06/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One Way To Preserve The Last Great Places? Endow Research Stations

Head to your nearest airport and board a flight to Lima, Peru. From Lima, catch a smaller plane to Cuzco, where you can catch an even smaller plane to Boca Manu. From the airstrip in Boca Manu, head to the river; you'll find a local man waiting for you in a long motorboat. He'll take you up the river. Bring rain gear.

Eight hours later, you are in Cocha Cashu Biological Station, in Manu National Park, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. There are very few frontiers left on this planet, but this is one of them. This is the home of the jaguar, the harpy eagle, the giant otter, the piranha, and the mahogany tree. We could go on name-dropping for days; there might be 500,000 species here, maybe many more. Nobody really knows. There are people in this forest who have never had contact with Western society -- no joke. You can easily get lost and die in here. No joke.

Cocha Cashu was established in the early 1980s by an ecologist named John Terborgh, then a professor at Princeton, now at Duke. The rationale was simple: this is one of the very few places left to study a primeval tropical rainforest. It's true that you can still find breathtaking rainforests all over the world, from Washington State to Panama to Australia to Malaysia. But most of those places, beautiful as they are, have been plucked, chopped, girdled, diced, high-graded and cherry-picked by people. This forest is different. There's a human footprint here, too, but it's small.

And thanks to more than 500 scientific publications researched here, we have an ever-better picture of what that means -- how a tropical rainforest looks and behaves when it hasn't been tormented by industrial society: what factors determine whether a seed becomes a tree? How do monkeys act when they're not stressed about getting their heads blown off? What role do meandering rivers play in promoting species diversity?

Knowing stuff like that makes the forest more beautiful. You can go to Madrid and stand in front of Picasso's Guernica, and it might strike you as pretty. But absent any contextual information, it's also a big, confusing mess, and if you're anything like us, you'll move on after about five minutes. Now come back with the audio tour. In the context of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso's protest takes on meaning, and with meaning, a profound beauty -- even though you probably still don't understand everything you're looking at. In the same way, a rainforest is a big, confusing mess if you don't know anything about its ecology and evolution. Knowing something about how these systems work, and how they came to be there, both makes them more beautiful and deepens their mystique.

So, the scientists write the audio tour for these forests, but that's not their only role. To paraphrase Dan Janzen, another student of tropical forests, they are also the pro bono negotiators with society on behalf of hundreds of thousands of species that have no other representation.


Halfway across the globe, a hyena steals a dead baby topi from a pair of cheetahs. The Serengeti is arguably the other biggest name in tropical nature and its biological contrasts with Amazonia are stark. Instead of a towering canopy, you have grassy plains on rolling hills, dotted with thorny Acacia trees. This is the home of the spectacular annual wildebeest migration, in which roughly 600,000,000 lbs. of wildebeest, 100,000,000 lbs. of zebra and 15,000,000 lbs. of gazelle follow the seasonal rainfall from Tanzania to Kenya and back again, harried all the while by big cats and crocodiles.

Humans have been part of this ecosystem for as long as there have been humans. Because we evolved here, and because we're large mammals ourselves, we can really connect with this kind of nature. Watching a baby wildebeest run from a lion, you can feel its terror. Somewhere deep in your reptile brain, you know what it feels like to be chased by a predator, even though it's never happened to you personally. The Serengeti is a monument to our history as a species, part of our collective heritage. But it has never been tamed.

Tony Sinclair, of the University of British Columbia has been coming here since the mid-1960s, working with Simon Mduma and other colleagues from Tanzania and around the world to come to grips with the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The scientific output from the Serengeti Wildlife Research Centre during that time is impressive. Like the scientists at Cocha Cashu, the researchers here have painted a compelling portrait of the system -- the flows of energy and nutrients through the plant and animal communities, the intricacies of the interactions among the species -- while simultaneously answering fundamental ecological questions (what are the relative roles of starvation and predation in limiting population growth?). This information is repackaged and supplied to tens of thousands of tourists who visit this iconic landscape each year and to many more non-travelers via TV documentaries and YouTube clips. And because the scientists are there, monitoring the wildlife, they can tell whether hunting is decimating wildlife populations, or whether measures put in place to protect the animals are working.


So, how do we ensure that these treasures survive to inspire our descendants and teach them about the many-layered complexities of life? A permanent research presence goes a long way towards protecting a parcel of nature in perpetuity, while simultaneously building a better understanding of that parcel. Terborgh and Sinclair both estimate that it would cost a minimum of $3 million to endow their respective field stations, forever. In Peru, the revenue flowing from such an endowment would pay the salaries of two permanent scientific directors and cover the scant operating costs of the rustic station. In Tanzania, the goal is to underwrite the training and permanent presence of additional Tanzanian scientists, spreading the sense of stewardship of the country's living assets.

$3 million is a lot of money. Then again, given what we're talking about, it's really not. Governments will always blow mind-boggling amounts on ridiculous projects -- but think about some of the things that even individuals spend that kind of money on. Like the stuff they're selling at Sotheby's. Don't get us wrong, we've got nothing against Jeff Koons' Baroque Egg with Bow (~$7 million) or Robert Gober's funky sculpture of musical notes printed across a pair of ass cheeks (~$3 million). We're just of the opinion that the Amazon Rainforest and the Serengeti Plains are immensely more complex, more meaningful, more important, and more beautiful than anything a mere human brain could ever create. So, $3 million to endow a research station in perpetuity, to secure the continued flow of knowledge, and to rest easy that passionate people will be around to advocate for many voiceless species? We think that's the bargain of the century.