June 16, 2010
This interview is an excerpt from The WildLife with Laurel Neme, a program that explores the mysteries of the animal world through interviews with scientists and other wildlife investigators. "The WildLife" airs every Monday from 1-2 pm EST on WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont. You can livestream it at theradiator.org or download the podcast from iTunes, laurelneme.com or laurelneme.podbean.com.
Dr. Laurel A. Neme is also the author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species.
Rhett Butler, founder of mongabay.com, spoke with Laurel Neme on her "The WildLife" radio show and podcast about what prompted him to develop his environmental website and also about some of the more interesting and bizarre stories he's pursued in Madagascar, the Amazon and around the world.
This interview was conducted in late March and originally aired May 10, 2010. The interview was transcribed by Diane Hannigan.
Rhett in Indonesia, May 2010.
An Interview with Rhett Butler
Laurel Neme: Before we talked about your travel and writing adventures, I want to start by asking what connection you and your name have to either Clark Gable, or the infamous character that he played in the classic movie Gone With the Wind.
Mongabay's mascot, the Scale-Crested Pygmy Tyrant in Costa Rica, 2008. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Laurel Neme: People won't forget it so that's great!
Rhett Butler: People tend to remember the name, so I guess it's one benefit.
Laurel Neme: I'm curious what first got you interested in the natural world.
Rhett Butler: I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who was a travel agent specializing in “exotic travel” and a father who earned an obscene number of frequent flier miles, so I had a lot of opportunity to travel. And I've always liked animals. It happened that a lot of animals were in the rainforests of the world, so I really got interested in tropical forests. As time went on, a few of the places I visited were destroyed after I visited them. That was really disheartening for me. I would think about what happened to the animals and the people who lived in those forests. So, that was really the origin for my interest in what I do now.
Laurel Neme: What place did you visit that was destroyed? How did you find out it was destroyed after you were there?
Rhett Butler: In 1990 I went to Ecuador, to the Amazon. At that time there was a lot of development going on there. I think about 8 weeks after I visited there was an article in the newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, about a giant oil spill that completely fouled this area I just visited. All I could do was think about all that oil coating the trees, the animals. I was only 12 at the time, but it really hit me. Then, later, in 1996, I was in Malaysia and I established contact with a researcher there. A couple months after I had gotten home, I heard from him that the whole area has just been logged for paper pulp mill. Then later it was converted to an oil palm plantation. It was one of these place I visited where I saw wild orangutans crossing through the forest, then a couple months later the forest was all gone.
Laurel Neme: In school did you study biology or wildlife?
Sumatran rainforest in May 2010. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Laurel Neme: What gave you the idea to create this website devoted to raising awareness about wild lands and wildlife?
Rhett Butler: The origin of Mongabay was actually as a book. I was working on a book about tropical forests; it was meant for a general-interest audience, the kind of audience that reads Mongabay today. It went though several rounds of peer-reviews with an academic press, but then the press told me they weren't planning to run pictures – it was too costly. That sort of undermined the point of the book. I decided to put the book online for free on Mongabay in 1999 – ancient history in web years. That was the origin of the site and it's expanded since then.
Laurel Neme: The idea of running pictures was a deal breaker.
Rhett Butler: Yeah, I didn't set out to set up a website to attract a lot of people, I just wanted to put the information out there so it'd be freely available.
Laurel Neme: What happened? How hard was it to set up this site? How did it get to be so well known? Maybe you could give a little background about Mongabay for those unfamiliar with it. What kind of articles does it feature? Who are its readers?
Nosy Mangabe in Madagascar, October 2009. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Laurel Neme: How did you choose the name Mongabay?
Rhett Butler: At the time I chose Mongabay because it was unique name. If you typed in "Mongabay" on the internet, there were no results back in 1999.
Laurel Neme: And now?
