Dr. Russell Mittermeier (ΦBK, Dartmouth University) is the Chief Conservation Officer at Global Wildlife Conservation and a world leader in the field of biodiversity and tropical forest conservation. Trained as a primatologist and herpetologist, he has traveled widely on seven continents, and has conducted field work in more than 30 countries, focusing particularly on Amazonia (especially Brazil and Suriname), the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil, and Madagascar.
What do you recall as the most interesting or memorable courses from your undergraduate career at Dartmouth?
Dartmouth, in the late 60s, had one of the best foreign language departments in the country, probably the world. I took advantage to the max. I went to Germany—I spoke German growing up—and I studied in France for a trimester to brush up on my high school French. I also studied in Costa Rica. I had gotten very good grades and earned a senior fellowship. First, I engaged in a field study of Central American howler monkey in Panama. Then, I spent the rest of that year on a compendium of everything known about South and Central American monkeys.
You have been to 170 countries and done field work in at least 30. What is the most memorable place you have traveled? And how many languages do you speak?
My favorite places are Brazil, Madagascar, and Suriname. Brazil has the highest diversity of primates. I like Brazilians, and I’m fluent in the language. I’ve gone there at least once every year since 1971. Besides Portuguese, English, German, French, and Spanish, I can speak the bush language of Suriname, some Dutch and bits of pieces of Malagasy and Indonesian, and tiny bits of Swahili. But those last three, I wouldn’t say I’m fluent. I can get by.
You have just won the prestigious Indianapolis Prize, for your world leadership as an animal conservationist. What kinds of projects are you planning next, as you continue your important work?
I want to stimulate primate-watching and life-listing. My son is a birder, and I noticed how well-connected the birding community is—it’s a $40 or $50 billion industry in the U.S. alone. 50 million Americans self-identify as birders. I have wanted to do the same thing for primates. I’ve spent 10 years pushing it, making pocket and field guides, and we just finished an app. I want to stimulate and become a model for the primate-watching community.
Given the many facets of your career as a primatologist, herpetologist and leading conservationist, has a well-rounded education been important for achieving your goals? And why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
I’m surprised when I look at younger people these days; many don’t have a well-rounded education…[They are] specializing very early. A lot can’t write and don’t read much, and they have very little knowledge of the rest of the world. In high school and college, I had a basic traditional education, which really stood me in good stead. If anything, I wish it could’ve been broader. My son, who is in many ways much smarter than I, is a hard-core zoologist [and birder]. He did his undergrad at Yale, and majored in history, because he said he wanted a good, well-rounded education, and, “I can always do my bird stuff on the side.”
What advice do you have for young Phi Beta Kappa members?
Follow your dreams, do what you really love, not just to make money or because someone else tells you. If you’re Phi Beta Kappa, you’re already pretty smart…just go for it. Don’t be overinfluenced.
What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts? Anything you'd recommend?
Well, I’m on the move almost constantly; I was just in East Africa for almost a month. I’m still working on writing…I actually want to do an autobiography. I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d want. But I’m a huge sports fan—when I have time, I’m usually watching football or basketball.
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