John Seidensticker


Also see: Curatorial Experience

Ecology and Conservation Experience

I have more than 40 years experience working, traveling, and living in wildland areas of Asia and North America, including the Rocky Mountains and Appalachian Mountains in the United States, the terai forests and dun valleys of India and Nepal, monsoon forests of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Java, and Bali, lowland and hill rainforests of Java and Sumatra, and the mangrove forests of Bangladesh. Projects and experience include:

1964 to 1968: Student assistant in the Yellowstone grizzly bear and elk projects; Drs. J.J. Craighead and F.C. Craighead, Jr., supervisors.

1966 to 1968: The effects of chlorinated hydrocarbons on the survival and reproductive performance of raptors (red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and great horned owls). Masters degree program at the University of Montana; Dr. J.J. Craighead, thesis advisor.

During this period I was primarily concerned with questions related to the flow of chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticide residues through terrestrial ecosystems and in measuring how top carnivores, in this case an assemblage of birds of prey, were responding to these persistent toxic chemicals. My experience in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems primarily focused on questions about the persistence of rare (grizzly bears) and abundant (elk) large mammals and how human use and management interventions in this ecosystem were impacting individuals and populations of these species.

1969 to 1973: The Social Organization of Mountain Lions in the Idaho Primitive Area. Doctoral degree program at the University of Idaho; Dr. M. G. Hornocker, dissertation advisor.

While working in Idaho I developed a research program to address questions concerning how the social organization of a large, obligate carnivore (the puma or mountain lion) is a product of its own characteristics and its environment, especially habitat features and resource dispersion and persistence. I examined factors that control the size and persistence of puma populations, including factors that influence the dynamics of recovering puma populations in landscapes of the western United States. I investigated how different components of a puma population responded to different levels of stress. I also compiled the first inventory of birds found living in the largest wilderness area in the contiguous United States.

1972 to 1974: Founding Principal Investigator for the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project. Conducted behavioral and ecology studies with tigers, leopards, sloth bears, and ungulates in the Royal Chitwan National Park. Conducted surveys on the distribution and abundance of large mammal assemblages in the Indian subcontinent and Thailand.

Establishing a research presence in lowland forest/riverine habitats in Nepal enabled me to continue to address questions concerning factors influencing the social organization of large carnivores (cats and bears) and the evolution of land tenure strategiesin these groups in response to differences in their resource/habitat templates. I investigated the adaptations, life history traits, and intraguild interactions in tropical cats and bears. I analyzed factors associated with the different assemblages of ungulate species in landscapes across south Asia. In south Asia, environmental stress and change through the rapid transformation of habitats from forests and grassland to agricultural production areas is extreme and the norm. I began to investigate the plasticity of the life history adaptations of large cats and bears in the face of these changes. I began studies to understand factors affecting the numerical and behavioral response of large mammals at the agricultural-forest interface as a first step in understanding persistence and extinction of large mammals in Asian habitats.

1975: Visiting Scientist, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution. I wrote scientific papers, general audience natural history articles, and made films. I also walked long sections of the Appalachian Trail to familiarize myself with the eastern deciduous forest and land-use patterns in the Appalachians.

1976 to 1978: Conducted surveys and prepared management plans for the Indonesian national park system for areas on the islands of Bali, Java, and Sumatra. Conducted intensive studies on the survival prospects of the tiger on Bali and Java; did extensive surveys to assess the distributions and conservation problems of large mammals in central Sumatran rainforests.

1978: Conducted surveys and prepared the management plan for wildlife conservation in the coastal zone of Bangladesh, the Sundarbans; additional survey trips to the Sundarbans in 1974 and 1980.

1979: Consulting wildlife biologist for the Mahaweli Environmental Assessment, Sri Lanka. Did surveys, conducted assessments, and wrote the wildlife conservation plan for the Mahaweli project area. Special attention was given to the problem of Asian elephant conservation.

Through this period I was engaged by various organizations to assess status and seek ways and means for the survival of large mammals, especially the "flagship" and "umbrella species"—Asian elephants and tigers—in the face of massive environmental change occurring through the ranges of these species. Because of the variety of habitats in the broad region where I was employed to do this work, I was able to undertake an extensive investigation of how forest fragmentation across this swath of South and Southeast Asia leads to the extinction or persistence of tiger populations.

On my own or as a team member, I undertook environmental assessments on the scales of river basin, physiographic region, and more local area complexes of forest and agriculture. I employed the ecological planning methods "design with nature" pioneered by Ian McHarg, tailored to address the survival needs of tigers and elephants. The survival needs of these largest mammals usually exceed the areas that can be established as fully protected areas such as national parks. I was searching for land-use and planning mechanisms, beyond special reserved lands, that would allow the survival of our largest mammals at the least social cost in these rapidly changing landscapes.

