A Naturalist and Other Beasts

GEORGE B. SCHALLER — ethologist, conservationist, award-winning author, and vice-president of the Wildlife Conservation Society — is renowned for his pioneering studies on the behavior of charismatic fauna such as the African lion, mountain gorilla, snow leopard, and giant panda (not to mention a menagerie of lesser-known beasts like the Southeast Asian takin, Chinese golden monkey, pika, and chiru). Perhaps the last great literary naturalist–explorer of our time, Schaller views himself as “a nineteenth-century wanderer” who uses “pen and camera [as] potent weapons against oblivion, helping species to survive.”

“At least once in a lifetime,” Schaller admonishes us, “everyone should make a pilgrimage into the wilderness to dwell on its wonders and discover the idyll of a past now largely gone.” This book is a medley of such soul-nourishing forays, nineteen short essays previously published in various periodicals and books over the past half century, each updated with a fact-filled introduction.

The charm of this book is Schaller’s unabashed love of his subjects and his lyrical way of describing them; “knowing such animals individually,” he writes, “one begins to view an area with a new intimacy and with a caring that turns into a special enchantment.” Schaller seeks “a deeper understanding, one beyond soulless statistics.” In the hands of anybody else, declarations like these might be taken as anthropomorphic. But Schaller’s credentials as a tough-as-nails scientist are impeccable, and his enthusiasm for getting down and dirty with his subjects, combined with his literary skill, forge some of the best nature writing of our time.

There are many examples. At the headwater of the Sheenjek River on Alaska’s North Slope, Schaller is surrounded by the Porcupine caribou herd, “a wall of dark brown lava,” enveloped in “a fused roar of rushing water and lowing cattle … the ground vibrated as in an earth tremor.” In Brazil’s Pantanal, he describes the signature braincase-puncturing bite of a jaguar, and rests in the long grass with a grunting pack of capybaras. He spends a week in the Hindu Kush with a mother snow leopard and her cub. The snow leopard’s best chance, he observes, is “to glide unseen, like a wisp of cloud, through its vast mountain realm.” On the Serengeti, Schaller spends an uneasy moonlit night with a pride of lions eating a zebra, the cats “snarling and snapping, their emotions so naked that the scene filled me with primal fear.” In the cloud forests of the Virunga Mountains, he is charged by D.J., a silverback mountain gorilla whom Schaller wryly describes as being “the striving executive type who had not yet reached the top.” In Sichuan, he is puzzled by the “magic monotony to a panda’s existence, revolving, as it does, wholly around bamboo.”

This is brilliant stuff — patient observation and lucid writing full of the wonder of living among wild animals.