Rainforest Questions & Answers / InterviewMany students have contacted me for interviews on rainforests and environmental issues. Here are some of my responses for people who are interested in a "virtual" interview. I have also done a biotope specific interview [tropical fish] on the Rio Sucasari; an interview with Treehugger.com, an environmental web site; and one with JournalPeru. There is a profile on mongabay.com in the San Francisco Chronicle. You may also be interested in my interviews with scientists.
At this time I am not doing further email interviews for school projects except in special cases. My apologies but I hope you can find your answers below or elsewhere on my site. Please feel free to use these questions and answers for your projects.
2015 update of the interview
My biographic information
GENERAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE SITE | PERSONAL QUESTIONS | RAINFOREST QUESTIONS
GENERAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE SITE
While I'm not a tropical biologist (my background is in math and economics), I have been studying tropical rainforests for more than a decade and have authored or co-authored several papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.. More importantly, the information sources (peer-reviewed journals, respected researchers, etc) used by mongabay.com are credible. Further the site has been praised by a number of well-respected conservation biologists -- including Jane Goodall (on Mongabay's board), Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Gardens (on Mongabay's board), William F. Laurance of the James Cook University (on Mongabay's board), and Dr. David L. Pearson of Arizona State University, among others.
How is mongabay.com financed? Who underwrites your travel?
Mongabay.com is financed out of pocket by the site's founder, Rhett A. Butler. Mongabay.com is independent and does not receive funds from any other organization. Revenue comes from advertising. Note 2015 update
How did you choose the name mongabay.com?
The name is derived from an anglicized spelling and pronunciation of an island off Madagascar, Nosy Mangabe. Nosy Mangabe is best known as a preserve for the Aye-aye, a rare and unusual lemur famous for its bizarre appearance.
In selecting mongabay, I wanted to have a totally unique name for the site so I could track references in the early days of the site.
How popular is mongabay.com?
Traffic varies depending on the season, but generally the site gets more than 50,000 unique visitors per day.
What is your background?
I have a business background -- my degree is economics/management science and I have worked in management consulting, venture capital, and information technology -- but my passion has always been the outdoors. These days I devote a great deal of time to biology and Earth science.
Where did you go to school?
I attended high school in Northern California and graduated from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) with a BS in Economics/Management Science in 1999. I double-majored in Biology/Ecology for two years, before dropping it in my third (and final) year so I could get out of school early. I had a pretty extensive background in ecology from my rainforest work and didn't see much need to continue with the major given my plans to go into business/technology -- not Environmental Sciences. I am very independent and have always preferred unstructured learning. In "studying" rainforests I spent a great deal of time in the library, with academics, and in the field. I participated in a lemur project in Madagascar, general forest study in Peru and Costa Rica, and a conservation project in Sabah, Malaysia.
How did mongabay.com get started?
The seeds for Mongabay.com were sown by a personal experience on the island of Borneo, when a beautiful tract of lowland forest was converted into wood chips for a paper pulp mill. This was not the first time I had lost such a special place, but the loss of that small section of forest in Borneo created the urgency to act upon a thought that had been nagging me. While environmental losses and degradation of the rain-forests had yet to reach the point of collapse, the continuing disappearance of wild-lands and loss of its species was -- and still is -- disheartening. I wanted to share the experience with those who hadn't yet witnessed the magnificence of these places. Thus the initial mission of Mongabay was to make people aware of the significance of rainforests and the biodiversity they contain. While they may be hot, bug-ridden, and remote, these forests have a lot to offer.
The rainforest content for mongabay.com originally came from a manuscript on tropical rainforests (A Place Out of Time: Tropical Rainforests - Their Wonders and the Perils They Face) that I opted to post online instead of publish so that the information would be freely available to everyone. The tropical fish content also originated as a manuscript (Tropical Freshwater Aquarium Fish that was initially sold to a major aquarium book publisher in 1995 but the rights to the content reverted back to me in 2002.
In recent years the site has expanded to include a number of related subjects. I've also starting photos from my travels and conducting interviews with scientists.
