Reclaiming Our Health – Part 2


If Dr. Michael Bleyman and his army of 450 volunteers have it their way, our children will have many more wild animals with which to share the earth. Bleyman is the founder of the Carnivore Preservation Trust (CPT), 55 acres of Carolina pines, red clay and honeysuckle. It is also home to the second largest group of tigers in the world and the largest population in captivity of such exotic carnivores as binturongs, kinkajous, ocelots, palmrollers and others.

Frustrated by the academic and conservation communities that seemed more intent on talking about the world problems facing endangered species than taking any real action, Bleyman decided to do something about it. In 1981 he left the security of his teaching position at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to form the Carnivore Preservation Trust, whose mission was to use “captive breeding and education to preserve genetically sound and sustainable populations of threatened mammals critical to the survival of vital tropical ecosystems.”

“Mike is considered a maverick in the conservation community,” says David Wildt, a departmental head at the Conservation and Research Center of the National Zoological Park, “and I think that’s good because we need mavericks like Bleyman to keep the pot stirred.” Bleyman is able to provoke controversy which leads to more communication about important conservation issues, and “I’m for anybody who’s out there provoking sufficient controversy that we communicate better,” says Weldt. Known by his colleagues at CPT as a “charismatic man with a volcanic temper,” Bleyman’s vision has attracted hundreds of volunteers.

Says Kay Reames, site director and manager of CPT, “we have an active volunteer force of over 450 people.” When she says active, she’s not kidding. It’s not unusual on any given weekend for dozens of volunteers, ranging from college students to corporate executives, to be out on Bleyman’s converted farm, stretching donated ten-foot high chain-linked fencing for new enclosures to house the ever growing number of mostly “low-profiled carnivores,” which is CPT’s primary focus.

If Bleyman is in the country, he’s likely to be working side-by-side with his volunteer army with the dozens of menial tasks needed to keep the Trust operating smoothly. He also spends a lot of time with the animals, monitoring their food intake, being sure they get the veterinary care they need, and visiting his tigers. “The tigers are more of an avocation,” admits Reames, although Bleyman occasionally uses them to train other people who are interested in learning how to safely interact with such large animals.

According to Bleyman, their research has shown that many of these lesser known carnivores play a more important role in the tropical rain forests of the world than anyone had thought. “Where we are different from almost any conservation group is that we focus on, what we call, the forest infrastructure,” says Bleyman. “It is responsible for the propagation and maintenance of the topical forest.” Carnivores such as the sun bear, binturong, kindajou, and caracal support the tropical forests by dispersing seeds, helping with the pollination of plants, and through pest control.

Unfortunately, the population of many of these carnivores is being decimated, not only through the destruction of their habitats but also through poaching. “We are working with animals that are poached all out of proportion to the habitat laws,” says Bleyman. “The poaching that is done is for ivory, folk medicine and some delicacies.” According to Bleyman, this poaching hasn’t been appreciably affected by the international crackdown against poaching.

To get an idea how large an industry poaching has become, Bleyman sights a case where a 6.3 ounce gallbladder of an Asiatic Black Bear was auctioned off for its medicinal value for $55,000, and a Sun bear feast will go for $30,000 in a Korean restaurant in Bangkok.

Such senseless acts of ignorance pain CPT’s founder greatly. “When I was a little kid my father trained me in rescue wildlife. It was second nature to me. I’m programmed that way,” admits Bleyman. “I just changed it to species and ecosystems and I’m not just rescuing stray cats and dogs any longer.”

Since very few people realize the vital role these carnivores play in nature’s intricate web, education is an ongoing part of CPT’s role. “One of the things we realized,” says Reames, “is that having the animals here is not the end answer. The biggest problem in sending them back to where they need to be for pest control, is that people will welcome them back, but they won’t protect them.”

To help alleviate this problem, CPT strives to combine the “theoretical with the practical,” says Bleyman, who feels that other conservation groups sometimes fail to consider the native people’s needs. “We’re willing to work in an area long term on-site, educating the people to show them the benefits of maintaining the ecosystem.” For example, Phillipine mango growers were trying to burn out a nest of fruit bats that they claimed were eating mangos from their cultivated trees. Upon questioning the mango growers, CPT discovered that 90% of the mango harvest came, not from the cultivated trees but from the wild trees. When it was pointed out to the mango growers that their cultivated trees were pollinated by the fruit bats and the wild trees had been planted by them as well, the growers were convinced to let the fruit bats live and to place bags over their cultivated crops after the trees had been pollinated.

Closer to home, CPT’s educational efforts includes a very active in-school program which has expanded beyond their ability to fulfill all the requests they receive. For this reason, future plans include creating a multimedia kit which can be sent to the schools which will include video, interactive CD-ROM, slides and workbooks.

Realizing the vital role the rain forests also play in the survival of these carnivorous species, CPT’s mission expanded to be the “revitalization of threatened ecosystems.” One such ecosystem is the tropical forest of Laos where CPT, in conjunction with Bolisat Phathana Khet Phoudoi (BPKP), a Lao State Enterprise Company, are creating a Conservation and Restoration Center (CRC) on 160 square kilometers of tropical forest. Their plans are to, not only study the plant, animal, and aquatic life of the area, but also to set up a genetically sound captive breeding program for many plant and animal species endemic to the area.

Behind all of these efforts is the driving force of its founder, Michael Bleyman. “He inspires people to want to do a little bit more than just send in a twenty-five dollar check,” says Whitmore, who is currently nursing a bad back from his own volunteer efforts at CPT. “People really do want to come out and physically be on the site.” One of the reasons Bleyman inspires this kind of devotion is that it’s clear that he is completely devoted to the goal. “He is not in this to make money. I’ve been around when things were really tight,” continues Whitmore. “There was very little money and little volunteer support. None of the large corporate donations they have now, and I’ve seen it over and over again. The animals ate first, then if there was anything left over, Kay and Michael ate. It’s obvious, you can’t hide it. When someone has this kind of singleness of purpose, it makes you think about what it is he’s doing. If it’s that important to him, might it be important to me. A lot of people have said, ‘Yes, it is important to me as well.’”

by W. Bradford Swift