Twenty years ago this month, the conservation community and the world suffered a tragic loss when a small plane flying out of the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador crashed into a cloud-covered mountain.
Out of the seven people on board, four were killed. Among them were two amazing individuals, the likes of whom we will probably never see again: ornithologist Ted Parker and botanist Al Gentry.
Ted Parker was, with no exaggeration, the greatest field ornithologist ever — a man who could identify 500 bird species in an Andean forest while wearing a blindfold, a man whose knowledge base included the full vocal repertoires of more than 4,000 Western Hemisphere bird species, a man who identified a new species of parrot by sound alone. He was a genius in every sense of the word.
Al Gentry was Ted’s equal on the plant side, a phenomenal field botanist who could identify hundreds of tree species from nothing more than their dried leaves squeezed together between newspapers in a plant press. He was a fearless collector who once got lost in the Amazon for several days, finally found his way back into camp, grabbed a plateful of cold breakfast and went running off back into the trackless forest to find an interesting plant that he had stumbled upon during his ordeal.
Both of these men were not mere scientists; they were also incredibly effective conservationists, individuals who saw the power of science to stimulate conservation action and create new protected areas in some of the most important areas on Earth for biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Together with mammalogist Louise Emmons and plant ecologist Robin Foster, Ted and Al were two of the original four members of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP). Created in 1990 and originally funded by the MacArthur Foundation, RAP aimed to dispatch renowned field scientists to remote, largely unknown corners of the tropical world that we expected would be of great conservation value.
The idea for the RAP program was born around a campfire in Bolivia in 1989. Ted Parker, Spencer Beebe (one of CI’s founders, who is now head of the Portland-based NGO Ecotrust) and Murray Gell-Mann (the Nobel Prize winner who discovered the quark and is an avid bird-watcher) were bemoaning the fact that we knew so little about the rich, diverse and wonderful rainforest ecosystems that were being destroyed across the tropics. On the spot, they came up with the idea of putting together a team that could do in a few weeks what it would take ordinary field biologists years to accomplish.
Gell-Mann believed that the MacArthur Foundation, where he was a board member, could fund it; Parker presented the idea to me and to CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann a few weeks later. We immediately understood the value of such a concept, the MacArthur Foundation provided the seed funding and we were up and running.
The RAP team carried out a number of pioneering RAP expeditions in the early 1990s, and immediately found how powerful science, mixed with a spirit of adventure and old-fashioned exploration, could be.
Their first trip to the Madidi region of Bolivia not only produced excellent scientific results, it also so impressed the president of Bolivia and his colleagues that they created the huge Madidi National Park shortly thereafter. This park today covers over 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) and harbors more than 1,000 bird species, making it one of the richest and most diverse protected areas on the planet.
Many other RAP-based successes followed from the more than 75 terrestrial, freshwater and marine expeditions carried out to date. In fact, many of CI’s most important project sites in South America, Asia and Africa were discovered through RAP expeditions.
The plane crash that killed Ted and Al — as well as the pilot and Eduardo Aspiazu, a well-known Ecuadorian conservationist who chartered the flight — was not even part of a RAP expedition. Ted and Al had just completed a RAP, and had missed their flight back to the U.S. To occupy their time, Eduardo invited them to take a short exploratory flight in the Guayaquil region, which tragically turned out to be their last. No matter the circumstances, this terrible tragedy was a painful reminder of just how dangerous conservation work can be.
I remember how I felt when I first received word of this tragedy. I was up in New Jersey taking a short break from work with my wife Cristina and my 1-year-old son Mickey. I couldn’t believe the news; to this day, I still haven’t fully accepted the loss of these two men. They were larger than life and seemed almost immortal. Indeed, they are still with us in so many ways today. Here in CI’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, we remember them on a daily basis because our main meeting rooms are named after them.
Thinking about Ted in particular, I have had, over the years, two regrets. The first was that Ted — an avid basketball fan and player who used to tape Shaquille O’Neal’s games while a student at LSU — and I never had the chance to play ball together, something that we often talked about. The other was that my first son John, then only 9 years old and now well into a career in ornithology, never had the chance to meet Ted and to go with him to the field to try and absorb some of his amazing knowledge and skills. How wonderful those things would have been.
Al and Ted leave behind a legacy of more than just great field biology: their passion for science and the natural world is in many ways the foundation on which CI is built. In more than 20 years of RAP, scientists have discovered more than 1,300 species that are new to science, leading to the creation, expansion or improved management of almost 21 million hectares (51.8 million acres) of protected areas. RAP research has also led to the investment of more than US$ 5.3 million into local communities and national economies.
Ted and Al’s work was instrumental in advancing our understanding of tropical forests, the species that inhabit them and the immense value of these ecosystems for people. To preserve the memories of these two great men, continuing to advance this important work is the least we can do.
I invite those of you who knew Al and Ted to share your memories and photos in the comments section below.
Russell A. Mittermeier is the president of CI. He is also an author, primatologist, herpetologist and chairman of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group.