I have always loved animals and rainforests just happen to have the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth.
Why do you run mongabay.com?
Well the easy answer is I enjoy it, but it goes beyond this. I believe education (awareness) is one of the five or so most critical elements to ensuring that wild lands as we know them today will still be around in 50 years. I think people -- kids and adults -- who know about the world around them are less likely to destroy it without at least pausing for a moment to consider the consequences.
I believe we are on the verge of some exciting changes in the business world -- you already see a lot of companies -- even Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart -- embracing green design and concepts of sustainability. Books like "Cradle to Cradle", "Natural Capitalism" and "Biomimicry" hint at the potential of a future where business models and product design are melded with and molded after fundamental ecological concepts. Reducing waste and using resources efficiently is as much about economics as it is ecology.
How often do you travel?
I generally take between two and four "major" international trips a year, along with several trips in the United States, usually to meet with people doing interesting research.
For example, in the past year (October 2005-October 2006) I have traveled to Peru, Indonesia (Borneo, Sulawesi, Bali, and Java), Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Uganda, Gabon, and China. Within the U.S. I have traveled to Oregon, Nevada, New York, Arizona, Texas, and various parts of California, my home state.
How many countries have you visited?
As of October 2006, I have visited around 60 countries.
How did you start traveling?
Thankfully my parents have always encouraged learning through experience, so I was introduced to many subjects as a child. From an early age I had the fortune of traveling to tropical countries -- my mother is a travel agent and my father has a passion for knowledge. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my parents showing pictures of animals from rainforests and telling me stories of their adventures in far-off lands. Over the years I have come to greatly appreciate my experiences in the rainforest and have been deeply saddened as forests and their resident species continue to disappear. My motivation for writing the book is explained here.
What's your scariest travel experience?
I've had several scary experiences, including getting trapped in vegetation underwater in rapids, being chased by large wild animals (this really gets your heart rate up), capsizing in rough seas, and having extremely rough airplane flights and landings, but only on two occasions was I pretty sure I was going to die. Both happened on the same day in Malaysia. The first resulted from my following a group of monkeys deep into a coastal forest area. Caught up in the pursuit I failed to note that I was in a mangrove swamp at absolute low tide. Having just arrived, I didn't realize the area was subject to huge tides that would result in probably a 20-foot rise in water levels from when I entered the area. As the tide began to come in, I realized my folly. While looking back on the incident it probably really wasn't that dangerous, at the time I was pretty sure I would be taken by a crocodile, bitten by a poisonous snake (the density of deadly snakes is absurdly high in the area), step on a stonefish (I was in flip flops -- another no-no), get lost, or be mauled by some other creature. After an hour of trudging and swimming neck deep though the swamp, I reached the ocean. I have never been so happy to reach the beach -- I actually got down on my knees and kissed the sand.
So after this traumatic experience you might think that I would have taken the afternoon off. Not exactly. Down the coast -- away from the mangroves -- I snorkeled out to an island to do a little exploring. I decided that I had to walk around the island. I soon discovered that the sea-ward side of the island had a fairly sheer cliff with a shallow rocky area at the base but I found a small ledge and made my way along. It didn't seem too bad. Then I was attacked by biting red ants. To this day I'm not sure how I managed to hold on--it took every bit of my strength. I slept well that night. At least the ant bites were gone the next day.
In 2006 I had two uncomfortably close wildlife encounters in the Congo rainforest. One is written up at When elephants attack. Surviving an elephant charge in the Congo rainforest of Gabon. In 2007, I was in a group (6 people -- myself, a colleague, 3 reformed poachers/local guides, and another guide originally from the Lake Victoria area) that was attacked by a group of elephants in a tropical forest in East Africa. One of the guides was trampled but survived. The local guides said the elephants may have been displaced by forest conversion for agriculture and they might have experienced hostile encounters from farmers protecting their crops. We couldn't pinpoint the exact location of the elephants due to the dense vegetation, but were trying to avoid them--not approach them. The wind shifted and the elephants were apparently alarmed by our presence, charging through a wall of vines. It was quickly every man for himself.
