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Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations . Dinerstein, E. 2005 . Island Press , Washington , D.C. 279 pp . $25.95 (hardcover) . ISBN 1-55963-578-9 .

It's an outrage! Here, living among us, is a conservation professional who did not start bird-watching at 12 or collecting beetles at 7, butterflies at 8, or frog spawn at 4. By the time most of us were on our third expedition, seasoned biodiversity explorers all, contemplating being old enough to vote, Dinerstein was still “dissecting (the films of) Fellini, Truffaut, and Bergman.” In this autobiography, our hero tells us that it was a photograph in a behavior textbook of Gordon Orians knee-deep in mud. The “it” being that defining moment when we all “dream of the glorious life of a field biologist.”

So converted, he realizes that North-western University is no fit place for him—or his mentors either. He flees the white-coated professors who were to dominate that university—aided by deans who might find nothing lovelier than a tree, but nonetheless prefer the indirect costs accompanying grants for molecular biology. We imagine our hero, about to fledge from the Huxley College of Environmental Studies: inexperienced, but keen, a bit short on the old calculus, and we ponder the odds of success.

Fate smiles. In short order, the Peace Corps sends him to Nepal, and on his return, the University of Washington to the OTS course at La Selva. Fast-forward 30 years, and Dinerstein is chief scientist of the World Wildlife Fund–US. He presides over a conservation research empire that, among many other achievements, has mapped out the world's ecoregions and biodiversity hotspots in the most authoritative way.

What come in between are seven chapters of adventure and personal recollection. There is the Peace Corps work with tigers in Nepal, followed by Ph.D. research on Costa Rican bats. Then Dinerstein heads back to Asia for snow leopards, on to New Caledonia, back to the Lost World of the upper Amazon, Orinoco, and Caura watersheds, and on to Africa, the Galapagos, and North American prairies. These are great adventures.

In their reading are two interlaced themes. The first is the “what we do in remote and wonderful places”—something for you to enjoy, but even better, to share. Remember that behind every great man or woman is a surprised mother-in-law. This is the book to buy her and the relatives and friends who never quite understood what it was you do for a living.

The second theme is the “why what we do matters.” Dinerstein does a lovely, subtle, and entirely thorough job of explaining the major challenges in conservation. In an almost subversive way, a paragraph here, a few sentences there, are expositions on recent research. Seamlessly, between a close nocturnal encounter with an elephant near the bunkhouse and being chased up a tree by a hippo, is an account of why the wide-ranging habits of wild dogs make them particularly vulnerable.

It is those early years that haunt me, perhaps because we rarely share them. If there is no Peace Corps, no OTS, and no passionate mentor to take the neophyte into the field, what then? Surely we all have these stories. And our collective experience, unwritten as it usually is, demands that we pay particular attention to realizing the glory of fieldwork of which our students dream. Then, 30 years on, we can sit around the campfire with an even younger generation, recalling how Sarah, now newly appointed Chief Scientist, entered the office asking for that first chance to get into the field.