Profiling Pimm's team: Videographer Peter Jordan '01 films graduate student Mariana Vale on flooded road in Brazil
Profiling Pimm's team: Videographer Peter Jordan '01 films graduate student Mariana Vale on flooded road in Brazil

Compassionate Conservation

Ecologist Stuart Pimm feels a moral responsibility to protect the world's "special places"--those richest in biodiversity and most threatened by human advances. Photos by Alex Fattal.
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January 31, 2006

For Stuart Pimm and his group of graduate students, the trip always begins the same way--with furious last-minute packing, a visit to CVS for anti-malarials, and a final powwow in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

Where it takes them, though, may be to a Madagascan jungle or an Everglades prairie or the savannahs of southern Africa. Such are the far-flung field sites that Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology, visits regularly to oversee his team's work. A mix of doctoral and professional students--Pimm calls them his "family"--they study the various threats (all human) to the planet's variety of life and what, if anything, can be done to curb current trends.

"We are killing off species at between 100 and 1,000 times the natural rate," says Pimm. "I think we're likely to lose 25 to 50 percent of them over the next century." He says that prompts the question, "What is our moral responsibility?"

In Pimm's view, the crisis is both an ethical and an ecological one, and only by immediately protecting what he calls the "special places"--the areas richest in biodiversity and most directly in the path of human advance--can we hope to avert it. That's a message he's sought to spread to his scientific peers, policy-makers, and the public alike. Pimm is an academic scientist, indeed one of the world's foremost experts on theoretical ecology. But he is a problem-solver in practice, a prime example of what, last Founders' Day, President Richard H. Brodhead described as Duke's "real-world orientation."

Last July, Pimm was in the real world's biggest rain forest, the Brazilian Amazon, where he and his team began a two-week journey to the frontline of conservation and the frontiers of the natural world. Along the way, they would make a stop in Brasilia, the nation's capital, for the nineteenth annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), where Pimm would confer with colleagues, and his students would present their work. That organization has special significance for him. "Back in the Seventies, there was no such thing as 'conservation biology,' " he says. "Conservationists were advocates, not scientists." It was after the SCB's inaugural meeting in the mid-Eighties that, as he puts it, "I knew what I was."

Over breakfast at his hotel in Manaus, the chief commercial hub of the upper Amazon basin, Pimm appeared exhausted. He had flown in that morning from the Roraima region to the north, where he'd accompanied one of his students, a Brazilian named Mariana Vale (pronounced VAH-lee), into the field. For months, Vale had been tracking the Rio Branco Antbird, one of the world's rarest and most threatened species of birds, on her computer at Duke. Using satellite images, she had mapped its habitat--vegetation and elevation--in a patch of forest just south of the Venezuelan border. She'd searched museum records for information on previous sightings--the few that there were--and plotted what she believed to be the bird's geographical distribution.

But Vale could only make guesses from her desk in Durham. To confirm anything, she'd have to see it with her own eyes, to "ground-truth" it, as Pimm put it. "At some point," he said, "you have to make sure that what you're seeing on the image is really what is there. You have to go."

So they went--first to Caracas, Venezuela, and then by taxi across the country--down through the Orinoco basin, up the highlands of the Guyana Shield, past the giant sheer-faced tepuis that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World, and, finally, over the border into Brazil, to a town called Boa Vista. From there, they traveled ten hours up the Uracoeira River, a tributary of the Amazon, in an open boat under the blazing equatorial sun. They slept in hammocks draped with mosquito netting to ward off malaria and caught catfish for dinner.

For Pimm, the conditions were nothing new; he has been to the field with each of his students on at least one occasion. Usually the goal is the same: to find a bird. If that seems like a small reward for the investment made and the risks assumed--death by snakebite and lethal infection being among the more likely life-ending scenarios--consider the bird's scientific significance. "They're our window into what is happening to the rest of the environment," Pimm explained. "Few groups of plants and animals have catalogues as complete. We know them--how many there [are] and where they are--very well." That's a product of the public's passion, he said--birdwatchers the world over have given science a useful tool.

