Russell A. Mittermeier is currently Chief Conservation Officer of Global Wildlife Conservation. Prior to this position, he served for three years as Executive Vice Chair at Conservation International and as President of that organization from 1989 to 2014. Named a “Hero for the Planet” by TIME magazine, Mittermeier is regarded as a world leader in the field of biodiversity and tropical forest conservation. Trained as a primatologist and herpetologist, he has traveled widely in 169 countries on seven continents, and has conducted field work in more than 30 − focusing particularly on Amazonia (especially Brazil and Suriname), the Atlantic forest region of Brazil, and Madagascar.
The scope of his activities goes way beyond his position at Conservation International. Since 1977, Mittermeier has served as Chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, and he has been a member of the Steering Committee of the Species Survival Commission since 1982. Prior to working for Conservation International, he spent 11 years at World Wildlife Fund − U.S. (1978−1989), starting as Director of its Primate Program and ending up as Vice-President for Science. He also served as an IUCN Regional Councillor for the period 2004−2012, was elected as one of IUCN’s four Vice-Presidents for the period 2009−2012, and then was elected a lifetime Honorary IUCN Member in 2012. In addition, he has been an Adjunct Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook since 1978 (and received an Honorary Doctorate there in 2007), a Research Associate at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University for more than two decades, and President of the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation since 1996. Most recently, he was instrumental in the creation of the €25 million Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, a new species-focused fund based in Abu Dhabi, and serves as one of only two international board members.
Mittermeier has been particularly influential in the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil, where he has worked since 1971, and in Madagascar, where he first began work in 1984. Another focus has been South America’s Guiana Shield region, the most pristine rain forest area left on Earth, where he began working in 1975. His vision for conservation in the Guianas − conserving over 100 million hectares of pristine forest from Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, the northernmost part of Brazilian Amazonia, and Venezuela − has been widely praised. Having worked in the region for 42 years, he has been able to win allies in many sectors, from heads-of-state to indigenous leaders, and has won a place for biodiversity conservation in government and community decision-making.
In 1986, Mittermeier created the concept of “Megadiversity Countries”, which recognizes that just 18 nations are responsible for more than two-thirds of all biodiversity − terrestrial, freshwater, and marine − a concept that has been picked up by several of the nations in this category. It also led to the independent creation of a “Like-minded Group of Megadiverse Countries” within the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). At about the same time, he came up with the concept of “Major Tropical Wilderness Areas”, which later became known as “High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas. He also has been the major proponent of the “Biodiversity Hotspots” concept, which was created by British ecologist Norman Myers in 1988 and immediately adopted by Mittermeier. Myers first published on 10 Hotspots, and then 18. Based on research conducted by Mittermeier and colleagues, the total has now grown to 36.
Over the course of his career, Mittermeier’s work has taken him to many different tropical rain forests around the world, to the point that he has now almost certainly been to more of these forests than anyone else ever.
Mittermeier has been particularly interested in the discovery and description of species new to science. He has described a total of 19 new species (three turtles, seven lemurs, two tarsiers, and seven monkeys) and has eight species named in his honor (three frogs, a lizard, two lemurs, a saki monkey, and an ant).
More recently, he has become involved in the climate change issue, in particular highlighting the importance of tropical forests in mitigating climate change. He has helped to promote the concept of “avoided deforestation” (aka REDD − Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), and particularly the very significant role of the High Forest Cover Low Deforestation Rate (HFLD) countries such as Suriname and Guyana, which helped to add the “+” to REDD”.
Since 2008, Mittermeier has been active in promoting Conservation International’s new mission, focused on demonstrating that “People Need Nature to Thrive”. The essence of this mission is that natural capital needs to be central to long-term sustainable development, and that nature is essential in ensuring human well-being.
He has also been a leader in promoting species-focused ecotourism, particularly primate-watching and primate life-listing, based on the very successful model of the bird-watching community. To facilitate this, he launched a Tropical Field Guide Series and a Pocket Guide Series focused heavily on primates, but including a number of other species groups as well. The most recent publications to emerge in the Tropical Field Guide Series are Lemurs of Madagascar, 3rd Edition (2010), and Primates of West Africa (2011), with a French edition of the former, Lémuriens de Madagascar, published in June 2014. His own primate life-list, now totaling more than 350 species, is almost certainly the largest in the world, and serves as a baseline for other primate life-listers.
In addition, Mittermeier has had a lifelong interest in tribal peoples, and has worked with many different communities, from the Trio of southern Suriname and the Saramaccaner, Matawai, and Aucaner Maroons of central Suriname to the Kayapó of the Brazilian Amazon, and has engaged them in a variety of different conservation endeavors. He has also published on the strong connections between biodiversity and human cultural diversity, demonstrating how strongly the highest priority areas for each overlap.
Among the many honors
he has received are the San Diego Zoological Society’s Gold Medal (1988), the
Order of the Golden Ark of The Netherlands, from Prince Bernhard (1995), the
Cincinnati Zoo Wildlife Conservation Award (1997), the Brazilian Muriqui Prize
(1997), the Grand Sash and Order of the Yellow Star, Republic of Suriname, from
President Jules Wijdenbosch (1998), the Order of the Southern Cross, from President
Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil (1998), the Aldo Leopold Award from the
American Society of Mammalogists (2004), Sigma Xi’s John P. McGovern Science
and Society Award (2007), the Sir Peter Scott Award of IUCN’s Species Survival
Commission (2008), the Association of Tropical Biology’s Special Recognition
Award for Conservation (2008), Harvard University’s Roger Tory Peterson Medal
(2009), the State of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s João Pedro Cardoso Award (2011), and
Instituto-E and the City of Rio de Janeiro’s E-Award (2012) in recognition of
his conservation work. In 2016, he was
elected to the American Association for Arts and Sciences (AAAS). In 2017, he was
awarded the prestigious Centennial Award of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.