Exploring Tropical Nature Before It Vanished Forever
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 13, 2011
Twenty years ago this past January, I went to Ecuador to travel with a team of amazing biologists working in Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program. I wrote about the experience in Smithsonian Magazine, and later in a book, Every Creeping Thing (Henry Holt). Now CI has published its own book marking the 20th anniversary of the program, Still Counting. Longtime CI president Russ Mittermeier recalls how it all began:
Back in early 1990, my good friend, ornithologist Ted Parker, came into my office and in his inimitable way told me that he had an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Although only in his late 30s at the time, Ted was already acknowledged as the greatest field ornithologist that had ever lived. He had the entire vocal repertoires of more than 4,000 bird species embedded in his brain; he had even discovered a species new to science simply by hearing it calling in the forest. He was charming, persistent, and endlessly enthusiastic about his passion for birds and conservation.
What Ted told me on that day was that he had been on an expedition to Bolivia, together with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, another avid bird-watcher, and Spencer Beebe, formerly of The Nature Conservancy and one of the co-founders of CI along with Peter Seligmann. They had been sitting around a campfire talking about how little we knew of the tropics and how we needed to learn more as quickly as possible, while there was still time. They had hit upon the idea of using a handful of superstar field biologists to go into remote areas and carry out “quick and dirty” assessments, using their amazing skills to do in a few weeks time what it would take ordinary field biologists months or years to do. Aside from Ted, there were only a few people around with such expertise in other groups of organisms such as plants, mammals, and reptiles, but there were enough of them to constitute a small team. Ted, Murray, and Spencer came up with the idea for the Rapid Assessment Program, or RAP, and Ted wanted to see if the young CI, only three years old, was interested in taking on this challenge.
We quickly put together a proposal and sent it to the MacArthur Foundation — which had shown a strong interest in biodiversity conservation — and had RAP funded within a few months time. Ted pulled together the initial team, which consisted of botanist Al Gentry from the Missouri Botanical Garden, plant ecologist Robin Foster from The Field Museum, and mammalogist Louise Emmons from the Smithsonian. Like Ted, Al was a genius. I remember once visiting him in his office and handing him a stack of unidentified plant specimens pressed in newspaper and fresh from the field. He leafed through them like the pages of a book, unhesitatingly identifying each one in a matter of seconds. He once got lost in a forest in Colombia for three or four days, crawled back into camp on the verge of starvation, grabbed some food from a pot cooking on the campfire, and went right back into the forest to collect a plant specimen that he thought was new to science. Robin and Louise had equally amazing expertise in their fields.
Our first RAP expedition was to Bolivia’s Madidi region. It ran from May to June 1990 and produced amazing results: 403 bird species — nine of which were new for Bolivia — and high plant diversity (204 species in 0.1 hectare). The then president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, was so taken with our RAP report that in 1995 he declared Madidi as a 1.8 million-hectare (almost 4.5 million-acre) national park, one of the largest parks then in existence. This political success demonstrated very clearly to us that RAP was not just going to be an important scientific tool. Everyone from decision-makers to the general public was taken with the program, and this demonstrated very quickly to us that the impact of RAP was going to exceed all of our original expectations.
At first, RAP focused exclusively on tropical rain forest regions, mainly in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, the heartland of the Tropical Andes Hotspot and the most diverse tropical forest region on Earth. In 1994, with the participation of Bruce Beehler, the world’s foremost expert on the birds of New Guinea, we began work in Papua New Guinea, an incredibly rich region even less well-known than South America. In 1997, RAP made its first foray into Africa with an expedition to Madagascar, and in 1998, a trip to Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa.
After six years of work in the terrestrial realm, we decided to look into freshwater systems as well, a new dimension which we called AquaRAP. The first expedition was to the Rio Orthon in Bolivia in 1996, soon followed by trips to other important rivers in South America and to the Okavango Delta of Botswana. It was a logical next step to add MarineRAP, which began in 1997 with an expedition to Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea, followed by other expeditions to the Coral Triangle region of the Pacific.
These early marine expeditions had a huge impact, not just on CI’s program but on conservation at a global level. Milne Bay became our major focus in Papua New Guinea, our expeditions to the Philippines and Sulawesi laid the groundwork for our Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape Program, and, most impressive of all, our 2001 expeditions to the Raja Ampat Islands of Papua Province in Indonesian New Guinea discovered the richest coral reef system known to date. This expedition resulted in the creation of 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of new marine protected areas in what we are now calling the Bird’s Head Seascape.
By the end of the 1990s, RAP had developed a methodology that had been replicated by a number of other institutions. What’s more, since we knew that RAP would have to be fully-owned by the countries where so much of the world’s biodiversity resides, we began early on to train field biologists from these countries so that they could become the superstars of the future. Now, the vast majority of RAP work is done by researchers from the tropical countries themselves.
Sadly, the work of RAP has come at a high cost. When we began the program in 1990, we all knew that there were great risks involved. Reaching remote areas required travelling by small plane, helicopter, or boat in often precarious conditions, and the risks of disease, snakebite, guerrillas, and drug dealers were ever-present. We all took them for granted, and still do — an accepted occupational hazard. But the risks are real, as became painfully evident in August 1993, when two of our RAP founders, and perhaps the two greatest field biologists that ever lived — Ted Parker and Al Gentry — died in a plane crash in the mountains outside of Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Six years later, disaster struck again, this time during an AquaRAP expedition on Peru’s Rio Pastaza. The expedition boat was trawling for fish when it got stuck on a submerged log, dragging the boat under water. Two people perished in this accident — Fonchi Chang, a promising young Peruvian ichthyologist, and Reynaldo Sandoval, a local boat driver. We were all shocked and greatly saddened by the loss of our friends and collaborators, but we never thought of ending the program because of them. Rather, we always felt that the best thing that we could do to honor the memory of these committed pioneers who gave their lives for conservation was to strengthen our resolve to continue the work that had been such an integral part of their lives.
Now, as I look back at the past 20 years, I am extremely proud of what RAP has accomplished. We have carried out an amazing 80 expeditions, discovered more than 1,300 species previously unknown to science and gathered vast amounts of data on poorly known species. The new protected areas created as a result of RAP expeditions have been of global significance, leading to major global programs extending far beyond CI’s own activities. In several cases, our expeditions have laid the foundation for land claims by indigenous people, resulting in the creation of special community conservation areas. And perhaps most important of all, by training hundreds of students from the tropical countries, we have truly laid the groundwork for the future and created constituencies that are already carrying the cause of conservation forward.
But in spite of all that we have learned, there is still much to do. The pressures on biodiversity have not diminished, and many regions still remain unexplored. Knowledge has already helped to conserve some of the world’s highest priority sites, and it will continue to be our strongest tool in ensuring the future of life on our planet. RAP has been critical in providing us with such knowledge, and we look forward to the next 20 years and the many challenges and the exciting new discoveries that lie ahead.