I was at a loss for words when I would try to explain my sadness to my grade-school friends. Why, they asked, did I care about the destruction of a distant mosquito-ridden forest? After all, we need paper for books and timber for furniture. And those red hairy apes were funny-looking and lived in zoos anyway. I saw their lack of compassion as symptomatic of the broader public’s apathy toward these issues. It inspired me to try to do something to make people aware of, and care about, what was happening to these increasingly rare places.

Most people don’t have the great privilege of experiencing the magnificence of these places, so I wanted to find a way to show people that special places, with wildlife and people, do exist outside zoos and cartoons.

So I started writing. To some this may seem an unusual decision for a kid just wrapping up high school, but there was a precedent: early in high school I wrote a reference book on tropical freshwater aquarium fish. The subject was a bit arcane but at one time I was obsessed with tropical freshwater fish, the ones you commonly see in aquariums, like neon tetras, platies and angelfish. But also stranger ones like eels, upside-down catfish and elephant-nose fish. In preparation and during the course of writing the book, I devoured hundreds of books and magazines, read academic papers at the library, worked in a fish store, scoured the live-fish wholesalers in the seedier parts of town, and took thousands of pages of notes. I also kept more than a dozen fish tanks, much to my parents’ displeasure. I was especially interested in attempting to recreate natural habitats for fish: biotopes. As I learned more about fish, the questions only grew. I became more concerned about the trade. Was it sustainable? Could fish-keepers play a role in conservation? What was happening to the habitats of freshwater fish?

Me using a throw net in Borneo in 1995.
Me using a throw net in Borneo in 1995.

I knew a bit about what was happening to their habitats, thanks to my travels. During one of my trips I bought a throw net, which I would lug on some of my trips (something that would not be possible in a post-9/11 world, given the net’s weight of 40 pounds, or 18 kilograms). Everywhere I could I would use the net, catching and identifying fish — carefully, so they wouldn’t die. The fish usually looked pretty good, maybe a fin missing here or there, or an abrasion, but their habitats were in bad shape in many places. I had seen their homes polluted with chemicals and mining waste, coated in oil, clouded by soil erosion due to deforestation, clogged with logs from tree-cutting, dammed, and overfished. Sadly, I saw a lot of dead rivers, estuaries and bays. Fish markets perplexed me. I loved seeing the familiar species I could and couldn’t identify, but watching their gills bleat and eyes go vacant always made me sad.

After completing the book, I sold it to a specialty publisher for $1,000, which even at the time didn’t seem like much money for a project that had consumed nearly all of my free time for three years. Being young, however, I was too overeager to get the book published to see the underlying motivation for the offer: to buy the book off the market.

Luckily, my father and I had the foresight to include a clause in the contract, so when the book didn’t appear in print, the rights would revert back to me. The text would serve as the basis for what would become my popular website on tropical freshwater aquarium fish.

Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler in Brazil in 1999, the year Mongabay.com first went online.
Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler in Brazil in 1999, the year Mongabay.com first went online.

When I decided to write my general interest book on tropical rainforests, I had just graduated from high school. I knew that this was going to be a long-term project requiring lots of extracurricular research. So for the next three years I worked on A Place Out of Time at the expense of my schoolwork, which seemed of secondary importance. While I embarked on my university education thinking I might have wanted to become an ethnobotanist, I soon discovered that I didn’t really like chemistry very much. So after two years, I dropped my biology major (having taken only a single biology class by that point) and focused on my economics-related degree. Despite my interest in frogs, forests and indigenous people, I was on a track to work for a financial institution.

Luckily, due to credits from Advanced Placement courses in high school and my attendance at a public university, I finished school the following year. I would use that extra year to embark on my own education.

Of course, there was the issue of a job. Coming out of school I had an unusual resume that set me apart from my peers. I’ve mentioned the fish book and my ongoing work on A Place Out of Time, but another hobby attracted the interest of an entirely different industry. That activity was commodity trading, which was originally seeded by savings from summer jobs. Being a numbers guy, I would construct models based on daily price movements of commodities like pork bellies, cacao and corn. The activity had no redeeming societal value, but it was a way to fund my research efforts while I was in school. Along the way, I learned a lot about markets and risk management.

But after my experience working for a major consulting firm and a number of conversations with wealthy, but less-than-happy, investment bankers, I decided to forgo that path. Instead, I would spend the year working on A Place Out of Time. I would fund it through my part-time commodities trading. My parents were less than pleased.

My price models worked pretty well. Well enough where I deceived myself into believing I knew what I was doing. So did my broker, who started shadowing my trades. But my initial success lulled me into a false sense of security, and when things finally went wrong, they went really wrong. In a single week I lost an astounding amount of money. Humbled, I cut back on the trading and concluded that I would eventually need to get a real job — but later. At that moment, I still had enough savings to live modestly and focus on the book.

I worked on it intensely, spending long hours in the library and on the internet, reading everything I could get my hands on about forests. As time went on, however, I realized I would need to start taking steps toward an actual career path. Luckily, this was the late 1990s — the halcyon days of the first internet bubble. I quickly discovered that someone with few credentials other than a large trading loss and an eclectic collection of hobbies could find work as a freelance consultant helping start-up companies with their business plans. So that’s what I did to help pay the bills and lay the groundwork for a “real job” someday.

A Place Out of Time eventually reached the point where I was ready to pitch it to publishers. I started by contacting a couple of writers I respected and a few blind letters to publishing houses. That wasn’t a particularly effective approach, so I sent the manuscript to some university presses. Happily, a pair showed interest and I started working with an editor from one. A Place Out of Time went through a peer-review process, where it was well received, other than a recommendation than the chapter on indigenous people needed to be expanded. It looked like the book was on the path toward publication. But then the publisher dropped a bomb: they didn’t intend to put pictures in the book. If I wanted images, I would have cover that cost myself up front. That was a big blow for me — pictures seemed critical to convey the beauty of rainforests.

