Conservationist Bill Toone's new memoir takes readers on wild rides through jungle treks, across canyon-spanning footbridges, and pole barges as he faced dangerous conditions and difficult politics of conservation. Dr. Grauer became friends with Bill Toone through The Grauer School's conservation work.
"On the Wings of the Condor" By Bill Toone
One morning, leaving the Original Pancake House in Encinitas, Bill Toone, with a cheeky smile, handed me a curious object: a one-ounce, hand-filled bottle of Madagascar vanilla. I knew he’d done conservation work in Madagascar, but I never got a chance to get the full story. At last, by the end of his new book, “On the Wings of the Condor”, describing mind-surfing expeditions through San Diego, Mexico, Paraguay, Papua New Guinea, and Madagascar, I had my story. And here it is.
I had come to know Bill from our school’s conservation work, and our school's Monarch Butterfly Way Station was inspired by him. I knew that his ECOLIFE Conservation organization got us the aquaponic tank that runs in our Environmental Science classroom. But what about the vanilla?
Bill Toone was born a lover of birds and nature, and his new memoir takes us on wild, single-engine plane rides, through thick jungle treks, shaky canyon-spanning footbridges, pirogue boats and pole barges as his teams face smoldering heat, malaria-infested jungles, poisonous animal bites, and the equally trying politics of conservation. All that brought about the founding of ECOLIFE Conservation, based in Escondido. “My heart got well ahead of my brain,” writes Bill. That happens to all my favorite people, describes all the best developments The Grauer School has made since our 1991 founding, and is a great subtheme for this book.
For Bill, education did not come easy and not always from school. He came of age and found his way handling snakes and exchanging whistle calls with kingbirds. At a young age, he could stun a dragonfly with a rolled-up newspaper, tie a thread around its leg, and study it’s flight. But like so many of us at The Grauer School, Bill became frustrated with an educational system that fills its science classes up with datapoints and summations, while never taking students afield. In so many schools, students study science, but rarely do science. Bill’s high school experiences resulted in C grades, and his college experiences seemed frustrating and irrelevant until he transferred into the UC Davis wildlife management program. There he could study “living breathing animals, in their habitats,” and he continued to do this at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (Safari Park), as a bird specialist.
When the California condor, all nine feet of wingspan, came under his watch, Bill’s early career took flight. Against enormous political (and biological) forces, he took on the largest species recovery in the United States, leading our State's namesake bird, the California condor, out of the jaws of extinction and back into the wild.
“On the Wings of the Condor” is a story of sometimes painful transformation. Start with a little kid who loves snakes and birds, and by late career, his favorite places in the world were marked by lost lives, emotional despair, and “barren soils occasionally bisected by streams running red with the soil’s blood.”
Personally, as a teacher of teens for a half century and founder of another nonprofit that has succeeded against all odds, here is the thing I have to share, and it hits home in “On the Wings of the Condor”: In most lives, I hope yours, there is a critical incident or time that not only confirms your deepest convictions but binds you almost uncontrollably to a course of action. These incidents occur when we are pursuing our intuitive passions, and they take over our lives. Such an incident occurred for Bill not long after establishing the butterfly house at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which he largely did while courting his future wife, Sunni.
Sunni’s passion was the monarch butterfly and Bill’s passion was Sunni. He had just joined her in tagging monarchs to track their spectacular migrations, when a passing stranger mentioned, “If you think this is impressive, you should see what happens in Mexico.” Before long, Bill and Sunni were on their way to a tiny, cobblestone street, traditional village in the state of Michoacan to witness the spectacular, annual migration of the monarch. The forests of Mexico host a blanketing of a billion butterflies a year.
Bill and Sunni began leading trips to view them and did so for some years. Meanwhile, year after year, logging cartels continued a brutal assault of those forests, while the local, traditional families continued to rely upon inefficient wood burning stoves for their energy and cooking. Bill calculates 3 billion people on earth live in forest dwellings using incredibly inefficient stoves that strip forests. On their annual trip in 2002, they arrived to a nightmare. In the forest, they found “the remarkable forest cathedral was turned into a killing ground. Piles of dead butterflies were strewn about like broken shards of stained glass.” Hundreds of millions of monarchs, dead. This is the way a gentle, self-effacing plant geek is transformed into a hero. The planning for a new kind of conservation organization was now their passion and life mission.
In “On the Wings of the Condor”, we learn how the monarch butterfly, one of nature’s most beautiful species, exhibits the most highly evolved migration pattern of perhaps any known insect. It has been revered by traditional cultures. And we learn how its mass death was more than a single species tragedy. The “broken shards” were an obvious harbinger for Bill as a conservationist. Across the globe, Bill had already witnessed the pristine forests of Madagascar cut, as their native people diminished. “I really felt if these people were moved from the forest, they would die in the streets,” wrote Bill. He had to remove from this book a similar, tragic story on Paraguay for fear of liability and retaliation, though you might get another jaw-dropping story if you take him to breakfast.
Bill writes, “I recognized that the leading cause of extinction was habitat loss.” The view that all other species on earth are there to serve man rather than co-exist with us in a balance of nature has led us to new age scientists are calling the Anthropocene, not a small thing to tackle. Into this, ECOLIFE Conservation was launched.
“On the Wings of the Condor” is the story of a sensitive boy coming of age, but equally of a sensitive man traveling to over 100 countries in search of the meaning of conservation and founding a nonprofit against unimaginable odds. He is succeeding, so far, because passion and persistence have a way of doing that. The odds against him are not pretty.
Bill and I were born into the 1950's, not knowing an Anthropocene age was launching or that we would be dealing with the unthinkable. “It is likely that sometime during the next forty years, animals like elephants and rhinoceros will disappear forever,” due to habitat loss, he writes. Our species is removing trees and turning natural habitats into farming and commercial areas at an alarming pace. Many other habitats are degrading through human-triggered climate change.
The book is done. I pull out the little bottle of Madagascar vanilla Bill and Sunni brought back for me a year or so ago. I remove the cork for the first time. It is dark and creamy with an overwhelming sweet, buttery aroma. I breathe it in a few times. This aroma is from another world that I now understand holds crocodile rivers Bill crossed, zebu cows, lemurs, spectacular blue coua birds, all losing their land. It is from a threatened world where vanilla farmers have had to take arms to protect their practices.
Madagascar is antipodal to The Grauer School: if you drill right through the center of the earth to the other side, you’ll be there. Our mascot, the near-extinct Grauer’s Gorilla is hanging on to its last available land. Another breath takes me to my own, innocent childhood as, behind my Long Island home, the forest was converted into the Americana shopping center.
ECOLIFE Conservations' aquaponics and sustainable stoves conserve forest areas and prevent climate change around the world. "On the Wings of the Condor" (2022) documents how Bill Toone, a humble but courageous friend of mine, goes about taking on the biggest challenges on earth.
COMMENT! Click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to share a comment about this column.