Interviews: Saving the Marco Polo Sheep Some have called George Schaller the globe's greatest living naturalist. He's been tracking and studying the Marco Polo sheep for some 20 years in a quest to create wildlife preserves in some of the world's most dangerous areas along the borders of Afghanistan, China, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
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Interviews: Saving the Marco Polo Sheep

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Interviews: Saving the Marco Polo Sheep

Interviews: Saving the Marco Polo Sheep

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHADWICK: 5300762

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADELEINE BRAND, Host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, back with a National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, Host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. The subject this time, George Schaller. For decades one of the world's leading naturalists as director of Science and Exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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CHADWICK: A couple of months ago in a wood-paneled room at the National Geographic Society in Washington, George Schaller spread out a map titled The Mountains of Central Asia and pointed to the Pamir Mountains, where he had spent months looking for Marco Polo sheep.

GEORGE SCHALLER: It was first described by Marco Polo in 1273. It's a sheep with the longest horns and the world record over the curve is 75 inches. Therefore it's been an almost mythical animal that trophy hunters and museum hunters wanted. A hunter may pay 20 to 25 thousand dollars to shoot one and ideally that money should go to conservation and it should go to the local communities.

CHADWICK: Does it?

SCHALLER: No. The local communities they don't benefit in any real way, which means they don't feel they gain anything from having the Marco Polo sheep.

CHADWICK: How are things going in the Wakhan corridor?

SCHALLER: There two critical ones right now are Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We went with a photographer and writer funded by the National Geographic to make a survey of the Afghan, of Marco Polo sheep. So we spent nearly two months going by yak mostly, some by horse, up every valley counting animals and we saw about 625 total. So there is still a reasonable population, which if protected will continue to exist. But there has been very little control there. You can buy Marco Polo sheep meat in restaurants in town.

CHADWICK: You can?

SCHALLER: Even though it's illegal. The officials hunt, the border guards hunt, the local people hunt for meat, so that will have to change because numbers, according to everybody, are going down. But you know, conservation in the final analysis comes down to involving the local people. So you want to get some sort of harmony between the local herdsmen and the wildlife in the range lands.

CHADWICK: You were successful in getting a park in Pakistan and the government of Pakistan did put that park there. Is it possible to deal with the Afghan government at this point in that way? Do they even really have authority over the Wakhan corridor?

SCHALLER: Afghan is very interested in conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society is planning a major effort there to help. That's one reason I'd like to get all four countries involved down here together around a table and discuss trans-frontier issues. Ideally it would have an international premiere peace park, which simply means that countries share information, they cooperate on some things like research and education, they will discuss what is the best way to set up strict reserves, hunting concessions, managing rangelands, all the different issues that you need to protect landscape for the benefit of the wildlife and the people. China's interested in hosting such a workshop, I hope next September.

CHADWICK: September 2006?

SCHALLER: Right.

CHADWICK: How do you get this issue onto the agenda for the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose border attentions these days are mostly focused on where is Osama bin Laden? How do you get them to say, well, actually, we should be talking about Marco Polo sheep?

SCHALLER: I think the actions between these animals is just enjoyable to see. That's the main reason I went into wildlife.

CHADWICK: Because you like it.

SCHALLER: Because I like it, and I like mountains, but no scientist can really just go and study something. I think you have amoral responsibility, if you want to call it that, to try to help protect what you study. That's the difficult part.

CHADWICK: Wouldn't some scientists say; actually, you shouldn't be involved that way?" The role of a pure scientist exactly is to just study, to gather research, to gather day.

SCHALLER: I don't think there is such a thing as a pure scientist. You can't sit and watch an animal and stay completely objective. You automatically get emotionally involved. In fact, you should. I couldn't think of anything more dreadful than a pure scientist, who isn't emotionally involved in what he or she does, so conversation is usually not fun because of social problems, economic problems, political problems, but it's essential to do if you want to help the animals, so you have all these little problems that ultimately will resolve themselves.

CHADWICK: George, you're such an optimist.

SCHALLER: Well, we have to be. I find it very distressing to be an optimist, but I'm ever hopeful. Hope always transcends experience. In conservation, the only way you get anything done is to focus on something and work at it. Okay, you win a few, lose a few, but, more often than not, you actually do accomplish something.

CHADWICK: George Schaller, thank you.

SCHALLER: My pleasure. Thank you.

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CHADWICK: We have pictures of George Schaller and maps and more with links to the Wildlife Conservation Society at our web site, NPR.org.

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