By the time I received this bad news, I had already decided to get a real job. I was concerned the freelance consulting wouldn’t survive what appeared to be a rapidly inflating internet bubble.

Given the demands of a full-time job at a Silicon Valley start-up, I knew I wouldn’t have time to raise funds for pictures or re-write one of the chapters, which would require substantially more research and be a distraction at a time I would be expected to be fully devoted to a new career. I decided to temporarily shelve A Place Out of Time.

I agonized for a couple weeks before coming to the realization that I didn’t write the book for money — I wrote it for impact. It then dawned on me that I could put the book online for free for everyone to read. In that format, it had the potential to reach far more people.

But first I needed a name for the website. A Place Out of Time was too generic, and the descriptive domain names like rainforests.com were already taken. So I looked back at places that had inspired me.

My version of paradise looks something like Nosy Mangabe, an island off the coast of eastern Madagascar. Nosy Mangabe is most famous for the aye-aye, the strangest of all lemurs. With the ears of a bat, teeth of a beaver, face of a ferret, and a long middle finger, it confounded the scientists of the 18th century who were trying to classify it. Was it a rodent? Was it something else?

Compounding the issue was the aye-aye’s un-lemur-like behavior. It uses that finger to locate insect larvae deep inside tree bark, seeds and fruit. As it climbs along a tree branch, the aye-aye taps the bark while listening for cavities in the wood. When it hears something potentially appetizing beneath the surface, it gnaws away at the wood in search of its prize. Opening a hole, it uses the long, twig-like finger, which it can swivel, to extract the grub.

Eventually scientists concluded the aye-aye was indeed a lemur, albeit a very distinct one, so they assigned it to its own family.

Nosy Mangabe is home to many other creatures to fascinate a nature lover. The island houses a high density of other lemurs, jeweled Mantella frogs, color-shifting chameleons, and the cryptic Uroplatus gecko, an animal so well-camouflaged that it disappears against the trunks of trees. The warm waters around Nosy Mangabe support coral reefs and serve as breeding grounds for humpback whales. In other words, Nosy Mangabe is a treasure.

Nosy Mangabe, as seen from a beach near Maroantsetra, Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Nosy Mangabe, as seen from a beach near Maroantsetra, Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Beach on Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Beach on Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Nosy Mangabe would be my inspiration. But I wanted the site to be distinct from the island, so I chose Mongabay.com, which would honor of the island but stand out on the Internet. At that time, entering “Mongabay” into the dominant search engines of the time (not Google) produced zero results. It would be easy to track the site’s spread.

A few days later I launched the site. It was built using the most basic HTML code. It was June 1999.

Not a lot happened initially. I would scour the site’s weblog on a daily basis for insight on who was using the site. Much to my disappointment, random pages seemed to get a disproportionate amount of the traffic. I had hoped people would read it like a book, coming to the homepage and navigating through chapter by chapter. Looking back, it is evident how little I knew about the web back then.

After a few months I stopped looking at the log files on a regular basis and focused on my job at the start-up. On weekends I would do research and edit pages in my incessant quest to improve the site.

I still traveled; the benefit of the start-up was there was no official vacation policy. If I could be around for key milestones, I could travel. By this time I had gotten over the “I can never capture the full beauty of a place with a photograph” perspective that had characterized my early days traveling — a consequence of losing a point-and-shoot camera with a roll of undeveloped pictures from New Mexico — and was taking a lot of pictures whenever I traveled. I started to put these online.

About 18 months after launching Mongabay.com, the rights to my unpublished fish book reverted back to me so I posted it as well.

At this point I didn’t have much of a frame of reference for what made a site popular. But given my goal of getting word out about rainforests, any traffic was good traffic. Always a news hound, I grew more and more fixated on keeping the site up-to-date. But I discovered that reporting on rainforest issues often didn’t meet my needs. There was plenty of advocacy and superficial stories, but the in-depth reporting tended to be occasional. I launched a blog-like front end to the site to highlight the good stories I encountered.

By 2003, Mongabay.com had developed a decent following: roughly 100,000 visitors per month, far more than would have ever seen a book version of A Place Out of Time. Interest was most evident in the emails I received. People were asking me many questions about rainforests.

That summer, Google, a company I watched closely due to the nature of the start-up where I worked, announced a new service called Adsense, which served text-based ads to websites based on the content of the page. In the case of Mongabay.com, this meant a page about lemurs might have advertisements on flights to Madagascar or visits to a zoo. While I had long been uncomfortable about the idea of running flashy blinking banner ads on Mongabay.com, my opposition to advertising softened because these ads were non-intrusive and generally relevant. So I placed Adsense on a few pages. Revenue started to come in, making the proposition intriguing. Soon, most of my pages had ads.

After a couple of months I could see advertising could open new doors for Mongabay and I started wondering whether I could quit my job and devote all my time to rainforests and Mongabay.com. Sure, it was a risk, but at 25, I wasn’t getting any younger, and it seemed like a risk worth taking.

I gave the start-up my notice; a few months later I left the office for the last time. I never looked back. Since then, Mongabay has become one of the most popular conservation news sources on the internet. Within a decade of doing Mongabay full-time, I had posted more than 100,000 photos I’ve taken around the world, published a section I created for children in nearly 40 languages, and written thousands of articles.

Mongabay has given me opportunities to see the world and meet fascinating people, but most importantly it has had a real impact, as my future posts will show.

Article published by Rhett Butler
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