There have been other experiences as well.
It seems like your line of work sometimes involves scary situations -- what's your outlook on life?
I stay positive and keep a cool head. One could say that life is risky--no one has survived it yet.
Why is your name Rhett Butler?
My grandfather roomed with Clark Gable briefly when he was preparing for "Test Pilot." Gable wanted to spend time with a test pilot but none were around so my grandfather was selected because he was the sole survivor of a military plane crash (30+ people on board). Also my parents have a sense of humor.
With all the doom and gloom -- like deforestation in the Amazon -- how do you keep your spirits up?
I'm not really a person who gets "down" easily. We can't change what's happened in the past so we need to try to make things better in the future. As for the Amazon, deforestation in Brazil has fallen a bit this year, but in the long run, I personally expect roughly half of the Amazon to be converted for agriculture or otherwise degraded (right now 18% has been cleared, while probably at least another 5-10% has been degraded). While this is discouraging, there is hope that improved agricultural techniques -- perhaps based on research into how Pre-Colombian societies managed these forests -- could maybe increase productivity on already affected areas and reduce the need for further forest clearing.
It's also important to recognize that Brazil is a sovereign state with its own rights to develop its economy. How it chooses to do so will likely be influenced by economic factors which may include how western countries value the services (especially climate moderation and biodiversity preservation) provided by forests. If Western countries start to place greater value on these services then the protection of Brazil's rainforests can likely be "purchased" via the open market. While right now the environment for such a scenario is not favorable, I believe it will become more so in the next few years. Scientists will play an important role in disseminating the value to these forests to policymakers and the media.
Did you always work with the rainforest, or did you do something else, if so what?
I have actually never worked with rainforests in a professional capacity. Out of pure interest I have been involved with forest conservation/biodiversity projects in Madagascar and South America and become immersed in forest research. In the 5+ years that I worked on my rainforest text I spent time with dozens of field researchers and academics and read thousands of books, articles, and other publications.
I worked in the corporate world for a while but today I run mongabay.com full-time. Actually more than full-time. The shift taken a lot of work, but I love what I do.
How are you involved with rainforest conservation?
The original purpose of Mongabay.com was to raise awareness and spotlight some interesting places in the world but I increasingly find myself engaging people -- especially in the business community -- on issues here and abroad. I've had individuals as well business leaders approach me asking the best way to protect lemurs in Madagascar or save the Amazon, and while I might not always have the answers, I can often point them in the direction of someone who can help. I am currently devising a couple of projects -- one conservation-related and one education-related -- that would directly impact tropical rainforest conservation.
Where do you live?
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (California, U.S.A.).
How tall are you?
Not sure what this has to do with anything but it is a commonly asked question. I'm 6'3.
Who are your favorite authors?
E.O. Wilson, Wade Davis, David Quammen
What is your favorite animal?
Not sure on this one. When I was little I always loved lizards and frogs. Today I still have a thing for herps (reptiles and amphibians) but also appreciate mammals -- especially lemurs -- and other creatures.
How do you feel about the destruction of rainforests and loss of biodiversity?
I am deeply saddened and frustrated by the destruction of the rainforests. It's like smashing an ancient Roman vase solely to get a penny from inside -- a tremendous waste of resources and natural beauty that is irreplaceable within our lifetime.
In the conclusion to "A Place Out of Time", I write "Biodiversity will recover after humanity is gone, but in the meantime, the continuing loss of our fellow species will make Earth an awfully crowded, but lonely, place." What "crowded, but lonely" means is that certain species that do well with humans (pigeons, domesticated animals, rats) will flourish, but a lot of the more interesting creatures will likely not be around.
RAINFORESTSDo you want to protect rainforests? Why should we save rainforests?
Yes I believe it is important to save rainforests through protection and better use of forest resources. Additionally, I think it is critical to restore and rehabilitate damaged ecosystems by planting trees on land where forests have been cut down.
Deforestation of tropical forests is a very serious issue with implications worldwide. We are losing a treasure chest of species important to everything from their cultural value to their genetic resources to their medicinal properties. Forest loss is contributing to global warming, local drought/flood cycles, erosion and the further impoverishment of places of natural beauty.
