November 19, 2014

THE WILD LIFE | The James Bond of Conservation

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Wai-Ming Wong is who I imagine James Bond would be, if he’d opted for wildlife conservation over international espionage. He’s a smooth, snappily dressed Englishman who can sometimes be seen conversing with Judy Dench and fist-fighting on top of train cars. Woops, sorry — that last one’s the less badass option. I meant he’s tracked leopards, tigers and bears in some of the most far-flung wildernesses on the planet. Hey, that’s almost worth an, “Oh My!”

Growing up in a big city doesn’t give a budding conservationist many options, and London’s no exception. Wong didn’t have the iconic English countryside to inspire him, so he drew on another of England’s national treasures that reached a bit closer to home. “Everything narrated by Sir David Attenborough just seemed so exotic and far removed from what I was accustomed to,” he told me. “That was one of the main reasons I wanted to get involved.” The iconic, knighted naturalist got him hooked on wild animals and wilder places.

So he went and explored them. Wong has worked in Zimbabwe, Thailand and Indonesia over the last decade, tracking some of the world’s biggest carnivores to get a sense of how to better conserve them. Now he’s the Tiger Project Manager for big cat conservation organization Panthera, working with one of the world’s most prominent endangered species. Three tiger subspecies have gone extinct in the last century, and there are fewer than 3,200 of them in the wild today. Hell, the World Wildlife Fund reported that there are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are in the wild. How messed up is that?

I asked him, as nonchalantly as possible, about seeing tigers in the wild. For honesty’s sake, I should tell you that I imagined his response boiling down to Sean Connery giving me the eye and saying, “You’re bahking up the wrong tree.”

Ming has never seen a tiger while in the field. Neither has his PhD supervisor, who’s been studying them for the last 15 years. Observation, “Comes only through the lens of the camera trap,” he told me. He scatters these traps through his study site, all armed with motion sensors. When tripped, the camera snaps a picture or quick video of whatever crossed in front of it. This lets him survey remote areas and determine what percentage of them the big cats occupy.

“There are times when you know you’re close,” he said. He’s stumbled across pugmarks (a really cute scientific word for paw-prints) so fresh that their edges were still crumbling from the force of the tiger’s flight; prints so recent that he must have scared off the cat mere seconds before. “You get this second of exhilaration,” he says, “but you’re pretty damn scared because you know it’s just around the corner.” You’d be shaken up, too (not stirred, mind you), knowing a gigantic predator had just disappeared into the forest you’re trekking through.

Don’t worry too much about it, though. Wong says that because they’ve been persecuted by us humans for so long, they’ve learned to avoid us at all costs. He tells me about observations of tigers sleeping undisturbed in the normal forest cacophony, but slinking away when they hear scraping metal or catch a whiff of cigarette smoke.  “If there were just no poaching or anything like that”, says Wong, “then it would be possible to coexist quite nicely.”

I’ll leave you with that hopeful reminder. Just remember, the next time you’re in a NYC bar, keep an eye out for martinis and an ear open for big cat stories. His name is Wong. Wai-Ming Wong.

Michael Levin is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Wild Life appears alternate Thursdays this semester.