may 14, 2004


Locals express hopes for rainforest preservation at First Thursdays

By Bart Schaneman

The Cultural Arts Committee of the Del Mar Foundation presented "Endangered Lands, Endangered Peoples," on May 7 at Powerhouse Park. An environmental awareness themed event, Ivan Gayler spoke and showed slides concerning his conservation efforts in South America and William Wheeler presented photographs and testimony from his time spent in the African rainforest.

Gayler, a Del Mar resident since 1958, became environmentally aware when flying over burning Amazon rainforest with his daughter in the mid-'90s.

In 1995, Gayler, who built the Del Mar Plaza, gave up his position as a real estate developer to become a conservationist.

"For $100,000, I could remodel my kitchen in Del Mar or I could buy a corridor of 10,000 acres to rebuild a national park in Ecuador," Gayler said.

Ecuador's biosphere contains 4,000 endemic plants and 1,600 bird species-more bird species than in all of North America. But, Gayler said, at the current rate of destruction, all of the forests in Ecuador will be gone in the next 25 years.

Gayler is President and Founder of Nature and Culture International (NCI), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity. NCI has so far worked to declare over 182,000 acres of land as protected state reserve, and has targeted 250,000 acres total for protection.

Ecuador contains two-tenths of a percent of the world's landmass, and 10 percent of all the world's species of animals. Yet only one to four percent of the natural habitat remains.

"This is our legacy," Gayler said. "This is what's bequeathed us. It is our duty to protect it. Ecuador is a tender, beautiful place. I'm sad every time I come home, but there's a dream of a future of a planet re-wilded if we can get through the political strife."

NCI plans to buy the heart of a 100,000-acre Ecuadorian reserve-7,500 acres for $150,000-as their next move.

"It's three hours and 14 minutes from Houston to Quito, Ecuador and I'm going in the morning," Gayler said. "I invite individual people to get involved and visit and get to know South America. Get involved and realize that with very nominal resources they can make a significant contribution. The benefit of international conservation is that the impact is much more dramatic."

The second speaker, Bill Wheeler, gave a presentation about his experiences living in the Ituri rain forest among an Efe pygmy hunter-gatherer clan.

In 1979, after practicing medicine for seven years, Wheeler, a Solana Beach resident, flew to east Africa on a "spiritual quest" to "submit myself to the forces of nature."

"I got a tent and camping equipment but I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I simply went to the African rainforest a stranger."

According to Wheeler, before he went he was told Zaire was the most corrupt of all African countries, it was dangerous, and there were hardly any roads and they were terrible.

Not to be deterred, Wheeler bought a Land Rover and drove into Zaire. There he met some Efe hunters who took him into the rainforest. He then spent five months living with the shortest people on Earth. The tallest pygmy male grows to about four and a half feet.

The Zaire rainforest is, according to Wheeler, "one of the most untouched, primal forests left in the world."

Wheeler described his experience as "not being able to see the sun, not knowing where you are, living, trusting unusual people who were actually very kind."

When Wheeler first entered the forest, he said the Efe's would run away screaming because they believed white people would eat them.

Efe's live in houses made of leaves, and Wheeler said he would often leave his tent to sleep with them in order to stay dry.

Currently an exhibit of Wheeler's photographs and artifacts from his experiences are on display at the San Diego Museum of Man, and others are in the Smithsonian.

After his slide show and presentation, Wheeler offered a few things he learned from a culture that exists much as it did 10,000 years ago. He said we make laws against touching people at work, while the Efe were in constant physical contact.

"They communicate with nightly speeches and storytelling," Wheeler said. "We communicate by looking into a television screen."

After the presentation, Wheeler sold his book that retailed for $125 for $100, with the proceeds going to the Efe medical fund.