I was a member of the small group of professionals, led by Jeffrey McNeely, who established the "parks are for people" conceptual linkage that has become a cornerstone of international efforts to establish and maintain national parks in these areas today. This linkage forms the basis for involving big donors in the conservation of natural areas. We clearly articulated the problems associated with protecting and buffering the edges of most natural areas in south and Southeast Asia. We made some headway in bringing the concept of "critical habitat" into the national park and multiple-use area planning process, for example in the Sundarbans. We worked to identify and to link areas through corridors where this would serve as a tool in the management of these "landscape" species. During this period I made a change in the scale at which I viewed ecological questions and I changed my work emphasis from product to understanding and improving process in conservation actions.

At this point in my career I felt burnt out by these extended efforts and continuous travel. I needed a break from life as a full-time expatriate ecologist. I returned to the United States and took a job working at the Smithsonianís National Zoological Park as a staff wildlife ecologist.

1980 to 1984: Wildlife Ecologist in the Department of Zoological Research, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution. Responsible for the initiation and supervision of the "NZP Field Studies Program at the Conservation and Research Center." I continued to direct these studies through 1984.

During this period, I again changed the ecological scale of my professional interests. The research I directed and/or conducted included:

  • Marsupial versus eutherian life-history strategies: Niche-metrics, demography, and interspecific competition of medium-sized mammals living in New World temperate forests.
  • Ungulates in forested habitats: Lessons on the use of distance sampling to estimate white-tailed deer density and the management of white-tailed deer at the Zoo's Conservation and Research Center.
  • Escaping the tropics: What are the thermal and behavioral energetics of omnivorous mammals (raccoons and Virginia opossums) that allowed these representatives of essentially tropical mammalian families to "escape" the tropics and live in New World temperate forests.
  • Effects of experimental changes in resource abundance, distribution, and predictability on micro-distribution of medium-sized mammals living in New World temperate forests.
  • Rabies and raccoons in Appalachian Mountain hollows: infectious disease in New World temperate forest wildlife populations.

The Zoo's Conservation and Research Center (CRC) is a once-damaged and now recovering habitat located in the Blue Ridge, one of the largest corridors of forest in the eastern United States. Up to this point I had mostly focused my research effort on animals that were threatened with extinction, or could easily become so. In my work at CRC, I asked what combination of life history characteristics and habitat conditions led to relative abundance in populations of some mammal species. I also trained advanced students from the developing world.

My research group was the first to report the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies outbreak. I followed the demographic response of the CRC raccoons and other larger mammals to rabies and, in so doing, developed the technology to accurately assess population size and structure of a number of nocturnal, medium-sized mammal species living in forested habitats. My major collaborators in this effort were James Hallett and Margaret OíConnell. This technology enabled an advance in the study of these mammals beyond an essentially natural-history approach to where we could accurately address factors that control the sizes of these population, how internal structure of these populations affects their response to various stresses and resource distribution, and how fragmentation of the landscape affects the spread and persistence of these populations. Also, John Mugaas and I began work on raccoon and Virginia opossum metabolic adaptations, body sizes, and their relation to geographic distribution.

I took survey and/or assessment trips to Bangladesh (1980) to conclude my project on conservation planning in the coastal zone, to China (1981) for a feasibility study on the establishment of a research program on the giant panda in the wild, and to India (1983) to investigate the current status of the Asian lion population and meet with my former students and colleagues and see their research programs.

I married Susan Lumpkin in 1982; our daughter was born in 1983. It was time to disengage from CRC and get a "real job" in Washington, D.C., where there were professional opportunities for Susan. In 1984, I joined the National Zoological Parkís Department of Mammalogy as an assistant curator of mammals.

1984 to 2003. While working as a curator responsible for exhibition collections of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, I continued to focus my research interests in conservation biology and wildland management related to large mammals, especially tigers.

A primary interest has been to seek innovative ways to link in situ and ex situ conservation efforts. I have worked under the rubric that good conservation is based on good science. In tiger conservation, where I have focused my efforts, we are seeking to understand the ecological and political criteria we need to identify and meet to sustain wild tiger populations. The landscapes of Asia are human-dominated. We are seeking to understand and encourage landscape patterns and conditions where tigers can persist. I am at present working to do this through the Save The Tiger Fund, a partnership between the ExxonMobil Corporation, the Critical Ecosystem Partnersthip Fund, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. I serve as chairman of the Save The Tiger Fund Council. The Council has been charged with investing about $16 million in tiger conservation activities over 13 years. I see my role here as nurturing and facilitating the conservation of wild tigers.

In our quest for right vision and good science in tiger conservation, Sarah Christie, Peter Jackson, and I called together a large group of tiger people to share their views on the tigerís future. We called this "Tigers 2000" and it was held as part of the symposia series of the Zoological Society of London.

Based on this symposium, we published a book titled Riding the Tiger: Tiger Conservation in Human-dominated Landscapes. With 79 co-authors, we had the difficult and thrilling task of bringing the many languages of tiger conservation into one: the language of conservation biology.

