Focusing on one scientist, whose work has brought him around the world, A Life in the Wild: George Schaller’s Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts is less of a biography, then a profile of a life’s work. From his early fascination with birds, Schaller’s work took him from Alaska to high Tibet, through dangerous areas of Africa. During all of these visits, he was not just expanding knowledge of remote habitats and species, but he was pioneering modern practices of animal observation and conservation.
Few children realize that prior to the last 50-60 years, most naturalists and scientists studied species primarily through capturing and killing them. George, and others of his time, set out to study live animals within their natural environments, and in doing so they discovered the importance of the interrelated species and ecosystems within which the particular species of interest lived. Out of this realization grew the knowledge that to save these threatened species was to save the environment they lived in, to preserve these relationships. Much of Schaller’s work went directly to providing the evidence to support the establishment of national parks and conservation areas world wide, beyond which he spoke out against practices that he could see threatening the species he studied.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the broad scope of Schaller’s work, covering so many different species and areas of the world. It showcases the different challenges faced by different environments and political climates. Gorilla’s in the Congo and Cloud Leopards in the Pakistan/Afghanistan/China/Russia are each in dangerous and frequently contested territory. The chapter on Schaller’s work with pandas in China was particularly interesting because of the politics involved, but more showcasing how even a country that desires to save a species can fail when they don’t take into account the importance of the animal within its environment and community.
This book is a good companion to the scientists in the field series, as it provides the same sort of insight into the process of science, only from a longer term and larger scope. Certainly there is a strong conservation/environmentalist perspective to this book–it isn’t science just for science’s sake. But it is a great starting point for students interested in science, conservation, or animals.
One small criticism I have is that I wish the book had more pictures, particularly of Schaller himself. I know the challenge of writing a biography of a living person, who might prefer attention be given to his work and the animals. But part of the fascination of this book is discovering this man and his and his family’s experience with the animals. Plus, from the few little pictures there are of him, he was kind of cute (may still be, but I didn’t see any recent pictures!)