A Monkey Advocate Lands Behind Bars

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Herve Collart / Corbis

Dutch biologist Marc van Roosmalen with a spider monkey in the Amazonian rain forest.

Marc Van Roosmalen is a world-renowned primatologist and environmentalist who discovered five new species of monkey in the Brazilian Amazon. He was named a Hero for the Planet in the pages of TIME in 2000 for his rain forest conservation efforts. Last month the esteemed researcher celebrated his 60th birthday — in jail.

Van Roosmalen was convicted in June for environmental crimes that included three charges of stealing 28 monkeys, which he kept in his home in the Amazon city of Manaus. He was also found guilty of attempting to sell and profit from the right to choose the scientific names of his new species. The scientist was sentenced to 15 years and nine months in prison and ordered to pay nearly $80,000 in fines, a federal prosecutor said, which amounts to the maximum sentence for his combined crimes.

Van Roosmalen's son, Vasco van Roosmalen, says his father is now coordinating his own defense and appealing the conviction, which he feels was handed down unfairly — as a punishment of sorts for his growing fame. "My father had always worked a certain way, with little regard for bureaucracy and the rules," says the junior van Roosmalen. "But when he became famous around the world for his discoveries, he was subject to more scrutiny in Brazil."

Van Roosmalen's charges date back to 2002 when the Dutch-born scientist made his most recent discoveries: two unknown species of Titi monkey in the Amazon. Identifying the primates was one thing; plucking them from the jungle was another. Dissatisfied with government-run facilities for animals recovered from the wild, Van Roosmalen had set up an animal rehabilitation facility in his own home. That's where he placed the new Titi monkeys. A month later, he was slammed with a $2,000 fine from the Brazilian government's environmental protection agency, IBAMA, for theft.

By April 2003, van Roosmalen's unconventional methods had sufficiently irked his bosses at the National Institute of Amazon Research (INPA), the government research body where van Roosmalen had worked since 1987. The organization accused him of stealing and damaging government-owned scientific equipment and fired him.

"I know that my father didn't follow certain administrative procedures," says Vasco, who hasn't seen or talked to his father since his June 15 incarceration. "But if he had, he may never have made his discoveries."

The world-famous naturalist has long been regarded in scientific circles as a maverick, known for setting off on rain forest expeditions barefoot and without mosquito repellant or other supplies. Van Roosmalen, a citizen of Brazil since 1986, never paid much heed to the country's myriad and complex laws governing wildlife preservation; otherwise, he might have reconsidered opening up an animal hospital in his living room. As for the attempt to sell the monkeys' scientific names online, Van Roosmalen's son says it was just a tack to raise awareness of his Amazon preservation efforts. In any case, as the discoverer of the new primate species, Van Roosmalen owns the right to name them.

"He is brilliant and he has his own way of doing things," said Jose Maria da Silva, vice president of science at the Belem office of Conservation International, a Washington-based NGO.

Back in 2002, when IBAMA fined him and tried to reclaim his newly discovered monkeys, Van Roosmalen spoke about his commitment to the rain forest and acknowledged his unorthodox methods. "I have been working in the same manner in the Amazon for 16 years," he told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. "Everyone knows me and knows what I do. I saved those monkeys from the pot of death. They would have been eaten by hunters if they were found during an expedition."

Scientific organizations from around the world have offered assistance in Van Roosmalen's defense since the scientist landed in jail a month ago. Colleagues in Holland set up a website www.helpmarcvanroosmalen.nl and a trust fund. "What I need in particular now is some cash in my Dutch postbank," says Van Roosmalen from the military police prison to which he was recently transferred, "since the feds took all our cash and my Brazilian passport."