Still, he added, tools and know-how alone won't prevent extinctions. "We need to train more conservation professionals," he said. "You can't set up a protected area without people to look after it. Just like politics is local, conservation is local. So wherever my group goes, we're working with the community. We don't go as uninvited gringos. We go to provide expertise to the people who will ultimately be making the big decisions, who will shape policy."

For the past decade, Pimm's team has collaborated with the Brazilian government's National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus. Paired with INPA scientists, they've contributed findings to one of the institute's core programs, a joint research venture with the Smithsonian Institution called the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP). The BDFFP is the brainchild of a scientist named Thomas Lovejoy, formerly the senior biodiversity adviser to the president of the United Nations Foundation and the man generally credited with bringing deforestation of the tropics to the public's attention.

Almost thirty years ago, Lovejoy embarked on an ambitious ecological experiment in the rain forest north of Manaus. He wanted to find out what happened to a rain forest when it was broken up into fragments--the leftovers of clearing--and how small a fragment could be and still function. He speculated that a key theory of island bio-geography--namely, that a small oceanic island can support fewer species than a larger one--might apply to these "islands" of forest, surrounded as they were by farms and cattle pastures.

After two decades of monitoring a sample of fragments ranging in size from 2.5 to 250 acres, a group of ecologists assessed the results. Lovejoy was right: In every one, the diversity of palm trees, euglossine bees, butterflies, dung beetles, termites, birds, and primates had declined. Pimm chaired that assessment and, afterwards, wrote the report. By the time the results came out, it was no longer controversial, he wrote, to say that small, isolated fragments lose species. "Deforestation has provided many examples worldwide." But what was new, and what would give added urgency to future conservation efforts, was how quickly the losses were happening.

Following that assessment, Lovejoy asked Pimm to help him with the project. He needed people who could analyze the loads of data, publish papers, and generate more science. And Pimm, he knew, had the students for the job: smart, tough, young researchers with experience in the field.

Kyle Van Houtan, a current member of Pimm's "family" of graduate students, already had his field scars when he came to pursue his Ph.D. under Pimm in 2002. As a master's candidate at Stanford University, he'd studied parrots and macaws--curious for their clay-eating habits--on a river in southeastern Peru. After three months in a place locals called El Infierno (Hell), he noticed a sore on his leg that wouldn't go away. A trip to the doctor revealed Leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal disease spread by the bite of the sand fly. The treatment was a month of chemotherapy.

Pimm: examing deforestation in Canaima National Park near Venezula-Brazil border

 Pimm: examing deforestation in Canaima National Park near Venezula-Brazil border

Van Houtan's research for the BDFFP focuses on the characteristics that predispose certain birds to disappear from the fragments more quickly than others. But that is only his scientific side. He is also pursuing a master's in Duke's Divinity School, and while Pimm and Vale headed for the remote upper reaches of the forest, he embarked on a taxi tour of Manaus. His aim, he said, was to reach out to local Christian leaders, mainly pastors and missionaries, and to urge them to address environmental issues in their church.

"I've really come to believe that the fundamental obstacle to stopping this crisis, to preventing the loss of biodiversity, isn't a lack of science. It's a lack of will. It's an ethical issue," he said, as the taxi sped across town, passing stacks of timber and signs offering the services of borracheros (rubber repairmen), evidence of the rubber boom that built this urban island in the jungle. "But a lot of people don't see the environment as something that involves them," he continued. "They don't see themselves as a creature."

For Christians, Van Houtan said, "that's a huge irony. The Creation Story ends with humans being made--in a garden. The Bible actually talks about this. It's not blatant. But it's there." Take Colossians, he said:

"'For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in Earth.' That's all of this. God made it, and it's good, and he gave us the tools to preserve it."

That afternoon, Van Houtan spoke to the local director of New Tribes Missions, a nondenominational missionary group. The director had moved to Manaus from Oklahoma more than a decade ago to bring the Gospel to indigenous tribes living in the forest. Since then, he said, things had changed. "The fish are getting smaller. So now the way the Indians sometimes catch them is by using dynamite. Or poison. They'll pour it in the water, and it ruins that part of the river. But they know they'll get enough to eat that day."

Van Houtan came away from the meeting with a new idea. He wants to produce manuals on natural history and ecology for missionaries to use as they teach native populations. "This would help them understand what they see around them every day--why a sloth is green, for example, or why a parrot will eat clay," he said. "It's offering them something they value. They see themselves as part of nature--which we all are, of course. They just 'get it' better than we do."

