This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Tarzan of the Apes,” Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic work on the ape man of the jungle. CI President Russ Mittermeier — a lifelong Tarzan fan — reflects on the role the character had in his life, as well as one of the most crucial issues of our times: saving the tropical rainforest.
This past weekend in Tarzana, California, I took part in a yearly gathering of Burroughs fans called the Dum Dum. To celebrate this year’s milestone anniversary of these beloved books, the U.S. Postal Service launched a new postage stamp celebrating this world-renowned author and his greatest creation. It is truly a momentous day for those who love this great character, and I definitely count myself among them.
Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in wildlife and travel to remote and little-known places. When my first grade teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered, “a jungle explorer,” which in modern terms would best be translated as “biodiversity conservationist.”
This early interest was clearly based on two things: one was my frequent visits to New York City’s Bronx Zoo and American Museum of Natural History as a child — thanks to my mother — and the other, much stronger influence was my early encounter with Tarzan.
I began watching the Tarzan movies as soon as I discovered television, and religiously followed each new Tarzan movie as it appeared (which was quite often back in those days). At age 13, I discovered the Tarzan books — some 23 in all — which the prolific and much-underrated American author Edgar Rice Burroughs churned out like clockwork from 1912 until his death in 1950. His stories included, in addition to the Tarzan volumes, roughly another 50 books about heroes on Mars, Venus, the moon and Pellucidar, the prehistoric world at the Earth’s core.
At times, these themes even intersected, as when Tarzan visited Pellucidar in “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core” — arguably the best of all Burroughs’ books, and for me the single most important book that I ever read. Indeed, this book was so important to me that I presented an inscribed copy to each of my three children on their tenth birthdays; one of them carries his copy with him at all times.
In many ways, Tarzan was the first rainforest conservationist — protecting the forest and its animals against hunters, trappers and other forms of exploitation from the outside world. He was truly a man ahead of his time.
These books had an enormous impact on me, and really helped to set the direction of my life, instilling in me a never-ending desire to explore, discover and experience nature in all its manifestations, and to take whatever risks necessary to see and do as much as possible in the natural world.
In my 45-year career, I have visited and carried out research in more than 50 rainforest countries and — following my strong interest in nonhuman primates stimulated by the “ape man” — have pursued a career in primatology. I’ve now seen more species of primates (apes, monkeys, lemurs and many others) in the wild than anyone else ever.
Now, as I enter my 60s, nothing has changed — my desire to explore continues unabated. What is more, I am delighted that my two sons and my daughter have inherited my interests in Tarzan and the natural world. But far more important than the impact of the Tarzan legend on my life has been its major role in bringing “the jungle” — now known more correctly as “the tropical rainforest” — to the attention of the world.
When Tarzan first sprung to life on the pages of Argosy magazine in 1912, hardly anyone was paying much attention to these magnificent forests. There had been a surge of interest in the rainforests in the middle of the 1800s, especially in the U.K., when a series of explorer-naturalists traveled to the rainforests of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. However, that interest had died down in the early part of the 20th century, as the world turned its attention to Europe and the instability of its political institutions.
“Tarzan of the Apes,” the 22 other Tarzan books, and the many movies that followed it put the jungle on the map, and kept it there to the present day. And these stories were an inspiration to many people in the middle of the 20th century who went into rainforest research and conservation as a profession, including, among many others, Jane Goodall. Jane was the featured guest at the Tarzan gala dinner in California on Saturday, and delighted everyone the night before when she capped off a hilarious “Tarzan yell” contest with her own trademark chimpanzee call.
For myself and many of my peers, Burroughs’ works have provided so much more than entertainment; they have inspired careers that have helped to shape the modern conservation movement. But our job is far from done. Indeed, we continue to face many threats to our planet’s unique natural heritage, and we will need many more dedicated Tarzans in the years to come if we are to succeed in maintaining the wonderful world that Burroughs brought to our attention 100 years ago.
Dr. Russell Mittermeier is the president of CI. He is also an author, primatologist and chairman of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group.