Scientist emphasizes biodiversity

By Julia Aizuss

A biological anthropologist, primatologist, herpetologist and conservationist whom Time Magazine called a “hero for the planet” stressed to Upper School students on April 18 about the importance of maintaining the planet’s biodiversity.

Russell Mittermeier, president of the environmental nonprofit Conservation International, who has six species named for him, was the 12th speaker in the Brown Family Speaker series.

The series, established by Linda and Abbott Brown (Russell ’94, David ’96) in 2000, has included jazz musician Herbie Hancock, journalist Fareed Zakaria and most recently artist and architect Maya Lin.

Alán Sneider ’12, who researched giant pandas in China with Mittermeier last summer, opened the assembly by describing how his work affected his lifestyle. He became more conscious of his water and electrical consumption after the trip.

“Our selfishness is leading to the destruction of the planet,” Sneider said.

Mittermeier began his speech by defining biodiversity as the “sum total of all life on earth” and the “basic underpinning of long-term sustainable development.”

After explaining how little we know about life forms on earth, he stressed the importance of protecting biodiversity.

“The biggest threat first and foremost is the agricultural industry,” Mittermeier said.

He then introduced the importance of wilderness areas with high biodiversity, or hotspots.

There are 35 recognized hotspots worldwide, but 86 percent of hotspot land has been lost over the past 100 years, he said. Many of the animal and plant life in these hotspots are endemic species found nowhere else in the world. Mittermeier displayed original photos of these endemic and endangered species throughout his speech, drawing coos of appreciation from the audience.

He focused often on Madagascar, which he called a “microcosm of the problems and challenges we face and what we’re at risk of losing.”

Madagascar, which has a high concentration of endemics, is one of the best examples of a bio-diverse hotspot, he said.

It is also “one of the world champions in habitat destruction,” he said.

In response to problems facing high bio-diverse wilderness areas like the Amazon and the Congo forests, Mittermeier has established many funds while working with organizations and governments to help maintain their unique environments.

Mittermeier said indigenous peoples “are our greatest partners in the conservation movement.”

He has worked with 50 indigenous groups worldwide and formed policies of ecotourism, which demonstrated conservation benefits to local communities.

Mittermeier also discussed green economies as a way to help the environment, saying dealing with climate change and carbon emission is critical.

He said green economies demonstrate that biodiversity and renewable natural resources need to be central to the long-term sustainable economic development.

He ended by calling on the audience to take responsibility for the future of our planet.