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The conservation crusader, Don Melnick

Director of the Center for Environment, Economy and Society at Columbia University, Don Melnick, is working on developing carbon markets as a means to protect forested land. (Photo: Owen Kibenge)

Environmental biologist and conservationist Don Melnick, 57, grew up on the south shore of Long Island, New York, near a forested area that had once been a farm. At 9 years of age as he lay down in the yard watching the clouds go by, he saw a giant fly. "I saw this thing and it looked like a housefly but it was much bigger and I thought it was one of the insects from atomic radiation," he says.

Curious about these odd-looking creatures, he poured over encyclopedias, moved from one library to another and eventually filled his notebook with material on cicadas. He learned that the insects emerge every 7 or 17 years during which time they mate and then disappear. The nature bug had bitten Melnick. He collected butterflies and kept a massive shell collection. But as the years went by and the pleasures of youth took hold, Melinick's interest in nature began to fade. "I was interested in European history," he says, flashing a smile that reveals a perfect set of teeth.

Then one day, while playing basketball, Melnick injured his Achilles tendon.

Melnick limped for a year and had to lean on a cane for support. His father, concerned about the nagging injury, arranged to have him treated at New York Hospital. His leg was wrapped in a cast, completely immobilizing the teenager. A sophomore at New York University (NYU), Melnick could not even lift his leg up a flight of stairs. So he decided to take classes that were on the first floor -- physical and biological anthropology.

He studied about primates as models for understanding aspects of human evolution, and during this time he met Cliff Jolly an adviser at NYU. Jolly's students were studying genetics as a window on the evolutionary process in primates. Melnick secured an internship in Jolly's lab and subsequently a scholarship to Yale to study genetics and human evolution.

In 1978, Melnick and his fiancé, Mary Pearl, traveled to the moist Himalayan forest in the the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan for their Ph.D research. They chose the Rhesus monkeys for their project. The beasts weighed over 12 pounds and were trapped in cages using potatoes. They worked together to take blood and fur samples. Melnick took plaster casts of the monkeys' teeth to determine their age. The project lasted two years.

"We both share wanderlust and endless curiosity about the world," says Pearl. The two were married on October. 3. 1981, in an intimate ceremony in Essex,  Connecticut. They have two children -- Meredith and Seth. Pearl, currently the CEO of the Garrison Institute, a think tank focused on science, contemplation and transformative change, recalled her role on the Himalayan trip: "I collected behavioral data on the animals and knew them all as individuals," she wrote in an e-mail. "I was able to test hypothesis about behavior because Don was able to work out the genetic relationships in the group."

Thirty years on, Melnick continues his work with primates as well as other environmental projects.

In 2005, he co-chaired a United Nations task force on environmental sustainability. The project, commissioned by the UN Secretary-General, propose the best strategies for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are the world's quantified targets for dramatically reducing extreme poverty by 2015--income poverty, hunger, disease, exclusion, lack of infrastructure and shelter--while promoting gender equality, education, health, and environmental sustainability.

As he discussed his frustration with the findings of the committee, his voice rises. "I felt that the environment in the larger international community had a pretty low priority," he argues. "My worst fear is that we will continue to live as before, believing that the earth can provide us with an infinite amount of resources and we can just keep taking, taking, taking."

Giant masks of men with curved horns protruding from their noses hang on the walls, of Melnick's office in New York City. A coffee mug sits on his uncluttered desk, in the corner is a framed picture of his wife. Melnick is currently the Director of the Center for Environment, Economy and Society at Columbia University.

Peering behind Native sun glasses and sporting a jet black thatch of hair, Melnick strides into his office with the gait of an athlete, which he ironically attributes to genes and not running up and down the Himalayan hill sides. "I run 20 miles a week," he says, pausing in between his words. "I have done my best thinking while running." 

Lately he's been thinking about greenhouse gasses. He is working on developing carbon markets as a means to protect forested land in the Brazilian Amazon. Emissions trading, also known as cap and trade, is a mix of economic rewards for local communities and commercial greenhouse gas emitters to halt the rate of tropical deforestation.

Time is running out, Melnick argues. "The loss of tropical forests is extraordinarily high about 13 million hectares a year which works out to about one acre every second," he says. "I have made a living from studying species in tropical forests, I feel a moral responsibility to bring whatever skills I have to help sustain those forests."

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Director of the Center for Environment, Economy and Society at Columbia University, Don Melnick, is working on developing carbon markets as a means to protect forested land. (Photo: Owen Kibenge)
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