Dr. Stuart Pimm, conservation biologist and member of CP’s Science Advisory Board, speaks with CP Communications Director Nadine Lehner about his work at the future Patagonia National Park. Listen to the interview above or read the transcription below.
NADINE LEHNER: Hi, Stuart. First, would you mind introducing yourself?
STUART PIMM: I am Stuart Pimm, and I am the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation at Duke University in North Carolina.
NL: You’re on the science advisory board. Can you describe how you see your role in that function?
SP: I’m a science advisor to Kris Tompkins and Conservacion Patagonica. This is a hugely exciting project – this is a brand new national park. Moreover it’s a national park that is being created out of a beat-up, degraded sheep farm. And it’s already an exciting place, and it’s going to chance dramatically in the years and decades to come; there are going to be many important scientific issues, and I’m just thrilled that I can do something to help.
NL: How did you first get involved in this project, and meet Doug and Kris?
SP: I’ve known Doug and Kris for a long time. They are, after all, icons: people who, as individuals, have done more for conserving that planet almost anybody else. They are really remarkable in their commitment to protecting land. I knew I needed to meet them; I knew I needed to spend more time with them. I took up an invitation that was offered at a scientific meeting where I saw them, and so I came down and immediately recognized that there were some quite serious scientific challenges that we have to address.
NL: You’ve worked mostly in tropical rainforests. What attracted you to work in a big grasslands park in Patagonia?
SP: You know, a lot of people say, what’s a nice tropical rainforest ecologist like you doing working in a cold, wet place like Patagonia? The answer is that we, humanity, have protected about 13% of the plaent, which is pretty good. But you know, we’ve only protected 3% of temperate grasslands. Temperate grasslands are so easy to destroy by converting them to cattle pastures, sheep pastures, so this project is internationally remarkable in that it’s protecting a temperate grassland. So that is what dragged me out of the heat and the humidity of the tropical forests to become involved in this very, very beautiful place.
NL: How does Conservacion Patagonica’s model of doing conservation differ from other organizations you’ve seen and worked with?
SP: One thing, obviously, is the scale. Many national parks, many protected areas around the world are really tiny. They create all sorts of ecological problems because they’re too small. And the vision of Conservacion Patagonica is to protect very, very large landscapes. They can do that here, it’s wonderful, it’s fantastic they can do it here. You know so there’s a chance to do it right, in a way that would be very difficult in some other parts of the world.
NL: Can you describe this new gigpan project you’re working on?
SP: Last year when I came down, I knew that the immediate problem was how to draw a baseline around an area of a million hectares. That’s not an easy thing to do. The scale is vast. In many parts of the world, you could do that with satellite imagery, high-definition satellite imagery, but this is not a part of the world that people want to take high-definition satellite images of. Then I came across this technology of the gigapan. What is does is to take an ordinary camera, put in on a mount, and then take hundreds of individual photographs. And then with a very clever piece of software, you stitch these things together – my computer is over there at the moment, stitching away – and when you do that, you have an image that is breathtakingly both large and detailed. Some of these images you could print them out, and they could be thirty feet long and five feet tall, and only then would you capture ever last bit of detail in them. With that, you can capture the scale of what’s going on, you can capture the detail of what’s going on, so that five, ten, twenty years from now, maybe fifty years from now, we’ll be able to understand the ecological changes that have taken place.
NL: Do you have any hypotheses of how climate change will affect this landscape?
SP: What we know about climate change is that these areas of the planet are changing the greatest amount. The far southern areas, the far northern areas. These places are getting warmer, they’re getting wetter, and that’s clearly going to make a huge difference. Tree lines may go up, glaciers may melt; lakes may get bigger, then again they may get smaller – there could be a lot of profound changes. And having that baseline will enable us to understand them.
NL: What do you enjoy most about spending time in the Chacabuco Valley?
SP: Well, first of all, spending time with Kris and all the wonderful people that she has here. It’s a real treat to be with people who care so passionately about this place. It’s also a wonderful, spectacular place. You go over the bridge just behind the house here, and see this spectacular view of the Chacabuco Valley, with hundreds of guanacos out there. That is a peak experience. It’s really a beautiful part of the world. It’s a thrill to play some very small part in helping preserve it for our children and grandchildren, for countless generations of Chileans and international visitors.
NL: What do you hope this park is like fifty years from now?
SP: I hope it’s brimming with wildlife; I hope it’s a place that inspires and excites people. That’s the vision of this park: that you could create special places, that you can bring degraded landscapes back and make them exciting, I think that will be an inspiration to the people generations hence, so that they can do more of the same.