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Renowned conservationist Russell Mittermeier means (monkey) business



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Dr. Russell Mittermeier speaks to students about his experiences and work in primatology and conservation in the Grand Hall in the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center. Mittermeier was recently named the winner of the World’s Leading Animal Conservation award. Ty Vinson Buy Photos

Russell Mittermeier, chief conservation officer for Global Wildlife Conservation and primatologist, said he once trekked through rainforests with actor Harrison Ford.

He remembers Ford storming into an Indonesian minister’s office to complain about the country’s bad foresting practices.

“Indiana Jones is a large part of Harrison Ford’s personality,” Mittermeier said.

Mittermeier spoke Oct. 2 at Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center about his experiences in exploring jungles, studying animals – especially primates –  and leading conservation of biodiversity throughout the world.

He won the $250,000 Indianapolis Prize, the biggest monetary award for conservation in the world, on June 11. He came to IU as part of the prize’s requirement to visit various universities, IU professor and event organizer Beth Cate said.

From lobbying against encroachment from soy farming and cow pasture ventures, Mittermeier said the involvement of indigenous communities is key for protection of biodiversity hotspots.

His fascination with animals started with his mother, who took him to various countries to see rare and unique animals. 

His love only grew with the release of films depicting Tarzan. He said he would dress up and pretend to be the character when he was young.

Mittermeier has been running through real jungles for over 40 years – even longer if you count his aspirations of being another Tarzan. He said he doesn’t plan on stopping soon.

Cate said Mittermeier is a pioneer in his field. He has three frogs, two lemurs, one monkey, one lizard and one ant named after him.

She also said Mittermier is known for really looking at the world and saying, “How do we make targeted, strategic investments in conservation?”

Mittermeier said he defines biodiversity as the wealth of genes, species, ecosystems and ecological processes that makes a living planet function.

“It is the basic underpinning of sustainable development for human wellbeing,” Mittermeier said.

Mittermeier said some of the biggest threats to biodiversity are soy farming, invasive species, climate change and slash-and-burn agriculture, in which forests are cut down and then set on fire as a way of creating nutrient-rich soil.

Mittermeier’s expertise in primatology, or the study of primates, gives him the ability to specialize the focus of his conservation efforts, Cate said. He led the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s primate species survival program for 40 years.

“It allows us to try to get people the most bang for the conservation buck, and not just the actual dollars invested in conservation, but the focus of attention on where we can do the most good,” Cate said. 

The IUCN is a nonprofit organization that chronicles the status of species around the globe. The Red List, as conservationists and ecologists call it, is the IUCN’s list of endangered or threatened species, as well as the threats against the species. 

The biodiversity hotspot and high biodiversity wilderness areas are the dual focus of strategic planning, Mittermeier said. Suriname is one such hotspot.

Suriname, a small republic in South America, is the greenest country on Earth, and 98 percent of the country is forest. It has a wealth of animals, from poison dart frogs and various primates, Mittermeier said.

“If we fail in these areas, especially the hotspots, we will lose a major portion of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, regardless of how successful we are in other areas,” Mittermeier said.

One of the ways Mittermeier said people can increase protection of hotspots is through stimulating the development of appropriate ecotourism. One such system exists in Madagascar, where primate watching is a responsible and lucrative business.

Mittermeier said climate change is another threat against the management of biodiversity hotspots. With the loss of rainforests and the increase of carbon in the atmosphere, global warming is worsening.

Mittermeier said the world is experiencing an impending extinction event that will rival that of the dinosaurs’.

“Loss is irreversible,” Mittermeier said. “Once we lose a species of plants or animals, it’s gone forever.”

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