In recognition of his commitment to conservation and biodiversity, Snow Leopard Trust’s Executive Director, Dr. Charu Mishra, has been presented with the E.O. Wilson Living the Mission Award by Zoo New England. Last year, Dr. E.O. Wilson was the first to receive this award from Zoo New England in acknowledgement of his tremendous impact upon our globe. Charu’s work emanates that of Dr. E.O. Wilson, who has devoted his life to studying, understanding, and preserving the planet’s incredible biodiversity.
In this interview, we sit down with Charu and learn how Dr. E.O. Wilson has shaped his life’s work.
In your words, how would you describe Dr. E.O. Wilson to those who may not be familiar with him.
A scientist is perhaps best described from his work; certainly one of Dr. Wilson’s standing. From my undergraduate days, I’ve thought Dr. Wilson to be amongst the most influential biologists of our time. Amongst his numerous other contributions, he helped develop the understanding of a seemingly simple but actually highly complex question: why do as many species exist in a place as they do? The book on the Theory of Island Biogeography that he wrote with Robert MacArthur triggered a whole subject of enquiry in biodiversity and evolution studies. Their ideas in the book published more than 50 years ago are still being built upon and tested – that’s quite an incredible contribution to knowledge. Dr. Wilson’s work on sociobiology created waves. In a controversial book, he brought together the two different disciplines of natural and social sciences. Again, the impacts of that book can still be seen today. The list goes on. Incidentally, Dr. Wilson is actually a myrmecologist – someone who studies ants (and, indeed, he also co-authored a book called The Ants!).
What influence has Dr. E.O. Wilson had on your life and career path?
I was already on a career path when I got introduced to Dr. Wilson’s work. What I admire about his work, and something I try to emulate to the limited extent I can, is his ability to connect far apart ideas—and sometimes entirely different fields of enquiry—and combine them into new and insightful ways of looking at things.
Do you have a favorite Dr. E.O. Wilson book and why?
I don’t have a single favorite. The few books of his that I read were at different times in the last 25-30 years, with the latest one—The Origins of Creativity—which I read earlier this year. What I find exceptional about his books is how much one can learn about nature and society from each one of them.
Why is his work important at this time?
We are amidst one of the biggest and most acute challenges humanity across the world has faced, at least during my lifetime. The challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic—like the virus that caused it—may be novel, but the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. It is linked to our continued actions that have caused chronic and unprecedented loss of nature and planetary change since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The COVID-19 virus has come to humans from wild animals, as have many other pathogens including HIV/AIDS. These outbreaks and tragedies are reminders—even warnings—that we must do a better job of protecting nature. Dr. Wilson has long been pointing to the dependence of humanity and its well-being on protecting nature.
He also reminds us of biophilia—our innate love and connections towards nature, and towards other forms of life. Let’s rekindle our biophilia and redouble our conservation efforts. Let’s use our love of humanity to do it in ethically appropriate ways, by working closely and respectfully with local communities who live in wildness areas.
What advice would you give to young scientists (future E.O. Wilson award winners!) out there?
Science can be a wonderful and fulfilling pursuit, which can and should guide conservation action. But remember that if you want your work to lead to protection of real species and ecosystems, science is only the beginning. For conservation, it is essential to start building alliances and partnerships with people who can help protect nature—local communities, politician leaders, bureaucrats, business and industry leaders. Our environmental problems are huge, and we must build coalitions to address them. And while trying to conserve nature, let’s always think about the impacts that our work might have on others. Let’s especially ask if there are any negative consequences of our actions for the local communities, or the generally poor or marginalized. If the answer is yes, let’s do things differently, or do different things.
What would you like to say to Dr. E.O. Wilson and Zoo New England?
Dr. Wilson, I am utterly humbled to be associated with you through this award, and I do hope to meet you soon. John Linehan and Zoo New England, thank you for this amazing honor. Zoo New England, you have the power to inspire and teach so many people about nature. I am grateful for all you do for snow leopards, especially at such a critical time.
Zoo New England has partnered with the Snow Leopard Trust since 1997 to protect snow leopards in the wild. They are currently supporting snow leopard conservation in Mongolia’s South Gobi through a three-year MOU with the Snow Leopard Trust.