr. Goldfinger world, or a world where Cold War ideologies shape our conflicts. Instead, our wars increasingly result from environmental distress — including deforestation, erosion, dwindling water supply, food shortages and the trade in conflict resources—not just blood diamonds but also timber and endangered wildlife. Different forms of environmental collapse have contributed to conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia, Darfur, Liberia, Afghanistan and Borneo, among others.
Naturalists doing field work are often the first to spot the developing maelstrom and raise the alarm. Unlike Baden Powell, they’re the sort of people who actually do know one butterfly from another, and what the flapping of its wings may portend. Instead of trying to turn them into spies, wouldn’t it be better for the people in power to listen to what they’re already saying, and act as if it matters?
That way, we might not find ourselves engulfed in yet another ugly little war.