In the Chinese Year of the Tiger (1998), a group of us convened a follow-up conference to "Tigers 2000" that we held in Dallas, Texas. We called this conference "The Year of the Tiger Conference: Securing a Future for Wild Tigers." We were able to bring participants from 13 of the 14 tiger range states together. There is no substitute for direct human contact in the evolution of co-operative relationships and strategies. It was a unique opportunity to pull together, and to build on the existing work of so many people who have invested so much of their energy and their lives in saving the tiger. In London we focused on the ecological criteria that need to be met to save wild tigers. In Dallas we moved on to examine the political criteria that must be met if conservation actions that will maintain viable wild tiger populations are to proceed with confidence and success.

I have had an opportunity to work with some remarkable students, especially from Asia. Rather than thinking in terms of training, I like to think of developing effective science-based conservation leaders. I usually learn more from my students, I think, than they do from me. But that is the way of students and their professors. Dr. A.J.T. Johnsigh now heads the wildlife faculty at the Wildlife Institute of India. Dr. Sriyianie Miththapala was head of Ladies College in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is now a consultant to the IUCN-World Conservation Union in Colombo. Dr. Eric Wikramanayake is a senior fellow for WWF-US working on conservation problems throughout Asia. And they now have produced many students of their own. Working with students has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a Smithsonian scientist. I am at present working to establish a "conservation leadership fellowship" with a focus on conservation planning and landscape management in Asia. I have found that conservation leadership with the right vision is the factor most limiting effective conservation action in most situations in Asia, and elsewhere.

My present research program in conservation science includes the following projects:
1. Behavioral and ecological synthesis of the Felidae. The book Cats in Question, with Susan Lumpkin, is due to be released in August 2004 by Smithsonian Books.

2. Leopards, the variable cat: matching phenotypic variation to environments across their range (with Dr. S. Miththapala).

3. Changes in the mammalian assemblage in a large mountain wilderness area: Long-term (40 year) large mammal population dynamics in the Salmon River Mountains, Idaho. Early land use, large, periodic wildfires, climate shift, the introduction of wolves, and changing human values are among the important factors that generate, direct, and maintain community structure in natural environments, represented by our most remote wilderness areas (with faculty at the University of Idaho and the Wildlife Conservation Society).

4. How does landscape structure affect movement patterns, foraging dynamics, and social organization of large cats?

5. Conservation of Asian carnivores: Optimism about the conservation of large mammals living in human-dominated landscapes is not misplaced.

• Understanding and encouraging landscape patterns and conditions where large mammals can persist.
• Creating and maintaining large conservation corridors (with the faculty and students of the Wildlife Institute of India, WWF, and other partners of Save The Tiger Fund).
• Standardizing ways and means of monitoring conservation progress ( with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation).
• Securing a future for wild tigers (with the many partners of Save The Tiger Fund). Activities include:

o Chairmanship of the Save The Tiger Fund.
o Overseeing the expansion of the STF’s partnership with Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.
o Overseeing $2.25 million in grants to field projects each year.
o Project sites visits.
o Prioritization and strategic planning for tiger conservation interventions.
o Outreach.

• Understanding and mitigating the tiger-human interface (with the many partners of Save The Tiger Fund).
• Carnivores living in urban and middle landscapes in Asia: the ecology and behavior of fishing and rusty spotted cats in Sri Lanka (with Dr. E. Wikramanayake
• Securing a future for wild sloth bears (with K. Yoganand and A. J. T. Johnsingh, Wildlife Institute of India). Activities include:

o K. Yoganand completing Ph.D. at Wildlife Institute of India on sloth bear ecology and behavior in tropical dry forests.
o Initial survey of distribution and threat assessment nearly complete.
o Developing an improved conservation platform for wild sloth bears through International Bear Association, World Conservation Union, WWF-India, and Government of India.
o Understanding and mitigating the sloth bear-human interface.
o Outreach.
• The future of giant pandas in the wild: monitoring conservation progress. Smithsonian Book of Giant Pandas (with Susan Lumpkin) was published in 2002.

6. Growing and sustaining conservation leadership in Asia (with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation).

I have made survey and/or assessment and development trips to India (1985, 1988, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2004), Indonesia (1986, 2003), Sri Lanka (1985, 1987), Mexico (1991, 1993), and Kenya (1992), Nepal (2002), the Russian Far East (1996, 2003) for Amur tiger and leopard conservation programs, China and Hong Kong (1997, 1999) and Indonesia (2000) to participate in programs to reduce the consumption of tigers and plan wild tiger conservation programs, to China (19981, 1999, 2001, 2002) for giant panda conservation activities, and Spain (2001) for the Iberian lynx conservation program.

Curatorial Experience


©John Seidensticker. 2000-2004. All rights reserved.