George Of The Jungle!
Jennifer Scarlott tells you about Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award winner 2011, Dr. George Schaller. Did you know that he conducted the first ever scientific study of tigers in India? Or that he lived with wild gorillas for one whole year? Read about the amazing experiences he has had!
In 1933, a little boy named George was born in Germany. As George grew from baby to boy, from youth to adult, he found his salvation in animals, and they found theirs in him. Life took him from the forests of Germany, all over the world, from Alaska to Africa, from India to China, and many, many places in between.
On December 2, 2011, George stood with other wildlife protectors on a stage in Mumbai, and accepted a Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award for services rendered to the wild world. But though George Schaller is being honoured for his life’s work, his life and his work are still unfolding.
At 14, George and his family left Germany and moved to the United States. During his senior year in high school, George took an aptitude test to help him choose his direction in life. The results of the test pointed George in the direction of interior decoration. But instead of pursuing a life in carpets and curtains, George went to the University of Alaska to study zoology. During summers of fieldwork, George canoed the rivers of northern Alaska, surveying birds. Later, George would compare his summers in Alaska to his childhood years in German forests, conceding about himself, “Essentially, I never grew up.”
Upon completing his graduate studies on Alaska’s caribou, an older scientist asked George a fateful question, “Would you like to study gorillas?” No one had ever studied living gorillas in the wild; they were considered too ferocious. The only things known about wild gorillas had been gleaned after they had been shot. George changed that, moving into a cabin in a flower-sprinkled mountain meadow in the Belgian Congo in 1959. During a year-long study, George discovered and studied eleven gorilla groups and several lone males, and the ecosystem in which they roamed. He achieved what others had thought to be impossible. His gorilla studies revolutionised field biology, showing that supposedly dangerous animals could be studied in the wild with little risk.
Photograph by Kay Schaller.
By 1963, George had a Ph.D. in zoology, a wife, Kay, and two little boys. The family had just begun life in a new cabin, this one in the Kanha National Park in India. For three years, as his sons grew, George studied tigers, the deer they preyed on and the beautiful forests and grasslands that sustained them. Embarking on the first systematic, scientific study ever attempted of tigers and their prey, George wanted to unravel the secretive lives of tigers, to learn what effect predator had on prey. While Kay and the boys went looking for tigers on elephant-back, George walked the rolling grasslands and forested ravines of Kanha, sometimes coming face-to-face with his striped quarry. After studying the life of Kanha for three years, George realised that tigers were “good” for their prey species, keeping their numbers at levels the ecosystem could sustain. George was among the very first scientists to document the symbiotic relationship between hunter, hunted, and the ecosystem.
From India, George and his family moved to Tanzania, studying the lions of the Serengeti, to Pakistan, Nepal and the Himalayas to study the snow leopard, to Central China to study the panda, to the Tibetan Plateau of Western China to study asses and antelopes. He broke new scientific ground everywhere he went, learning about species previously thought impossible to study on their own turf. Everywhere he went, George inspired and enriched the work of fellow field biologists, and looked for young scientists to encourage and mentor.George’s passion for wild animals and places led him to recognise that they must be protected, and that science could do that best. As fascinating as science is, George said everywhere he went, it must not be undertaken for itself alone, but to ensure the protection of all living things. His insistence that field biology be wedded to conservation might just be his single most important contribution – it led to the protection of over 190,000 square miles of wilderness around the world, an area the size of Spain!
Where in the world is George Schaller today? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that wherever he is, planet Earth is a better place.
Jennifer Scarlott is based in New York, U.S.A. and is Director, International Conservation Initiatives, Sanctuary Asia. You can contact her at
by Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, January 2012