Rainforests provide important services on both a local and global scale including (but not limited to) climate and local weather regulation, erosion prevention, and biodiversity preservation. As we lose rainforests we risk losing these services along with the biodiversity of species.
Slowing deforestation is tough. The most important step is addressing the needs of poor farmers who rely on forest lands for subsistence activities. Encouraging the use of forests in a sustainable way has a lot of potential, but has not been overly successful in practice. Education can help local people better understand how to get value out of preserving forest and can also raise awareness among consumers in developed countries. If Americans know that certain practices and products cause serious harm to the rainforest, they may be more likely to seek alternatives. Continued forest research may improve yields of forest resources while reducing damage to the ecosystem. Setting up parks and preserves are important to preserving key forest areas.
One of the keys to the whole effort is getting people to unlock the value of forests as intact, or at least moderately impacted, ecosystems. The carbon trading market is an example where rainforest conservation could be justified in monetary terms while helping to fight global warming.
Deforestation can provide quick income to the poor and significant revenues to companies. Extracting forest resources in an expedient manner can be very profitable, provided that the long-term consequences are ignored. In some parts of the world (i.e. Sri Lanka) governments have used deforestation as a weapon against opposition forces.
Why are rainforests being destroyed?
Rainforests are being destroyed for many reasons, the greatest of which is economic. Poor people living in and around forests rely on rainforests for subsistence agriculture, fuelwood collection, bush meat and more. Families need to put food on the table. Industry relies on forests to supply raw materials for production and cheap land. Some governments see forests lands as an opportunity to resettle the poor, exile troublesome groups, and grant favors to political friends
Logging, land conversion for agriculture, urban expansion, fuelwood collection and charcoal production, mining, and infrastructure projects including dams, roads and power lines, are all fueling forest loss today. In the future, climate change could well cause further damage to forest ecosystems and biodiversity.
It's easy to be complacent sitting here at home or visiting an eco-lodge somewhere, but if you look at the most recent numbers from the UN you'll see deforestation rates have actually accelerated since the close of the 1990s. Highly diverse forests are quietly giving way to small- and large-scale agriculture and scrub vegetation. The resident wildlife isn't faring well.
Cattle ranching is an important contributor to deforestation in some areas, but this is primarily a way to get ownership rights to public land rather than produce meat for McDonalds. It all comes down to money -- people do what they need to acquire wealth and power. Most people who burn forests are poor peasants who have few alternatives and until they can be provided with a better means to earn a living there's little reason to believe things are going to change.
Not particularly great, but I'm also an optimist. I believe there will be a shift in public perception of the importance rainforests both on a local level and global scale. Governments, corporations, and average people will better see the costs of deforestation and the benefits of setting aside tracts of forest for conservation. I also believe more effort will be made to rehabilitate and restore damaged forest lands.
In an interview with Treehugger.com, an environmental web site, I said the following:
On a more positive note, I think people -- including corporations -- are generally more aware of the impact we are having on the environment and vice versa. It seems that a number of concepts embraced years ago by the green community are going mainstream and being discussed in everyday business decision-making. Green ideas are being recast as economic, efficient, and even patriotic -- being "green" is no longer a stigma. I believe that the rise of the Internet and a community where everyone can be a watchdog has made corporations more accountable than they were even 10 years ago. In some cases the market appears to be taking initiative where the government has failed. This transition of leadership may well prove more effective in the long-run than government policies.
What are some things that the public doesn't know about the rainforest?
Deforestation is often incredibly wasteful. For example, land speculators often burn vast tracts of forest without removing valuable timber. They should at least harvest timber if they are planning to destroy the forest any way. Most deforestation is not caused by multinational corporations, but by poor farmers with few other options. Agriculture is responsible for nearly as much deforestation these days as clearing for pasture -- so being vegetarian does not necessarily help save the environment.
Many species cannot survive long-term in degraded or fragmented forest. They may still be present in a forest patch, but their presence doesn't mean they are successfully reproducing and will remain viable.