After two hours on the highway, north from Manaus, the truck turned onto a narrow dirt road. It was Pimm's last night in the area--the next day he'd head for Brasilia, for the conservation biology meeting--and he'd arranged an excursion to the canopy, the forest's topmost stratum, "the biologically least known part of the planet."

Two Brazilian scientists from INPA agreed to take Pimm into the forest, and one of them, an ornithologist who identified himself only as Marcos, drove the truck, dodging ruts and powering up hills. "You have to stay in the middle," he said at one point. "Sometimes the caiman is sleeping in the bog on the side."

The road went east for almost thirty miles to an INPA research camp, an open-air structure just off the road. After a meal of fish and rice, Pimm discussed the plan for the morning: arise at 5:00 and then hike to the tower, a 150-foot steel observatory, about a mile away. INPA scientists use the tower to conduct species censuses and to measure carbon levels in the atmosphere. Pimm wanted to show off the view.

In the morning, Pimm led the way. It was still dark, and the forest was almost silent. Turning a headlamp to either side of the trail revealed the dizzying complexity of the surroundings--mammoth tree trunks with roots like buttresses, tangles of lianas, and enormous oblong leaves that hid the moonlit sky from view. Along the path, patches of phosphorescent bacteria glowed like stardust, and a ground cover of decomposing leaves filled the air with a rich odor of humus.

In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's 1837 account of his first encounter with the tropics, the experience that would set him on the road to Origin of Species, he reveled in the "bright green foliage" and the "elegant curvature of the fronds," and he marveled at the ants--"the lion-hearted little warriors"--that he observed as they blanketed the forest floor in search of prey. "It is easy to specify the individual objects of admiration," he wrote. "But it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind."

Darwin was overcome. And yet he'd only seen the beginnings of the system, a network so intricate that, long after the age of discovery, just a tiny fraction of its many parts are known. Above him, in the treetops, was another world altogether, the forest's canopy. Darwin hadn't the means to get there--but Pimm had.

"Look out there and pick a tree," said Pimm. He was winded from the climb, and his shirt was soaked in sweat. "Pick any one. And then try to find ... (deep breath) ... another one ... like it." He was offering a lesson in biodiversity. Out there lay a living patchwork, a green expanse wreathed in mist and extending to the horizon. Many a trained professional botanist had failed, he said. "You simply cannot do it."

Indeed, here, high above the sandy soil, was what has been called the last great unexplored frontier of the natural world. In only the two hectares below, said Pimm, were more species of trees than in all of eastern North America. On any one of them, there might be a thousand species of insects, a hundred species of fungi, spiders no one had ever seen, unidentifiable frogs living in the cistern-like crowns of equally unidentifiable epiphytes. No one really knew.

Stuart Pimm was born in Derbyshire in the north of England. His father was a factory worker in the local Rolls Royce plant and his mother kept the house. Growing up, he was small and slight, precocious and bookish. "I was not a sportsman," he says. "I liked to read, and I liked birds."

Pimm was twelve years old when he went on his first field trip with the Derbyshire Ornithological Society and glimpsed, to his amazement, a gold finch. "That," he recalls, "was the first. I was hooked." He became an avid birdwatcher. He kept a "life list" of the species he'd seen and was always seeking more.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, he studied ecology and spent two summers doing field work in Afghanistan. After graduating, he went to New Mexico State University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1974, and where he encountered the peculiarities of a different culture. "Someone kindly explained to me shortly after my arrival that the smallest coin was worth twice the amount of the medium-sized coin."

As a young scientist, Pimm was eager to do his research in a pristine setting "in order," he says, "to understand how nature really works." It didn't matter to him whether it was desert or rain forest, only that it was utterly untouched, an ecosystem in its purest state. Hawaii was not such a setting--far from it; decades of tourism had altered the islands in major ways, killing off many of the native species. But that's where Pimm ended up, on a project that had originated in New Mexico. He'd been studying the dynamics of southwestern hummingbird communities when he heard that Hawaii's honeycreepers behaved in a similar way.

