Trials of a Primatologist

How did a renowned scientist who has done groundbreaking research in Brazil run afoul of authorities there?

(Cheryl Carlin)
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The mood lightened a bit later, when, in the torpid heat of the Amazonian afternoon, we boarded the Alyson, a 60-foot riverboat, for our three-day journey up the Rio Negro and back. Van Roosmalen, Vivi and I stood at the stern of the vessel owned by their friend John Chalmers—an affable, beer-bellied expat from the British Midlands who'd left his tropical-fish business in his son's hands and settled in Manaus in 2002. Chalmers shouted orders in broken Portuguese to his three-man crew. The skyline of Manaus receded, and the vessel motored at eight knots past long sandy beaches (still studded with millennium-old pottery shards from the original Indians who lived on the banks) and unbroken jungle. It was the first time in several years, van Roosmalen told me, that he had ventured upriver.

Over the hum of the engine and the singsong Portuguese of Chalmer's Brazilian partner, Ana, the boat's cook, van Roosmalen provided an enthusiastic commentary on the world around us. "The banks here are all covered in igapó forest," he said—tough, willow-like trees genetically adapted to survive in an environment that lies underwater four to six months of the year. We were motoring, he pointed out, past some of the most pristine rain forest left in Brazil: almost all of Amazonas state's jungle is still standing, in contrast to those of other Amazon states, which have steadily been cut down to make way for soybean and sugar plantations. "But all this is now at risk," he said. Two years ago, devastating forest fires ignited all over the Amazon, including around Manaus, casting a gray pall over the city and burning for two weeks before dying out. "Every year, because of global warming, the dry season is starting earlier and becoming more prolonged," he said. "If we have two straight years like 2005, when the slash-and-burn fires went out of hand, then it's quite possible that huge tracts of the rain forest will never come back."

Van Roosmalen's early years gave little hint of the mess his life would become. He grew up in Tilburg in southern Holland, where his father was a chemist; the family took road trips across Europe every summer—visiting museums, exploring forests and beaches. "My brother and I were ornithologists, and we caught snakes and amphibians, took them home and put them in aquariums. And I always had a dream to keep a monkey as a pet," van Roosmalen told me. It was early evening, and we had cruised to the far side of the river, laying anchor at the mouth of a 25-mile-long channel that joined the nutrient-rich Amazon to the Rio Negro, a "black water" river low on nutrients and thus nearly devoid of animals and insects. In the still of the mosquito-less night, Ana carried platters heaped with shrimp and rice to the top deck, where we sipped iced caipirinhas, Brazil's national drink, and listened to the splash of a lone flyingfish in the bathlike water.

At 17, van Roosmalen began studying biology at the University of Amsterdam, moved into a houseboat on a canal and filled it with lemurs from Madagascar, South American spider monkeys and marmosets he'd purchased in a neighborhood pet shop. (This was well before the 1975 Geneva Convention declared that all primates were endangered species and made their trade illegal.) "I built another room for my monkeys, and I had no real neighbors, otherwise it would have been difficult, with the monkeys escaping all the time," he said. In 1976, with his young wife, Betty, a watercolorist and animal lover he'd met in Amsterdam, and infant son, Vasco, van Roosmalen set off to do doctoral fieldwork on the feeding patterns of the red-faced black spider monkey in the jungles of Suriname, a former Dutch colony in the northeast of South America.

Betty Blijenberg remembers their four years in Suriname—"before Marc became famous and everything changed"—as an idyllic period. The couple constructed a simple house on Fungu Island deep in the interior; van Roosmalen left the family at home while he ventured alone for months-long field trips around the Voltzberg, a granite mountain that rises above the canopy and affords a unique view of the top of the rain forest. "You could feel the breeze of evolution in your neck there," he now recalled. In a pristine jungle replete with jaguars, toucans, macaws and various species of primates, the young primatologist lived alongside a troop of spider monkeys, often eating the fruits that they left behind in the forest. He survived two near-fatal bouts of malaria and a paralyzing spider bite, which put an end to his walking barefoot down jungle trails. Van Roosmalen came to see the fruit-eating spider monkeys as a key link in the evolutionary chain—a highly intelligent creature whose brain is imprinted with the complex fruiting and flowering cycles of at least 200 species of trees and lianas (tropical vines). "The spider monkeys are the chimps of the New World," he told me. After two years of work in French Guiana, van Roosmalen collated his research into a groundbreaking book, Fruits of the Guianan Flora, which led in turn to his being hired in 1986 by the Brazilian Research Institute for the Amazon (INPA), the country's leading scientific establishment in the Amazon, based in Manaus.

