A Walk in the Woods with John Terborgh

Posted at 8:26 am February 9, 2010 by Ron Swaisgood

Dr. John Terborgh, veteran tropical ecologist, gives us the tour of Cocha Cashu, the oxbow lake namesake of the field station.

Dr. John Terborgh, veteran tropical ecologist, gives us the tour of Cocha Cashu, the oxbow lake namesake of the field station.

Let’s put this into context: exactly 20 years ago, I picked up a copy of John Terborgh’s Five New World Primates. I was a first-year graduate student in the animal behavior graduate group at the University of California, Davis, about to begin my studies of titi monkeys at the Davis Primate Center. (Finding myself drawn to field biology, I later decided to work with some local nature – ground squirrels and rattlesnakes – for my dissertation.) Before even breaking the binding of the book, I studied the rich illustration on the cover depicting titi, spider, howler, and capuchin monkeys in a dark primeval forest. I longed to work in the field with wild primates, and as I began to turn the pages, a whole new world opened up to me. This place, as John Terborgh described, was magical: ancient, intact, and untouched. Here, even most of the indigenous people are “uncontacted,” living with almost no knowledge of the outside world. This, it seemed, was what I really wanted – an adventure in a true wilderness.

Now, 20 years later, I find myself unexpectedly here at Manu National Park, Peru, with John Terborgh himself…at his invitation. (Read Ron’s previous post, Cocha Cashu: Wild Nature.) It doesn’t take long to realize that, despite his iconic stature as a field biologist, John is a down-to-earth guy: brilliant and adventurous, but still a regular person. I am not at all disappointed.

A hoatzin perches over the lake.

A hoatzin perches over the lake.

And so I find myself walking through the forests of Manu with John. My colleagues Alan Lieberman and Russ Van Horn are similarly enamored, and we all bend our ears to hear the master tell his tales of the forest. John is not subtle about his enthusiasm for this place. He exclaims with glee at the sight of every bird flitting through the forest and admires each and every cedro tree, now so rare throughout much of the Amazon. Every plant has a name or a series of names (Spanish, English, scientific), and John spews out names more voluminously than any Internet download. He pontificates modestly about the web of ecological interactions, the cascading effects that top predators like jaguars, harpy eagles, and giant otters – so rare elsewhere – have on the ecology, and how if you remove large primates like spider monkeys and capuchins, tree diversity plummets and the entire ecology of the forest degrades.

The tangle of life that makes up Manu.

The tangle of life that makes up Manu.

It is observations such as these that show the true value of intact ecosystems. Even in the most protected areas around the world, hunting has eliminated some large-bodied herbivores or top predators. John’s work has shown, possibly more than anyone else’s, that the web of life is actually quite sensitive to the removal of a few strands. With this knowledge comes understanding. If we want to maintain biodiversity, we really do have to keep all of the pieces. This also underscores the importance of the work we do here at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. We are working diligently to save some of the species that make up the puzzle of life. When we work to bring back the California condor, the giant panda, or the Stephen’s kangaroo rat, we are bringing back species that may play key roles in maintaining the web of life.

This walk in the woods with John Terborgh is a valuable lesson. Understanding true, unspoiled nature helps us understand what we need to do where human actions have disrupted it. Even Manu, vast wilderness as it is, is coming under imminent threat from increased human activity such as mining, logging, and oil exploration, nipping away at the buffer zone around the park. Additionally, the advent of modern medicine to previously uncontacted tribes living in the park portends a population explosion in the region. Can the nature of Manu exist in harmony with an increasing population armed with modern technology?

Ron Swaisgood is director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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3 Responses to “A Walk in the Woods with John Terborgh”

  1. Shirley Sykes says:

    What an incredible experience, Ron, and what serious questions it raises!! I hope you and your colleagues at ICR (forever CRES to me) will be able to address some of these issues and come up with possible solutions. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  2. Diana S. says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Ron. How fortuitous to meet and walk in the forests with Dr. Terborgh after so many years had gone by.

  3. XiethePiXie in San Diego says:

    I may be coming rather late to the party here, but I am no less impressed with your tale of adventure in the forest. How wonderful to meet someone you have admired for so many years! And this is another example of “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” I also want you to know that I’m one of that bunch that saves up all the recyclables until I have a full carload and then come to the Zoo for the recycle bins there which help support your research activities. I know it’s not much, but I feel like I’m contributing in a small way to further your work. More power to you and your colleagues!

    Moderator’s note: You are indeed contributing to our research efforts and we thank you!