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

Rainforest Experts Remembered

Air Date: Week of

Alex van Oss remembers two giants in the field of rainforest ecology. Botanist Alwyn Gentry and ornithologist Ted Parker were part of a high-speed survey of rainforest ecosystems called the Rapid Assessment Project. When the two biologists were killed in a plane crash, a huge amount of irreplaceable information vanished with them — but the project, and its race against deforestation, continues.


CURWOOD: Late this summer two of the world's most prominent field biologists were killed in an plane crash, while surveying Ecuador's countryside. Al Gentry and Ted Parker were making "rapid assessments" of biodiversity in the area, sometimes just ahead of loggers and developers. The loss of the two was a stunning blow to rainforest protection efforts - they were among the most knowledgeable in the world about tropical birds and plants. Alex van Oss reports from Washington.

VAN OSS: For those who are not birders or botanists, it's hard at first to understand the passion Ted Parker and Alwyn Gentry brought to their work, and the impression they made on students and colleagues. But appreciation comes quickly once you file through the detailed reports made by the Rapid Assessment Program or RAP team, or listen to their field recordings and hear what they heard in the forests far away.

(Sound of recorded bird songs)

VAN OSS: Colleagues and family recall the almost made-for-Hollywood characters of Parker and Gentry - their doggedness in the field, their humor under hard conditions, and their encyclopedia knowledge of the Andes' plants and birds. Much of this information was unpublished, and the scientists' knowledge was wiped out in the plane crash last August. Russell Mittermeier is president of Conservation International, which sponsors the Rapid Assessment Programs.

MITTERMEIER: Ted was the best ornithologist on earth. He had in his brain the vocal repertoires of 4000 bird species, which is unbelievable.

VAN OSS: Al Gentry and Ted Parker were killed while flying over an area of Ecuador later to be traversed on foot. These airplane surveys are a risky but necessary first step in the rapid assessment approach to conservation. They help to locate remote forest areas and allow scientists to make a mental map of the terrain, and the species of plants and animals they may later find and collect. Ted Parker recorded hours of bird songs, many now at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

(Sound of Cornell tape: "On this tape you will hear some of the most characteristic and distinctive animal voices of the Peruvian rainforest and lake edge - a branch snapping in the canopy, or the rustle of leaves on the forest floor, might signal the unsuspected presence of a large bird or mammal. Just before dawn, a great potu delivers its hair-raising song" . . . fade out animal sound)

WALCOTT: My name is Charlie Wolcott, I'm the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Ted made an extraordinary contribution to our library of natural sounds. We have some 90,000 recordings of more than 5,000 species of birds, and of those 10,000 are Ted's recordings, representing something close to 1000 species.
EMMONS: He used to say that he didn't have any special talent, that anyone could do what he did if they studied hard enough. He said he used to spend days and days and weeks and weeks listening to types over and over and over again, memorizing bird songs.

VAN OSS: Dr. Louise Emmons is a mammologist, and one of the surviving members of the Rapid Assessment team. Emmons says Parker had such discriminating ears that, astonishingly, he could pick out even birds that were unknown - new species. If Ted Parker was a kind of "walking ear" with his microphone, the late botanist Alwyn Gentry was more of an arboreal grazer in the forest, who spend much of his time off the ground.

EMMONS: Al, he would be climbing up trees all the time, he used a climbing device and he'd be clipping off branches and throwing them to the ground, and he would not write anything down much, he'd come back and he would remember just from a pile of leaves all the details on the size of the tree that it was. He was always, I mean if you'd stop the car he'd jump out and collect plants, if you came into camp, if you were standing on the runway waiting for a plane, he'd be stuffing plants into bags.

MITTERMEIER: He had a reputation for doing some really crazy things. I mean, he was working in Ecuador once with an Ecuadoran botanist and they got lost for about three or four days and finally they found their way back into camp, and the Ecuadoran was just almost in a state of shock. Al walks in, sees a plate of cold pancakes sitting there from breakfast eaten earlier in the day, gobbles down the cold pancakes, and says, I saw this really interesting orchid out there and races off back into the forest to collect this orchid that he'd seen.

(Sound of bird song)

VAN OSS: The focus of the RAP teams are areas that are often remote, unmapped, often endangered, and biologically rich, with species seen nowhere else. Time is running out on many forest areas, what with logging and clearing for grazing and agriculture, so Rapid Assessment is just that - rapid, rather than exhaustive. Quick surveys by air and on foot, just a few weeks spend in any given area. Dr. Louise Emmons.

EMMONS: It's quick, it's good science, but it is not a thorough inventory. But that isn't our goal, our goal is to try to find the best places for political reasons, not for scientific reasons, so that the countries in question are able to make a decision as to where to put a park or reserve area, how to plan their land use.

VAN OSS: Conservation International's president, Russell Mittermeier, says that recently Ted Parker and Al Gentry had come into their own as what he calls "bio-politicians," who had developed rapport with top government officials abroad. In just three years, the RAP teams' reports have spurred the creation of reserves and protected forest areas in Belize, Bolivia and Guyana, as well as conservation proposals in Ecuador and Peru. Mittermeier, a primatologist, says that a special Parker-Gentry Fund has been set up to continue the work.

MITTERMEIER: RAP is going to expand, rather than slowing down or dying, we intend to expand it and we intend to have the next RAP expedition deployed sometime within the next three or four months, probably in Brazil, that's one that I'm going to be, Brazil or Guyana, and it's one that I'm going on myself to do some of the monkey work.

VAN OSS: There are plans to review the Ted Parker and Alwyn Gentry field materials for publication. And the Parker bird recordings may be assembled for commercial release on compact disc. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.



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