What happens to the wildlife when rainforests are destroyed?
It either dies or migrates. If there is no forest nearby then it either persists in the changed landscape or disappears. Some species can better adapt to changed conditions and thrive in degraded forests, while other species may survive but no produce offspring. Studies suggest that overall biological diversity is reduced significantly as forest falls.
What are things that the public can help to save the rainforests?
Avoid products derived from forests in an unsustainable way -- like certain wood products. Become aware of issues that affect rainforests and tell your friends and parents why rainforests are important. Be environmentally responsible -- recycle; do not waste water or electricity. Support rainforest conservation organizations and companies that offer sustainable rainforest products.
I would change the mind set that humans are totally apart from nature, which makes it easy to ignore our impact on the environment and promotes wasteful, uneconomic behavior. There is little waste of resources in nature. It would be great to see businesses and individuals adopt this philosophy.
Since this is a bit pie-in-the-sky, I'll propose something more tangible: full-cost economic analysis. As I wrote back in July, many people believe that "economics" is the enemy of the environment. This is not necessarily true. The enemy of the environment is failing to account for all the true costs of producing something, using a resource, or converting a natural system for another purpose.
Too many decisions are made without looking at the total cost. We need to begin looking at the system as a whole and encouraging businesses, governments, and individuals to do the same.
Today a firm can profitably produce goods in a certain manner as long as it doesn't have to worry about externalities—costs that are not reflected in the price of a good or service but are passed on to society as a whole in the form of pollution, resource depletion, or other detrimental effects. It's time to start accounting for these externalities.
What's the single most important thing each person in the country and the world can do to make it a more TreeHugger-friendly place? (This question was asked in the Treehugger.com interview.)
This is going to sound cheesy, but respect. Respect for the planet, its resources, other species, and other people. This would go a long way toward addressing a lot of the problems -- environmental, social, and political -- that we face today.
Where does most deforestation occur?
South America, specifically Brazil, loses the most area of forest every year by virtue of the region having the largest extent of forests in the world. Between 2000 and 2005 around 4.3 million hectares of forest were cleared per year. Brazil lost about 3.5 million hectares of forest per year.
In terms of highest rate of forest loss, Central America and tropical Asia lead the pack between 2000 and 2005.
Burundi had the highest deforestation rate (23 percent) for an individual country during that period, while Nigeria lost the highest percentage (56 percent) of primary, or old-growth forest.
Probably run-off from mining operations and oil spills.
One of the major by-products from the mining process is mercury which is used to separate gold from base rock. Massive amounts of mercury are released into the Amazon every year by small scale miners and large industrial operators. Mercury is toxic and has serious health consequences for humans. Cyanide -- also highly toxic -- is another compounds used in mining. Mining also produces tons of sediment which impacts aquatic environments and wildlife.
Oil spills in the Amazon can be more troublesome that spills at sea because they affect a larger surface area -- i.e. oil coats vegetation (especially in the flooded forest), swamps, lakes, etc -- and rivers have significantly less volume than the ocean. The larger surface area combined with less water volume makes it more difficult to address spills once they occur. Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil have all declared states of emergency in areas affected by upstream oil spills.
If you want to consider unconventional sources of pollution, then atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions have the potential to cause significant changes to the Amazon rainforest through global warming. While the future is uncertain, the best science today projects a much drier Amazon in a warmer world. This Amazon would be subject to drought and devastating wildfires. Some scientists estimate that as much as 50 percent of the Amazon rainforest could be savanna within 50 years.
How does pollution affect the animals and plants in the water and the people that live around the river?
Pollution can sicken people and wildlife who live around rivers. Today many Amazon natives have significant concentrations of mercury in their blood from eating contaminated fish (mercury is used in the mining process). This mercury poisoning can cause serious health problems including Minamata disease which can lead to brain damage, birth defects, partial blindness and loss of muscle strength. For animal life, toxic compounds accumulate up the food chain -- e.g. a harpy eagle will have higher concentrations of something like DDT than the fish it consumes.
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