Rhett Butler: Now there are lots of results. The name is derived from an island in Madagascar. It's spelled a little differently, but it's a really interesting island. It has incredible wildlife and it's tropical with beautiful beaches. It's really a great place to visit. The island left a mark on me, so I derived the name from that island. It may not be the best name, but it's a name I chose 11 years ago and it stuck.
Laurel Neme: How does Mongabay work? Do you write everything on the site?
Rhett Butler: Until a couple years ago I wrote everything on the site. Now I have an assistant who is probably writing more than I am, at least this year. His name is Jeremy Hance. Occasionally I get contributions from other people who want to have their work published on Mongabay. But I would say around 90-95% of the content today is written by Jeremy or myself. Before 2007, almost everything was written by me. The rainforest site is based on the book that I wrote in the 90s and I've been updating since then.
Laurel Neme: How do you get your information? It often seems that you're reporting stories that are really found nowhere else, or in a very dull scientific journal and you bring them to life.
Rhett in Sumatra, Indonesia, May 2010.
Laurel Neme: How do you choose which topics to feature?
Rhett Butler: Mongabay is, at heart, my project. It may sound a little funny, but it's topics I find interesting. Now that I've brought in Jeremy, my assistant writer, it's changed things a little bit because he can also write about things that he finds interesting. Essentially the stories are topics one of us is interested in, although sometimes there are topics that are news worthy that we don't really want to cover but feel like we should because so many people come to Mongabay now.
Laurel Neme: Like what?
Rhett Butler: Sometimes climate legislation and things like that. It's important stuff to cover, but it's really well covered elsewhere. We try to focus more on wildlife conservation, things of that nature, rather than the politics because that stuff is often covered better by other sources.
Laurel Neme: What have been some of the most interesting stories that you've pursued?
Uroplatus gecko on Nosy Mangabe, 2004. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Laurel Neme: Were there other [stories] that were particularly interesting or significant?
Rhett Butler: There was another one a couple years ago that's noteworthy. It ties in with a plan to establish a giant oil palm plantation. Oil palm is used for making palm oil. [This happened] on an island off of [Papua] New Guinea – the island was called Woodlark. What made Woodlark special was that it had a lot of endemic species and it was also mostly forested.
Laurel Neme: So, what happened?
Mother and baby tarsier in Sulawesi, May 2010. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Laurel Neme: Wow! How do you cover a story like that? I know you travel a lot. Do you also go there, or are you on the phone all the time?
Rhett Butler: I travel a fair amount, but I can't travel enough to actually visit all these places to write these stories. Generally, I interact a lot with people on the ground. Phone calls and e-mail is the main way I cover a story. But, I do travel. I just did a month of reporting in Colombia. I actually haven't published anything on that trip yet, but I do travel to look into stories. It's on the ground reporting, but I do travel a lot to interview these people who are in these places.
Laurel Neme: Getting back to Madagascar, what first interested you in Madagascar?
Rhett Butler: What first attracted me to Madagascar was its wildlife. It just had spectacular wildlife. Lemurs, chameleons, strange creatures like tenrecs and mongooses.
Laurel Neme: What's a tenrec?
Rhett Butler: A tenrec is sort of like a little hedgehog. But they have a big variety of them. There's one that's almost like a platypus or an otter, there are some that are like moles—it's a strange family of mammals. So, that was a draw for me to Madagascar was to see these creatures. My first trip was in 1997. I had a really rough trip.
Laurel Neme: What happened?
Rhett Butler: Lots of things happened, an endless array of bad things. I got robbed on the first night of everything I owned. I was on a boat that sank. I was interrogated by police. I was attacked on the beach by a guy with a knife. It was one thing after another.
Laurel Neme: And you still wanted to go back?
Day gecko photo that serves as the basis for the mongabay.com lizard logo, Madagascar 2004. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Laurel Neme: What's it like? How many lemurs are there?
