Alumnus Directs Smithsonian Conservation Institute

Posted: June 6, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: June 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm

By Jason Jacks

Steven Monfort with a clouded leopard.

With mocha-brown furniture, stacks of paperwork and mementos from a career stretching a quarter-century, Steven Monfort’s office is not unlike any other home away from home for a senior government worker who has reached the occupational heights he has.

But just outside his office, Monfort, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’93, has something that sets his workspace apart — herds of some of the most endangered animals in the world.

Monfort is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a 3,200-acre verdant outpost in Front Royal, Va., where scientists are pooling their mental might to find ways to preserve and expand species on the brink of extinction.

Not Your Typical Zoo

At any given time, the facility, which is off limits to the public, is abuzz with dozens of scientists and students studying and caring for as many as 40 different species, including red pandas, red-crowned and white-naped cranes and maned wolves, to name a few.

Though numbers fluctuate, typically several hundred animals call SCBI’s pastures and barns home.

“We’re not like a typical zoo,” Monfort points out. There are no cages, cotton candy stands or tour buses at SCBI.

“Most zoos have a Noah’s ark paradigm, where they have two of everything. That is great for the public to be exposed to a variety of different species — sort of the wonders of biodiversity — but it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do science on animals when you have really small numbers of them.”

He adds, “Science and discovery really underpin everything we do here.”

A Trailblazer at Mason

An administrator, veterinarian and one of the Smithsonian’s point men in the world of biological preservation, Monfort was one of the first people to graduate from Mason with a doctoral degree geared toward zoo administration. Since then, he estimates, another two dozen have followed in his footsteps at Mason.

While at Mason, Monfort was already fully ensconced in the world of animal science. He began working for the Smithsonian in 1986, where he rose through the ranks as a veterinarian and scientist, spearheading research into animal hormones and reproduction and heading up many of the National Zoo’s conservation efforts.

In 2006, he became the zoo’s associate director for conservation and science. Four years later, he was named director of SCBI, and Mason’s College of Science named him the 2010 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.

Among his achievements at SCBI was his work with Mason officials to create the Smithsonian-Mason Semester in Conservation Studies program, which gives students the opportunity to spend a semester at the institute studying biological conservation.

“I ask them what they want to do and most say, ‘I want to make a difference,’ or ‘I want my life to have a meaning,’” he says of the students, adding that “what we try to do is immerse them in this living laboratory.”

Fighting the Good Fight

As director, Monfort spends most of his time poring over budgets and signing off on the documents that keep SCBI running. When not in the office, he’s likely at the zoo in Washington, D.C., or on the road, speaking on behalf of the Smithsonian on efforts to conserve biological diversity.

Recently, he was instrumental in creating the Global Tiger Initiative, a joint effort with the World Bank to bring nations together to save the world’s tiger population. He’s also been a catalyst in establishing numerous other conservation initiatives, including the Sahara Conservation Fund, Conservation Centers for Species Survival and the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

“We are fighting the good fight here,” he says.

After 25 years with the Smithsonian, including a brief stint as acting director of the entire National Zoo system in 2009, Monfort says he still gets the urge sometimes to pinch himself at how lucky he is to get to do what he does: save species.

“For me, this is a dream come true.”

This profile originally appeared in a slightly different format in the spring 2011 issue of the Mason Spirit.

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