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Human Compassion, Animal Magnetism

Dec 21, 2010

“While some kids may have dreamt about dragons and unicorns, I dreamt about water buffalo.”

Biology Professor Rich Tenaza

When Dr. Rich Tenaza was a child, he didn't fantasize about being a fireman or policeman or movie actor. He fantasized about wild animals and wild people in wild places.

Dr. Tenaza in the Baliem Valley with men of the Dani tribe who are wearing traditional dress and carrying their weapons of war. They brought out the bows, arrows and spears to demonstrate traditional battle tactics for him.

Dr. Tenaza in the Baliem Valley with men of the Dani tribe who are wearing traditional dress and carrying their weapons of war. They brought out the bows, arrows and spears to demonstrate traditional battle tactics for him.

He fantasized about photographing birds and writing their stories. He fantasized about water buffalo and rice paddies and houses on stilts; about living in rain forests and walking on frozen seas. Dr. Tenaza has been able to live out his fantasies all around the world.

A professor in the Biological Sciences department since 1975, Dr. Tenaza has focused on animal behavior and the ecology and conservation of birds and mammals, especially primates. He has trekked to the Arctic, Antarctica, Farallon Islands, Falkland Islands, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and East Africa for field work and photography of wildlife, landscapes, and peoples. 

A Dani tribal elder wearing a nose ornament made of two pig tusks fastened together and a headband decorated with feathers from a king bird of paradise.

A Dani tribal elder wearing a nose ornament made of two pig tusks fastened together and a headband decorated with feathers from a king bird of paradise.

This past summer Dr. Tenaza traveled to Indonesian Papua (the former Irian Jaya) in Western New Guinea to visit the Dani and Asmat tribes in their native habitat. He can speak Indonesian, which helps him get around and meet people.

The lifestyles of the two tribes are reflected in their distinctive environments. The Dani live in hills and are primarily farmers, growing sweet potatoes as their staple crop. The Asmat live in swamplands; some build houses up in trees to be protected from flooding and crocodiles, which are eaten by (and sometimes eat) the people.

While visiting the area, Dr. Tenaza became aware of the human rights issues facing the native Papuans, who have been under Indonesian rule since the early 1960s. The territory had belonged to the Dutch, who were grooming West Papua to become an independent nation. But the U.S. pressured the Dutch to instead give the area up to Indonesia, a move that has been criticized as simply a means of maintaining control of gold interests through Freeport Mining.

Dr. Tenaza gave the Dani people of Jiwika Village a pig as a gift, and a feast followed. Here men butcher the pig with bamboo knives as children study how it’s done and a pet dog eyes the meat. In typical Melanesian fashion, the meat is cooked buried in leaves and tubers in pits heated with hot rocks. Thus the meat, greens and starch components of the meal are cooked simultaneously.
Dr. Tenaza gave the Dani people of Jiwika Village a pig as a gift, and a feast followed. Here men butcher the pig with bamboo knives as children study how it's done and a pet dog eyes the meat. In typical Melanesian fashion, the meat is cooked buried in leaves and tubers in pits heated with hot rocks. Thus the meat, greens and starch components of the meal are cooked simultaneously.

These Dani men are seated in the Jiwika Village Men’s House. In addition to being the primary residence of men in the village, the Men’s House is where war trophies and other sacred paraphernalia are stored and religious rituals are conducted.
These Dani men are seated in the Jiwika Village Men's House. In addition to being the primary residence of men in the village, the Men's House is where war trophies and other sacred paraphernalia are stored and religious rituals are conducted.

Korowai Asmat man with weapons. The Asmat are famed for the artistry of their shields and other wood carvings. Arrows are tipped with palm wood or cassowary bone.

Since then, human rights advocates have called out the Indonesian government for repressive policies, which have intensified in recent years as the West Papuans struggle for their rights.  "The Papuans are treated like second-class citizens, and they are really being squashed," said Dr. Tenaza. He said that a Papuan expressing interest in independence is practically placing a death sentence on himself.

Dr. Tenaza will be giving a presentation about the plight of the West Papuans on February 22, 2011, from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. in George Wilson Hall on the Stockton campus. 

Referring to the photos shown here, Dr. Tenaza said, "Pictures like these are fun, but they can give the mistaken impression that everyone in New Guinea is living in subsistent societies and could not possibly run a country, which is far from the truth."

Korowai Asmat man with weapons. The Asmat are famed for the artistry of their shields and other wood carvings. Arrows are tipped with palm wood or cassowary bone.


The Colorful World of Dr. Tenaza


Richard TenazaOne could write a book on the numerous travels, adventures and accomplishments of Dr. Tenaza. The highlights below offer a little taste of his many endeavors, mostly related to his pursuit of the understanding and conservation of animals in their native habitats.

Gorilla— Dr. Tenaza has been to East Africa 22 times since 1979. He used to regularly take Pacific students camping in Kenya to study wildlife, and one of his graduate students—Lorna Anness-spent 1987 studying the behavior of wild mountain gorillas at Karisoke, Rwanda.  

— He spent one summer working as a field assistant studying lemmings and their avian predators on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and another studying aggressive behavior of lemmings and related rodents at various sites on the Arctic Slope of Alaska. 

— For his Ph.D. thesis, Dr. Tenaza studied the behavior and ecology of gibbons and leaf monkeys in the Mentawai Islands, off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and in 1993 the Government of Sarawak, East Malaysia, contracted him to census populations of orangutans and other primates in the remote, uninhabited Lanjak Entimau region of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. 

Adelie Penguins—The United States Geological Survey named a mountain near Cape Hallet in Antartica "Tenaza Peak" after Dr. Tenaza had spent time at Hallet studying the behavior of Adelie penguins.

—As President of the Biological Field Studies Association, Dr. Tenaza is in charge of the Cleary Reserve, a 430-acre private nature reserve in Napa County populated by bears, cougars, spotted owls, and lots of other wildlife.  The reserve, which contains the highest waterfall in Napa County and California's interior-most coast redwoods, is set aside for conservation and for research and education in the natural sciences. 

Elephant—In 1990, Dr. Tenaza, along with General Danudirdjo Ashari of Indonesia, helped found SEAZA, the South East Asian Zoos Association. SEAZA promotes conservation, education, quality care of zoo animals, and collaboration among zoos in achieving those goals. He has also been active with the American Zoo Association, where he advocated for greater involvement of zoos in the conservation of animals in situ—in their natural environments.

— Dr. Tenaza was one of 50 Filipino and Filipino American scientists, engineers, educators and entrepreneurs honored at the Philippine Development Forum and Gala held in San Jose, California this year. More than 1,000 participants were present, including Benigno S. Aquino III, President of the Philippines.

Learn more about Dr. Tenaza through the bio on his faculty web page.