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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Call of the Wild

Air Date: Week of

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Facts and film combine to showcase the planet’s most remote locales, in Conservation International’s ambitious photography book, “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places.” Host Steve Curwood speaks with Russell and Christina Mittermeir, the husband and wife team who traveled the world documenting the wild.


CURWOOD: If a picture is worth a thousand words, than “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places” is worth a fortune. This new collection of biological facts and lush photographs blends art and science into a coffee table size technical and Technicolor report that chronicles the state of the planet’s most remote regions.

More than 200 scientists contributed to this work by Conservation International. The group’s president, Russell Mittermeier, and his wife Christina Mittermeier, a professional photographer and marine biologist, traveled the globe, their three children in tow, taking notes and snapping photos from the Amazon to the Appalachians. The join me now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Living on Earth.



CURWOOD: Russell, let’s start with you. This is quite a bit more than a coffee table book. It’s quite heavy. If I were to drop it, I think I would break my toe. It must be, what?

RUSSELL: Twelve and a half pounds.

CURWOOD: Twelve and a half pounds? Why did you choose this medium of photographs, and they are beautiful photographs, with the written information?

RUSSELL: Well, first of all, this is the third in the series of books that we have done with support from Cemex which, interestingly enough, is a Mexican cement company that has had a commitment to the environment for at least a decade, now, and has produced a number of books like this. And the first one we did was on mega-diversity countries, the richest countries on earth for conservation. The second one dealt with hot spots, and this one, looked at wilderness.

And we felt that a combination of good photographic material, outstanding photographic material, and also good scientific information was a unique combination that would capture as wide an audience as possible.

CURWOOD: Christina, you were one of many photographers who contributed to this volume. Why do you think photography is important in conservation?

CHRISTINA: I just happen to think that it is one of our most important conservation tools because people have a very intense emotional connection to these images. If you present them only with the scientific information, you tend to bore them very quickly. But it is very hard to ignore how beautiful and compelling the images are. So we just happen to think that you have to make the most of the material available, and encourage more photographers to shoot in these places.

   The Huli Wigmen of Papua, New Guinea (Photo: © Christina Mittermeier)

CURWOOD: You have 37 wilderness areas here. Russell, how did you decide what is a wilderness eligible for your book?

RUSSELL: Well, there were three principal criteria. One was size. We wanted to make sure that we were looking at wilderness in a broad context beyond just protected areas. And in order to qualify as a wilderness, an area had to be at least 10,000 square kilometers in size, it had to be 70 percent or more still intact, and it had to have a human population density of five people or less per square kilometer.

CURWOOD: I’m glad you mentioned people. As we were getting ready for this interview, we were going through the book here at Living on Earth. And someone said, “Hey, there are a lot of people in this book.” Why are there people in a book about wilderness?

RUSSELL: Well, first of all, we wanted to make the point that wilderness in today’s world is rarely an absolute anymore. And what we wanted to point out here was that there is human influence almost everywhere, otherwise our criterion would have been 99 or 100 percent intact as opposed to 70 percent. Now, that said, there are still some areas that are very, very little influenced by our own species.

CHRISTINA: If I may add, Steve, one of the things that strikes me the most, not just about the wilderness but the hot spot areas as well, is that inextricable link between human welfare and natural resources. And what I have seen in these places is that these are the last refuges where many of these tribal cultures are going to have any chance of keeping any semblance of their traditional lifestyle.

CURWOOD: Christina, tell me the behind-the-scenes story of a particular photo shoot, something that went especially well or maybe especially not-so-well.

CHRISTINA: Well, this last summer, we spent the summer in China. We took a travel to one of the remote areas of China, the Hunan Province, to photograph the golden Hunan snub-nosed monkey. So we climbed up to this mountain with the children and dragging the equipment, and it was raining. And all we had for lunch was little pieces of bread. And then we sat in the rain for about three hours. And finally, the monkeys came down from the other side of the mountain. And you know, you get so disappointed when you find that your lens is not going to be long enough to take the pictures. So you just sit back, get wet, get hungry, but you enjoy one of the great wildlife spectacles on the planet, 200 monkeys jumping. Rare monkeys, very few Westerners have seen them in the wild, so it’s an awesome thing.

RUSSELL: One of the photos in the book is a two-page spread of Indians in a particular ceremony in the Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon. They have a ceremony every year called the Quarup, in which representatives of six or eight different tribes come together and participate in what is basically a wrestling event.

We were invited there by the Kamayura people. And when we arrived, some of the other groups that came in were kind of looking at us like, “Well, what are these guys doing here?” Because we had been invited by one tribe, they put up with us. But they didn’t really like the idea of having outsiders present at the ceremony. So, occasionally, there were some tense moments when members of the other tribes were not really pleased to have us around.

CHRISTINA: He is being nice. They spat at us, they threw rocks at us.


CHRISTINA: They didn’t aim to hit us, because had they aimed, they would have gotten us. They were just trying to say stay away.

RUSSELL: They were just expressing their discontent with their hosts having invited in these characters from the outside.

CURWOOD: I imagine there must be some dangers involved here. I am thinking of snakebites, exotic diseases, governments changing, paramilitaries operating. What kind of personal risks did you face?

CHRISTINA: Well, no more so than living in Washington, D.C. where we have these orange alerts all the time. You know, our three children happen to be very enthusiastic naturalists and they are very cautious. Never once have they gotten really sick on us. And we take the necessary precautions with travel medical experts who advised us on vaccinations and things like that, and then just try to keep a very simple diet, nothing exotic. And just keep an eye on them, away from crocodiles, large carnivores.

CURWOOD: Russell, looking back at the hundreds of pictures-- I think there are almost 500 pictures in this book. You have to pick one that summarizes the message and represents wilderness. Tell me, which one would you pick?

RUSSELL: Oh, boy, you’re really--

CHRISTINA: He has to say, one taken by my wife.

RUSSELL: Yes, I think I will pass that one on to my wife.

CHRISTINA: I don’t know, Steve. There are a lot of photographs here and a lot of outstanding photographers. But this sense of wilderness-- there is a picture of a moose and it is standing overlooking the mountains. And at least from a North American perspective of what wilderness is, this to me embodies the vast expanse of nature where animals and ecological processes can happen in the absence of man.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how are you going to judge the success of this book?

CHRISTINA: You know, I would say it’s not so much about the success of the book as to the success of the analysis, you know. If any of the countries or regions involved in this analysis picks it up as a set of useful tools and pieces of information that they can then use to assemble their own conservation strategy, then we have been successful, I think.

RUSSELL: And the other thing with them is that they are so large that one could not effectively put them on a shelf. So they wind up on the coffee table, on the main table in everyone’s office. And they are the first thing. If they see any books in somebody’s office, this is the book that they are going to see. So this is, inadvertently, this turned out to be a very good strategy.

CURWOOD: Russell and Christina Mittermeier are the two lead co-authors of the book, “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Great Wild Places.” Thank you both for joining me today.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

CHRISTINA: Thank you, Steve.



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