There van Roosmalen initially thrived. With his good looks, boundless energy, high ambition, prolific publishing output and talent for mounting splashy field trips funded by international donors, he stood out in an institution with its share of stodgy bureaucrats and underachievers. He launched a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, dedicated to carving out wilderness preserves deep in the Amazon and, initially with the backing of officials at IBAMA, began caring for orphaned baby monkeys whose parents had been killed by hunters; he ran a monkey breeding and rehabilitation center in the jungle north of Manaus, then began operating a smaller facility in his own Manaus backyard. Even after Brazil tightened its laws in 1996, mandating an extensive permitting process, van Roosmalen says IBAMA officials would often bring him orphaned animals that they had retrieved from the jungle.

Eventually, however, van Roosmalen's iconoclastic style bred resentment. In a country where foreigners—especially foreign scientists—are often regarded with suspicion, his pale complexion and heavily accented Portuguese marked him as an outsider, even after he became a naturalized Brazilian citizen in 1997. Colleagues were irked by van Roosmalen's habit of failing to fill out the cumbersome paperwork required by the institute before venturing into the field. They also questioned his methodology. For example, says Mario Cohn-Haft, an American ornithologist at INPA, he often based his findings of a new species on a single live, orphaned monkey, whose provenance could not be proved and whose fur color and other traits might have been altered in captivity. Louise Emmons, an adjunct zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution, characterizes van Roosmalen's discovery of a new species of peccary as "not convincing scientifically," and Smithsonian research associate Daryl Domning questions his "discovery" of a dwarf manatee on an Amazon tributary. "There's no doubt at all in my mind that his 'new species' is nothing but immature individuals of the common Amazonian manatee," says Domning. "This is even confirmed by the DNA evidence he himself cites."

But Russell Mittermeier, the founder and president of Conservation International, an environmental organization based in metropolitan Washington, D.C., holds van Roosmalen in high professional regard. "There is nobody in the world who has a better understanding of the interaction between forest vertebrates—especially monkeys—and forest plants," says Mittermeier, who spent three years with van Roosmalen in Suriname in the 1970s. "Marc's discoveries of new species in the Amazon are exceptional, and his knowledge of primate distribution and ecology in the Amazon is excellent."

Van Roosmalen also attracted scrutiny by offering donors, through his Web site, the opportunity to have a new monkey species named after them in exchange for a large contribution to his NGO. In recognition of Prince Bernhard's efforts on behalf of conservation, van Roosmalen decided to call an orange-bearded titi monkey he'd discovered Callicebus bernhardi. The prince made a sizable contribution. Although the practice is not uncommon among naturalists, colleagues and officials accused van Roosmalen of profiting improperly from Brazil's natural patrimony. Van Roosmalen used the funds he had raised to purchase land deep in the jungle in an attempt to create a Private Natural Heritage Reserve, a protected swath of rain forest, but IBAMA refused to grant him the status; some officials at the agency charged that he planned to use the park to smuggle rare monkeys abroad. Van Roosmalen shrugged off the criticism and ignored warnings from friends and family members that he was setting himself up for a fall. "In the best light he was naive, he didn't seem to know how to protect himself," says Cohn-Haft, who arrived at INPA about the same time as van Roosmalen. "In the worst light he was stepping on people's toes, pissing people off and getting himself in trouble. Some people saw him as doing sloppy science, others as arrogant, and [his attitude was], 'to hell with all of you, let me do my work.'"

Late on the morning of our second day on the Rio Negro, under a broiling sun, van Roosmalen steered a skiff past leaping pink river dolphins, known as botos. After years of enforced inactivity, the naturalist was unofficially back in the role he loved, chasing down leads from locals in pursuit of potential new species. An hour earlier, van Roosmalen had heard rumors in an Indian village about a rare, captive saki monkey with distinctive fur and facial patterns. "We've got to find it," he'd said excitedly. Each new species he discovered, he explained, provided more support for the "river barrier" hypothesis proposed by his hero, famed Amazon explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1854. "You have to see the Amazon basin as an archipelago—a huge area with islandlike areas, cut off genetically from one another," van Roosmalen had told me earlier, expounding on his favorite scientific theme. "It's like the Galápagos. Each island has its own ecological evolution."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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