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Bernd Heinrich: Athlete and biologist

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The rainforest - a paradise for naturalists
EO Wilson Scientist
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You have to know about the diseases. If there is malaria in the area then you must take precautions with prophylactics and mosquito netting and so on. If there is Leishmaniasis, this dreadful little protozoan-called ulcerating disease, then you've got to be careful with the little white flies that carry that and so on. But there are plenty of areas, particularly in the Amazon, the Orinoco Basin for example, where none of these diseases occur, particularly in the uninhabited areas. There are others where they do occur and you just have to take that precaution.

But once you've taken that precaution or you're in essentially a disease-free area, then none of the dangers, or exceedingly few I should say, that is popularly associated with the jungle, are to be found. And in fact, when I go into a rainforest, I feel completely at home. Completely safe there. And it is not the green hell of legend by any means. It's cooler than outside. When you step out of a rainforest in midday, you know, into an area that's been clear like the camp site or just beyond, say a cleared field and the like... like stepping into a furnace, you just want to get back into the rainforest. Temperatures rarely reach 90 degrees, even at midday, and it cools down sometimes into the upper 70s. So it's warm. Sometimes it's hot but it's really quite comfortable. And then you're in a wonderland.

I mean, surely it is a paradise for any naturalist. A mature rainforest is an area that's easy to walk around in... relatively easy because the canopy above you catches so much of the sunlight that the heavily shaded, even sometimes dark understory is relatively open, so you can walk around. And the diversity is fantastic. That... the experience of a naturalist in the rainforest, even one where you spend a long time looking and studying, seems full of unending novelty. So many people have commented on that. If you... no matter how long you've been there, you look up one day and there is a bird perched on a branch, you know, out of maybe 600 that occur in the area you've never seen before. There's a butterfly floating by, and that... well, a species you've never seen. That might be the only time you'll ever see it, you know. And so on. Many of the creatures that you see if you're on the floor, if you don't get up into the canopy itself, and that's not easy to do, but if you stay on the floor, which I usually do with working on ants, then a lot of the novelty is coming to you from that canopy. It'll be a hummingbird, for example, that startles you by zooming down from the canopy and whirring a foot or two in front of your face, you know, giving you a close look, and then back up into the emporium and out of sight forever.

It can be a huge walking stick, literally could be that long for example, that falls out in front of you and clumps down on the ground and starts to crawl away. You know, may have fallen from 70 feet up. And so on. So if only I could also have an air-conditioned apartment and the occasional dining out in a halfway decent restaurant I could stay in a rainforest for the rest of my life.

Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author (two Pulitzer Prizes). His biological specialty is myrmecology, the study of ants.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Amazon, Orinoco, malaria, prophylactics, leishmaniasis, rainforest flora, rainforest fauna, jungle, disease, rainforest canopy, rainforest floor, protozoan

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 22 May 2018