The honeycreepers, Pimm learned, were also on the verge of extinction, and it was then, he recalls, that "something changed." Well on his way to a successful career--by the time he was twenty-nine, he had published five papers in Nature and Science--he suddenly realized, he says, "that science wasn't enough." He wondered whether, in twenty years, "people would not look back and ask, 'What were you doing while all these species were going extinct?'" Instead, he embraced "science with a sense of responsibility."

River trip: Vale and Pimm, with guide Claudiomiro Parente, on Uraricoera River

 River trip: Vale and Pimm, with guide Claudiomiro Parente, on Uraricoera River

 

Pimm is an animated lecturer. In a speech last spring at the Nicholas School's Student Conference on Con-servation Science, he was electric, stomping and jumping and pounding the podium. "Washington, D.C., is an appropriate place to do conservation biology," he told the audience. "The animals that live there are worthy of our attention!"

It was one zinger after another, and there was plenty of substance to the show. Pimm appealed to his audience, students from all over the world, to go beyond the laboratory, beyond the insular world of research, and to advocate on behalf of their work. "We have to do our conservation everywhere," he told them. "You are sexier and more intelligent than the lobbyists who reside in the corridors of power. Be nice to your politician."

He recalled his own efforts--the time he testified before a Senate subcommittee on the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act--and offered advice on dealing with the media, "who have an uncontrollable urge to present both sides." And finally, his fists raised in the air, Pimm left the crowd with a raucous reminder: "It might not be what you work on that matters," he boomed, "but how angry you get at what is happening to the places about which you care!"

Months later, at the conference in Brasilia, people were angry about all kinds of things: the effects of boat noise on whale communication in the Pacific, the consumption of bushmeat in Cameroon, the status of Myanmar's elephants and Mexico's jaguars and the hairy wood ant Formica lugubris of northeast England.

Mariana Vale, Pimm's student, however, was beaming. On her trip to the field with Pimm, she'd found her Rio Branco Antbird--by playing a tape-recording of the male's call and then listening for another very territorial male's answer--and extended its known range. "One thing I found is that the bird lives in indigenous reserves. So I'm trying to get those communities involved in protecting it." That poses a very different challenge, she said. "Working with birds, I can go once a year for a month. They don't have to remember me. But people do. This takes trust and time. We do little things together. They want a workshop on identifying birds and a field guide with Portuguese names. So I'm working on that."

After the meeting, Pimm flew to Rio de Janeiro, Vale's hometown and the last stop on his trip. Two years ago, Pimm had come here on a research expedition supported by the National Geographic Society. He and Brazilian ecologist Maria Alice Alves had boarded a helicopter in Rio and flown a few miles inland. They were searching for the gray-winged cotinga, a bird believed to exist on only two mountaintops along a treacherous ridge. Rare and on the brink of extinction, it shared the plight of its neighboring endemic species in Brazil's Atlantic Forest.

Bird in the hand: the elusive Rio Branco Antbird

 

Pimm considers protection of the Atlantic Forest to be among the world's most pressing conservation priorities. The forest was once an unbroken swath nearly twice the size of Texas; only 6 percent of it still stands. Pimm chronicled the expedition for National Geographic. "Someone has to go," he wrote, "not 'because it's there,' but precisely because in short order it may not be." The helicopter landed, and the scientists began their search. But Pimm never saw the bird. Alves later told him that she'd heard its call. But to the birder in Pimm, that was hardly consolation. The fact remained; he had not seen it.

This time he went by jeep. It took three hours to get to the mountain and another to get to the top. It was cold and drizzling, and, after an hour of scouring the trees, he hadn't seen a thing. Soon the drizzle turned to rain, and the ground to mud. And then came a call, a short, high-pitched whistle. "That was it!" said Pimm. Something darted across the trail, then flew back into the brush. No one could make it out. Silence. Then another call, from behind. And there, perched on a waist-high shrub, was an unexceptional looking bird, greenish-gray and small. Had it flown into a grocery store in Rio, no one would have noticed. But Pimm couldn't take his eyes off it. He stood there smiling as the bird hopped from branch to branch.

Suddenly, somewhere beyond the mist, chainsaws buzzed. The bird lifted its wings--perhaps it recognized the sound--and then, once again, it was gone.