Rhett Butler: The number of lemurs has gone from about 50, fifteen years ago, to over 100. Basically, they're discovering there are a lot more lemurs than they originally believed. They're doing more genetic analysis and comparing lemurs that they thought were the same, but are different. There are a lot of lemurs. The amazing thing is that although Madagascar has been mostly deforested, there's still an incredible amount of biodiversity living in the little fragments of forests that remain. But what's interesting about Madagascar is that the animals are…the term is “ecologically naïve” – not necessarily afraid of humans. You can see lemurs much closer than you can see the monkeys in the Amazon. There has been less hunting. They just have a different mindset than a monkey. You can really see a lot of animals up close, which is really a special experience. It's up there with seeing big game safari in Africa.
Laurel Neme: Is there no hunting?
Verreaux's Sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi) in Isalo, Madagascar, October 2009. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Laurel Neme: Has the movie Madagascar increased tourism to, or interest in, the country?
Rhett Butler: It's unclear. Originally that was the hope. In 2004 there were great ambitions for linking the movie to tourism in Madagascar, but I think there was a bit of disappointment in the actually number of tourists who went to Madagascar as a result of the movie. The problem is, in reality, Madagascar is at least a 20-hour flight from the United States. It's difficult to get around, most people don't speak English, it's a poor country, and it's off the coast of Africa. There are all sorts of reasons to not make it a trip you can do spur of the moment. I think that's been a big detriment. I think overall it did increase awareness of Madagascar. More people will know now that Madagascar is a real place. I think when the movie first came out people thought it was an imaginary place. I think its good to know that considering the diversity of wildlife that lives there.
Laurel Neme: What are some of the most interesting places, or stories from your travels to all these different places? I know you've also spent a lot of time in the Amazon.
Laurel Neme: What is he doing? What country is he in?
Cattle ranchers and soy farmers could save the Amazon -- 06/06/2007
John Cain Carter, a Texas rancher who moved to the the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso 11 years ago and founded what is perhaps the most innovative organization working in the Amazon, Aliança da Terra, believes the only way to save the Amazon is through the market. Carter says that by giving producers incentives to reduce their impact on the forest, the market can succeed where conservation efforts have failed. What is most remarkable about Aliança's system is that it has the potential to be applied to any commodity anywhere in the world. That means palm oil in Borneo could be certified just as easily as sugar cane in Brazil or sheep in New Zealand. By addressing the supply chain, tracing agricultural products back to the specific fields where they were produced, the system offers perhaps the best market-based solution to combating deforestation. Combining these approaches with large-scale land conservation and scientific research offers what may be the best hope for saving the Amazon.
Laurel Neme: How is he doing this?
Rhett Butler: The fate of about 80% of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon is cattle pasture. Basically, you're seeing deforestation driven by cattle ranching. The question is how to turn that around. John Carter is working on a certification system that would provide incentives for cattle ranchers to improve their environmental performance.
Laurel Neme: What do they have to do to get the certification?
Rhett Butler: They have to maintain at least 50% forest cover on their land, which is something we don't have here in the United States but in the Brazilian Amazon it's a law. So while it is a law, there is very little enforcement. In a world where there is little governance, John Carter is working on a system to ensure compliance of cattle ranchers. Beyond that, there are additional environmental guidelines that his organization is promoting.
Laurel Neme: What's his organization called?
Mato Grosso, Brazil, April 2009. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.
Laurel Neme: Is it working?
Rhett Butler: The initiative has been in progress for six or seven years and is just now reaching the final stages. We'll have a better idea of how the system works a year or two from now. It's a little too early to say at this point. If you look at the structure of the mechanism there's good reason to think it should change things for the better because the incentives are in the right place.
Laurel Neme: Where are the cattle going? Is it for beef?
