A scientist looks back at his fascinating career and offers a pointed critique of mainstream conservation organizations.
As a graduate student in tropical biology at the University of Miami, Mack decided to conduct research on cassowaries—flightless birds that live primarily in the isolated rain forests of New Guinea. He traveled to Papua New Guinea, a country with over 800 tribal groups, a massive expanse of unbroken rain forest and hardly any established research facilities. It was a good fit for someone who finds “a sure thing boring.” Mack’s memoir recounts the two decades he spent in this remote, captivating land, from his pilot study in 1987 to his abrupt exit in 2007. Chapter by chapter, he inched up the ladder of his dreams by finding a study site teeming with pekpek (the Tok Pisin word for cassowary excrement) and eventually building a field research station with the Pawai’ia tribe. Later, he and Deb Wright, his wife at the time, teamed up with the Wildlife Conservation Society and developed a program based in Goroka that trained Papua New Guinean students to become conservation professionals. He encountered hardship every step of the way—life-threatening diseases, harrowing helicopter rides, testy tribal power struggles, flash floods and flesh-eating microbes, just to name a few. Readers looking for character development or suspense won’t find much here; there’s more insight into the plants and animals Mack observed than the people around him, and most of the major plot developments are plainly stated in the chapter’s titles. What emerges, however, is a hard-earned conservation manifesto: Mack believes the only sustainable conservation practices are those that focus on “capacity building,” the training of local citizens to manage their own country’s natural resources without long-term dependence on foreign expertise. It’s a convincing outlook, but with a tone that mixes bitterness, humor and pride, Mack sullies his argument by portraying the leaders of “Big Conservation” as perpetually clueless and shortsighted. Nevertheless, the book affords readers an impressive look at what can be accomplished with dogged determination and the right partners.
A genuine adventure that often reads more like a report than a story.