Friday, October 9, 2020

Q&A with Jonathan C. Slaght

Photo by Sergey Avdeyuk


Jonathan C. Slaght is the author of the new book Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl. He is the Russia and Northeast Asia coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and he lives in Minneapolis.


Q: What initially intrigued you about the Blakiston's fish owls you write about in your new book?


A: These are creatures that ooze mystery. When I first learned about them I was just a birdwatcher—I had not yet realized that I could turn my love of owls and Russian wilderness into a career.


For a birdwatcher, big and charismatic species like owls are always exciting. And the largest owl in the world, one that few people have ever seen, that lives in hard-to-reach forests, and eats salmon?? What birdwatcher can resist that?


Q: In a review in The Guardian, Helen Macdonald writes, "Owls of the Eastern Ice reads like a modern-day grail quest: a tale of one man’s travels through a daunting landscape of snow and ice and radioactive rivers, searching for an animal that seems all ghost." What do you think of that description?


A: I have a few thoughts. The general description is spot on in that it is a daunting landscape of snow and ice, the rivers are radioactive (some of them), and fish owls are frustratingly difficult to get a good look at.


What I don’t like is the “one man’s” bit, which paints me as a solitary hero. All of my work is deeply collaborative and built on trust, and I really tried to make that clear in the book.


I could not have done any of what’s described without the full commitments of the two Sergeys—Avdeyuk and Surmach—as well as the revolving cast of field assistants. The book is just as much about their successes as it is about mine.  


Q: The book's subtitle is "A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl." How successful was that quest, and what do you see looking ahead for the owls?


A: I think it went well! We’ve collected really important information about what fish owls need to survive, and to this day continue to implement some of those management actions.


Fish owls are such habitat specialists (ie, they have very specific needs) that they always going to be vulnerable to human threats as our needs and theirs--trees and salmon--overlap. So, we need to keep tabs on how their populations are doing to make sure that our efforts to help are paying off.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope people can read this book and be given hope. There is so much doom and gloom in the world. Pausing to think that right now there is an owl perched next to a river looking for salmon is such a calming, grounding thought for me, and I hope it is for others too.


Species like fish owls still exist, places like Primorye still exist. Let’s acknowledge them and protect them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I still work with fish owls, but I’m also involved in bird conservation across Asia from the Arctic tundra of Russia to the mudflats of Bangladesh and Cambodia. I continue to look for conservation solutions that work for both birds and local communities. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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