Rhett Butler: Historically in the Amazon, most cattle ranching was actually used for land speculation or just establishing claims to land. But over the last 10 years there has been a major change and more cattle is being raised in the Amazon for actual beef and leather production. It's actually become a huge industry. In the Brazilian Amazon alone there are more than 90 million head of cattle, which is almost as many cattle as in the entire United States. Brazil is now the world's largest cattle producing country and exporter by a significant amount. Most of that beef is consumed domestically, but a lot is exported and goes to Russia, China, and Europe. Not so much [of it] goes to the United States because I think we have a ban on fresh meat imports from Brazil, but some Brazilian beef ends up in processed meat products in the US.
Laurel Neme: When you've been there, have you seen a lot of wildlife like some of the elusive creatures like jaguars, or have you swum with the pink dolphins?
Rhett Butler: Yeah! I've seen jaguars and swam with pink dolphins. The Amazon is not like an African safari; it's not super easy to see animals. Animals tend to be elusive, and when they are around they tend to camouflage well. With that said, it is possible to see some animals, especially if you take the time to look for them.
Laurel Neme: Where's the best place to see wildlife in the Amazon?
Jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil, April 2009. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Laurel Neme: I was there last September and I didn't expect to see a whole lot because that's what you'd expect in a remote rainforest like that. You don't see much, but it's great.
Rhett Butler: A lot of people go in and are disappointed because their expectations are in the wrong place. You're not going to see a bunch of toucans joining you at breakfast or a jaguar taking down a tapir in front of your lodge. The wildlife tends to be cryptic and elusive. If you go in just looking for insects and trying to enjoy the overall experience, then it's probably a better approach than hoping for an African safari type trip.
Laurel Neme: You've also spent time in Africa. What have been some of your experiences? I know you've had quite a few elephant experiences.
Rhett Butler: Yeah, I've had two elephant experiences that I probably would have rather not had. One of them happened in 2007. I was in southern Kenya evaluating the area for ecotourism potential. There had been ecotourism there 20 years ago, but now a person who operates in the region is looking to reestablish low impact, community-based bird-watching tours in this interesting forest area. So we went in to walk around a bit and see what was in the forest and what the situation was like. We pretty quickly realized there were a lot of elephants in the forest, based on the amount of damage done to trees and the copious amounts of elephant dung everywhere. We went for a long hike and were returning when we got surprised by a group of elephants. [They] charged us and pursued us for quite a while. I won't get into the full details, but one of the trackers was trampled by an elephant. Luckily, [he] wasn't injured very seriously. He was pretty smart about responding and managed to get only a few puncture wounds from the tusks. He got tromped on his legs, but the soil was very soft so he wasn't crushed, it just caused some pretty significant bruising. It was quite an experience and really shows you the power of these animals.
Elephant in Gabon, June 2006. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Laurel Neme: We heard on another episode of The Wildlife about elephant pepper being planted around crops. Elephants hate pepper and will stay out of the crops. Is anything being done in this area to deal with this elephant-farmer conflict?
Rhett Butler: I actually brought up that elephant pepper approach when I was there and they had never heard of it. They liked the idea but they didn't believe it would work. But it was something to look at! The root of this conflict is that you have people cutting down forest, which happens to be elephant habitat. You can use elephant pepper to protect against that but you still have the root problem of habitat loss. You have too many elephants with too little forest. It's a difficult situation. Maybe elephant pepper would work in some areas.
Laurel Neme: Is there tourism to try to extend the habitat?
Sumatra, Indonesia, May 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Laurel Neme: Have you been gorilla tracking too?
Rhett Butler: I have gone to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda. That's an interesting model; it's a good one for conservation. The price now to see the gorilla is something like $500 a day for a permit, which is obviously a lot of money. It's a problem in that it's not very democratic and open to everyone, but it generates a lot of money for gorilla conservation. Some of that money goes back to the local communities through direct payments, but also by hiring local people as anti-poaching patrollers, porters, park rangers, and things of that nature. The benefit is you have money coming in for low impact tourism. So, you get a lot of bang for a relatively small amount of visitors.
Rhett in China, September 2006.
Laurel Neme: What country was it that you were in?
