A scientist sees humanity’s place in the wild
By Evelyn Spence
There are some obvious things that put Montana on the map: Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Ranching. Open spaces. Jagged peaks. For conservationist M. Sanjayan, it’s a bit more complicated. “If Lewis and Clark were to retrace their steps through Montana today, they’d see the same plants and animals that were there 200 years ago,” says the eco-celebrity, storyteller, fly fisherman, spokesperson – and Montana resident. “It’s one of the few places on earth where humans haven’t made a big mess.”
And he should know: As a former lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy, environmental contributor for CBS, and now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International, Sanjayan sometimes travels every month of the year. For his latest series, Earth: A New Wild – which recently aired on PBS – he visited 29 countries. He paraglided with Himalayan vultures in Nepal. He roamed the mangroves of Bangladesh looking for man-eating tigers. He played midwife to an enormous lemon shark, tumbled around on the floor with 14 baby pandas, and politely declined the opportunity to castrate a reindeer with his own teeth.
But Earth is far from a classic nature show, those epics that often come across “as a collection of incredible and isolated jewels,” says Sanjayan, 48. For several years of filming, he sought out situations where humans and nature meet by clashing and cooperating, blending realism and optimism into a portrait of our planet as it is: a home to seven billion people and counting (and, thus, clearly a new kind of wild).
Sanjayan’s outlook – that humanity is and must be central to the conservation conversation – isn’t universally accepted. And as a host, he acknowledges that he goes against type: no khaki safari hat, no dry tone, yet with just enough British inflection to channel a touch of legendary BBC broadcaster David Attenborough. “People probably think to themselves, ‘Who’s the brown guy? Where’s he from?’ But I think it makes me a better narrator.”
Where Sanjayan is from plays an integral part in how he sees the world and our place in it. Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he and his family fled an escalating civil war when he was six years old, ending up in Sierra Leone. He grew up with the African jungle as his playground. “In the southern hemisphere, there’s a different sensibility as to why nature is important,” he says. “You can’t romanticize it as much when the tiger is literally trying to eat you.”
Sanjayan earned degrees in biology and ecology from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz. In 1997, he took his first fly-fishing trip to Montana, drawn to the rivers of the West by the words of David James Duncan in his book, The River Why. “I felt the pulse of the water. The metaphor for life,” Sanjayan says. “I thought, ‘I’d love to live here.’ Now I have a place near an upper stretch of Rock Creek.”
He noticed something else as he started spending more time around Montana’s mountains and prairies. “It has the same utilitarian feel as Africa,” he says. “You’re forced to deal with the consequences, to walk the talk. Montana prevents me from becoming a theoretical conservationist. I feel very much at home.”
In fact, Sanjayan’s idea for Earth stemmed directly from living in the West – and interacting with local ranchers and landowners. “Even though they don’t share my politics and they don’t share my religion, deep down I know that they love the land,” he says. “Though they wouldn’t express it in those terms. In Montana, conservation isn’t about love. Love alone is not enough.”
Rather than film a segment about the pristine grandeur of Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, or the Bob Marshall Wilderness, his crew settled on the working countryside of the Centennial Valley, where Bryan Ulring, general manager of the J Bar L Ranch, uses holistic grazing practices to manage cattle. As Sanjayan explains on his show, the cows act like bison, and Ulring plays the wolf. “It’s as spectacular as any park, except cowboys actually use the landscape,” he says. “It gets to the grit of things, to the possibility of conflict.”
Ulring, for one, thinks Sanjayan is a perfect messenger for what he considers a relatively new narrative. “He’s a very good people person, charming and witty and very, very bright,” Ulring says. “He gets how to be a presenter. That’s his gift.” Not only that, Sanjayan paints a picture of what’s working – and what’s not.
“I’m tired of hearing of all the pessimists and doomsdayers who aren’t coming up with solutions,” Ulring says. “Sanjayan is inclusive rather than divisive.” Adds photographer and filmmaker Pete McBride, who guided Sanjayan down the Colorado River for another Earth segment, “He brings a youthful energy and even humor to his work, which is so needed when tackling not-so-sunny stories.”
On camera, Sanjayan’s wonder and bafflement and sadness – at dried-up rivers, at ailing coral– all come through much more than you’d think for someone who describes himself as an introvert.“I’m not faking it,” he says, “but I put on my armor.” His shy side is why he always comes back to fly fishing – and Montana – after whirlwind trips to China, Kenya, Mexico, Ukraine. “It’s an excuse to be alone. No one there questions me,” he says.
And, after fishing a stretch of Rock Creek near his home hundreds of times, Sanjayan says he still gets skunked. “I can’t believe nature is that unpredictable. It has its own tricks, no matter what humans do. It makes me realize that we’re all going to be OK.”
This story was first published in the summer 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.
Evelyn Spence is a freelance writer, skier, runner, and lapsed fly fisherman in Seattle, Washington, where she lives with her husband and young son. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Bloomberg Business, Bicycling, Ski, and Backpacker. PHOTO BY DOUGLAS SPENCE