Interview with John Seidensticker and Susan Lumpkin

The authors of “Building an Arc” talk about wildlife conservation and what drew them to work with tigers.

You both work at the National Zoo, and John is chairman of the Save the Tiger Fund Council. What drew you to wildlife conservation, and to tigers in particular?

John: I grew up on a ranch in Montana, and I always thought that there should be something you did with wildlife besides hunting it. In college I worked as a research assistant with a grizzly bear study, and then I did my doctoral dissertation on mountain lion social organization. My group was the first to put radio transmitters on mountain lions. Around that time, Secretary of the Smithsonian S. Dillon Ripley and his colleagues had made the world aware of the plight of the tiger, and he pledged the resources of the Smithsonian to save the tigers. But there wasn't actually anybody at the Smithsonian who could work on tiger ecology. So my dissertation advisor was invited by the Smithsonian to go to India and see what he could do to assist the Indian government. Then he said he was too busy to work on tigers, so why didn't I do it. I went to India and then to Nepal, and in the process I established what became the Smithsonian Nepal Tiger Ecology Project.

Susan: My background's very different. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit where there was no wildlife, and I didn't become interested in animals until I was in college and took an animal behavior class. I remember that I read the book Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat, and wanted to do something like that. I went on to get my PhD in animal behavior, and then I came to the National Zoo. And then I married John.

You two had to pass through some politically unstable areas to report for this story. Did you have any close calls?

John: Not really, we were very careful to not provoke anyone—we didn't take pictures where we weren't supposed to take pictures and that sort of thing. We were actually informed on a number of occasions of places where it would have been very dangerous to go, but I do not think for any moment that we were actually in any danger.

Do you think that people and wildlife in this area will be able to thrive together?

John: Well, they already have. What I always find amazing about this part of the world is that right next to people in their rice fields are herds of elephants, as well as tigers and deer. It's just an amazing mix, and there's an enormous amount of tolerance. National policies in both countries are very supportive of conservation, even in spite of this recent Maoist insurgency. Conservation efforts remain very much intact because it's a bottom-up approach; it's not top-down. Efforts on behalf of wildlife are actually bringing positive benefits to local people.

Would you say you’re hopeful for the tiger then?

John: In this area. Not in all areas. But I was extraordinarily pleased that everywhere we looked, where there should have been tiger tracks, there were tiger tracks.

Susan: One thing that struck me the first time I went to India is that you can be driving down a road and you see a tiger, and there are people walking down that road right behind the tiger. At one place we walked down to the riverfront, and there were all these little cafes for tourists, and literally steps away there were tiger tracks. It was just amazing.

John: I think there had been people sitting there having a drink at the bar when that tiger walked by.

So the people are used to living with animals?

John: The local people are very used to this. They've been living with tigers and elephants for a long time. One of the things that's changed is that they've moved rhinos to places where there haven't been rhinos. So there's no memory of rhinos there in the past, even though there were rhinos a long time ago.

Are there problems with the rhinos?

John: Yes, the rhinos go and eat in their fields, and we have to figure out how to fix that. There are also more elephants now in Nepal than there have been in a number of years, and they've come from India. And the people have had to work out strategies for living with elephants. The best way to do this is to take people from Nepal to Sri Lanka on kind of an exchange tour, so they can see how other populations manage elephants.

What lessons have you learned about conservation in general from working here?

John: I think that the lesson from Nepal is that people at the buffer zones around national parks not only have to have control at the community level of what goes on in those buffer zones, but the community has to get something back from the conservation efforts. They have to get a percentage of the tourist fees, for example, which will go into developing community wealth—schools and that sort of thing. And in Nepal these programs are pretty stable now; they've been going on for more than a decade.

Susan: I think these lessons are applicable everywhere. All over the place conservationists are essentially doing the same thing, they're trying to make wildlife relevant so that people see its value. I think everybody realizes that conservation happens one village or one town or one area at a time.

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