Indianapolis Prize finalist Russell Mittermeier

Conservationists gather for Indianapolis Prize Gala

Conservationists gather for Indianapolis Prize Gala

Russell Mittermeier
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Russell A. Mittermeier has had two lemurs, one lizard, three frogs, and an ant all named after him, but he's also discovered 12 new species himself.

Mittermeier is a classical biologist and president of Conservation International who has worked to save some of the earth's most critically threatened places. He's one of the six finalists for this year's Indianapolis Prize.

Russell Mittermeier is a smart guy. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth in 1971, and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in Biological Anthropology in 1977. 

In short, he knows more than most people -- but the key to his success has been a common touch. He has used his ability to reach out to just about anyone to become, arguably, the best-known conservationist in the world. 

He puts it this way: "One day I'll be out in the forest looking at lemurs, another day I'll be out at an international convention.  Sometimes I'll be interacting with ministers and heads of state."

He can move in so many circles because he understands the people with whom he is moving.  Literally. Mittermeier speaks six languages fluently, and has talked his way into just about every region of the world where plant and animal species need protection -- including the Congo's Virunga National Park, the Coppename River region of Suriname, and in some of the most remote regions of Brazil. 

It hasn't always been easy. 

"He's had leeches, bouts of malaria, dysentery, leishmaniasis, but he doesn't let it stop him," according to long-time assistant Ella Outlaw. "He just keeps going."

But he doesn't just keep moving outdoors. Mittermeier is equally as comfortable in the corporate board room.  He became President of 'Conservation International' in 1989. 

Since then, the group has contributed to the protection of 260 million acres of natural areas, both on land and sea. The most important push is the development of so-called 'bio-diversity hotspots' around the world - the 35 most-threatened, yet scientifically-important, places that make up just over two percent of the world's surface. 

"If you want to maintain the diversity of life on earth," he said, "It is inevitable that you have to work in these 'hot spot' areas." 

Mittermeier has developed the concept over the last 15 years, explaining it to countless people face to face and untold more through publishing more than two-dozen books for the mass audience and over 600 papers for fellow scientists.

After more than four decades as a conservationist and discovering 12 separate species, this expert at making the complex understandable defines his own motivation in the simplest terms:

"I just enjoy being in nature," he said. "I enjoy seeing these wonderful creatures that we share the planet with. I guess I'm just hard-wired to really enjoy being in nature."

Mittermeier's love of nature has been noted in the halls of government around the world.  Leaders of the Netherlands, Brazil, and Suriname have honored him with some of their country's highest civilian awards.  He was one of Time Magazine's 'EcoHeroes for the Planet' in 1998. 

If he wins the Indianapolis Prize, he will have an unrestricted gift of $250,000 to use in his conservation work, but either way, he says the work will continue. 

At 64, he is showing no signs of slowing down: "I really got to speed up the pace now," he said. "Maybe I can keep up this pace for the next 20 years if I keep myself in good shape.  There's an awful lot to do in that time so I gotta get moving.  Can't waste any time."

Meet all the finalists here.