Rhett Butler: It was in Gabon. I was with some local rangers and unfortunately for me I happened to be the tallest person so I stood out as the dominant male of the group, even though that wasn't necessarily the case. That's how the gorilla saw me. He picked me out as the male he needed to show his dominance over. It was quite a humbling experience.
Laurel Neme: What did you do as you were being charged by this silverback? Did you hold your ground? Did you beat your chest too? (laugh)
Gladiator tree frog (Hyla rosenbergi), Costa Rica, March 2009. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Laurel Neme: What were you doing in Gabon? You've had a lot of wildlife encounters [there], is that right?
Rhett Butler: Yeah, that was my first trip to the Congo Basin. I went to a national park on the coast that's fairly well managed and pretty well known. It's called Loango. They actually did a Survivor [TV show] there a couple years ago after I went. It was my first time to the Congo rainforest; it was definitely an interesting experience. You're a lot more cautious when you walk around that forest than in South America or Asia. There's a lot more animals that can get you there.
Laurel Neme: Are there a lot of elephants there too? I've heard of a lot of studies done there regarding poaching.
Rhett Butler: [That very park] is a major research center for the Congo Basin. They have forest elephants there and I also had an experience with forest elephants on that same trip where we were charged, but it was nothing as dramatic as the time in Kenya. After that I actually went through the process of learning what to do when charged by elephants. Of course in Kenya I promptly forgot all of that.
Laurel Neme: What are you supposed to do when you are charged by elephants?
Rainforest and river in Colombia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Laurel Neme: Are there snakes and other things that hide in the stilt palm trees? As you're getting safety from the elephant…
Rhett Butler: That probably wouldn't occur to you when you're running from an elephant. Unfortunately, the option that works in some cases is just to outrun everyone around you. It doesn't work with elephants because I believe they run faster than people.
Laurel Neme: Has is ever occurred to you that elephants just don't like you? (laugh)
Rhett Butler: (laugh) Well, I've only had those two experiences. In neither case were we approaching the elephants and doing something we weren't supposed to be doing. The second time we were completely ambushed and surprised by the elephants and the first time there was a calf around; I'm not sure what happened. In neither case were we trying to find elephants. They found us.
Laurel Neme: (chuckle) So you don't take it personally?
Rhett Butler: (laugh) No.
Laurel Neme: You've done, in my mind, some extremely interesting interviews. It's really amazing to have all that. I'm wondering if any of those interviews in particular stood out?
The Amazon basin is home to the world's largest rainforest, an ecosystem that supports perhaps 30 percent of the world's terrestrial species, stores vast amounts of carbon, and exerts considerable influence on global weather patterns and climate. Few would dispute that it is one of the planet's most important landscapes. Despite its scale the Amazon is also one of the fastest changing ecosystems, largely as a result of human activities, including deforestation, forest fires, and, increasingly, climate change. Few people understand these impacts better than Dr. Daniel Nepstad, one of the world's foremost experts on the Amazon rainforest. Now head of the Woods Hole Research Center's Amazon program in Belém, Brazil, Nepstad has spent more than 23 years in the Amazon, studying subjects ranging from forest fires and forest management policy to sustainable development. Nepstad says the Amazon is presently at a point unlike any he's ever seen, one where there are unparalleled risks and opportunities. While he's hopeful about some of the trends, he knows the Amazon faces difficult and immediate challenges. continued...
Laurel Neme: In terms of Mongabay and the reporting of these types of activities, because they aren't really well known or well reported elsewhere, I'm wondering about the general impacts or advantages of being an online news source.
Rhett Butler: A big focus of Mongabay is education and outreach. I have a site for children that has been up for six or seven years that reaches a lot of kids every month. I've made a big effort to have that site put in multiple languages. It's now in 33 languages. The idea is to make this information freely available to as many people as possible. I have PDFs [of web pages] so it's easy to print out a copy and hand it out at schools. I've actually encountered people out in the field who have Mongabay materials printed out for kids in a remote village.
Laurel Neme: That must be heartening!
Rhett in Vermont, September 2008.
Laurel Neme: Have you seen a lot more competition for this kind of site? Over the years, especially recently, you've seen a lot of environmental reporters losing their jobs and established news organizations switching to online-only editions or folding entirely. How has the recession affected the site?
To date an unidentified leafhopper insect in the rainforests of Suriname. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
In terms of the recession, it's had a major impact on Mongabay. It seems like a lot of green advertising networks and also green-oriented websites are shutting down or scaling back because, from my standpoint, I've seen a huge decline in advertising. I think there's been a general pull back in ad spending in the green sector especially. As the economy soured, people are going to be spending less money on more-expensive green products. I saw a huge drop off in advertising in late 2008. I live very modestly and my expenses are low, so it's not hard for me to not draw a salary for a few months. It's not hard for me to save money and spend it wisely. But if I were a large corporation with a large payroll, it would certainly be a difficult time. As a small operation I can not draw a salary for six months and get by, but if you had 10 or 20 employees it'd be much more challenging I think.
Laurel Neme: What had your experience with Mongabay taught you, or what can it teach others in the environmental news business? It has huge exposure. It seems like a lot of environmental journalists are struggling with exposure and making it a viable economic enterprise, as well as getting the information out there and getting it right. It seems like a lot of information content has exploded, [like with blogs], but information accuracy hasn't necessarily followed suit.
Rhett in the Darien of Colombia, March 2010.
Laurel Neme: If someone wants to get into the job of writing about wildlife, what advice would you have for them?
Rhett Butler: From a financial standpoint, starting a new blog is a challenging endeavor. The economics aren't very good right now. I'll be honest; it's a tough environment. I definitely wouldn't get into it for the money.
Laurel Neme: Good advice right there!
Rhett in Madagascar.
Web Site Brings Attention to Wildlife and Wild Places
Voice of America 11/3/2008
Twelve years ago, a young traveler named Rhett Butler from San Francisco, California, visited the Sabah rainforest on Malaysian Borneo. In one area of the rainforest, he watched as an orangutan moved through the trees. It was a sight to remember, in a place to remember.
Celebrating Blog Action Day with Mongabay
Google Adsense Blog 10/15/2007
Mongabay.com, run by Rhett Butler, originally focused on providing information about tropical rainforests, a topic Rhett is personally familiar with through his travels to a Borneo rainforest that has since been destroyed. In recent years, however, the site has expanded to include environmental news on numerous topics ranging from climate change to green business. He's also added a kids' version of the site aimed to spark interest in youngsters to learn about and appreciate rainforests. Rhett hopes through his work with Mongabay that more people will become aware of the beauty and importance of the environment so they'll be motivated to preserve our remaining biodiversity for the future.
The TH Interview: Rhett Butler of Mongabay.com
Rhett Butler began Mongabay.com as an educational resource about tropical rainforests, eventually expanding coverage to encompass topics such as biodiversity and green design. TreeHugger recently spoke with Rhett about his most recent conservation efforts, the influence of his economics and math background, and the current state of the rainforests.
A site of inspirationSan Francisco Chronicle 7/5/2006
Frankly, he gave a damn. It all began in 1996 when Rhett Butler -- a young Silicon Valley vagabond named for the "Gone with the Wind" rogue -- stopped to cool his feet in a stream in the Malaysian rain forest of Sabah. As he picked leaf leeches from creases in his clothes and listened to the melodic hum of cicadas, he spotted a red-bearded orangutan silently swinging through the branches.
- When elephants attack. Surviving an elephant charge in the Congo rainforest of Gabon
- Saving Orangutans in Borneo
- Photos from Xinjiang, a Muslim region in western China
- Down a river of blood into a remote canyon in Madagascar
- Seeking the world's strangest primate on a tropical island paradise
- Dancing lemur attracts tourists to island of Madagascar
- Saving China's golden monkey from extinction