Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Sacred Forests, Pandas, Orangutans, White Elephants: A Seasoned Traveler's Exotic Quests

September 13, 2022 Paul Spencer Sochaczewski has been a conservationist with the World Wildlife Fund for over 50 years. He shares stories of his encounters while traveling the world. Episode 67
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Sacred Forests, Pandas, Orangutans, White Elephants: A Seasoned Traveler's Exotic Quests
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski has been a conservationist with the World Wildlife Fund for over 40 years. He tells of his boyhood adventure in upstate New York State. He talks of following in the steps of his idol, Alfred Russell Wallace, who studied species with Charles Darwin, and of later quests in the jungles of Borneo, Laos and other exotic destinations around the world.

Paul tells  of pandas, palm oil, orangutans -- ending with everything you want to know concerning a search about mysterious white elephants.
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is an a conservationist, adventurer and author.
His latest books:
A Conservation Notebook (just published)
Searching for Ganesha / EarthLove
Dead, But Still Kicking / Exceptional Encounters
An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles
Curious Encounters of the Human Kind (five book series)
Redheads / Soul of the Tiger / Distant Greens 
Share Your Journey: Mastering Personal Writing

Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to many guidebooks.

Contact Lea! 
@lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website:

New episodes drop every other week, on Tuesdays. Please tell folks about us, and follow, rate and review this award-winning travel podcast!

Lea Lane  0:00  
I love interviewing world travelers with fascinating and unusual stories to tell. And on this episode, we have lots of stories of people and places. Our guest is Paul Spencer Sokka, Joy ski, author of A Conservation Notebook: Ego, Greed and Oh, So Cute Orangutans: True Tales from a Half Century on the Environmental Front Lines. Paul has spent much of his life in the rainforests of Asia, and less visited corners of Africa. He's met people good and bad. And he's been to fascinating places. Welcome, Paul to Places I Remember. 

Paul S  0:33  
Thank you, Lea, good to be with you. 

Lea Lane  0:34  
We'll get to some of your incredible tales in the far-flung regions of the earth. But first, let me just ask you, as former head of creative services for the World Wildlife Fund, tell us what you did in the 50 years since you began in the field.

Paul S  0:47  
You know, life is a journey. And I was always interested in nature and conservation, although I wasn't too aware of what conservation was when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey. I always knew there was a big world out there that was waiting for me and I wasn't quite sure where it was or what, what would happen when I got there. So my my life has basically been a series of quests, to find new experiences, to learn new things, to experience other cultures and see how that's relevant to my life. And what I'm doing. 

Lea Lane  1:23  
Well, you write that your adventure started in the Catskill Mountains of New York with your dad. Tell us about that. 

Paul S  1:28  
First, my dad had an old army buddy, who had what we used to call a bungalow colony up in the Catskill Mountains outside of New York City. And we used to go up there for the summer. And my father would take me to rather isolated waterfalls that for a young boy was a big adventure. My mother was a bit nervous when we went up there, she said, "Be careful of snakes and be careful of this and don't do this." And we would smile at her and say, "Of course," and we'd go off on our little boys adventure. And that left me with an interest in exploring, an interest in physical effort and an interest in nature. I didn't realize it. I didn't call it this but an interest in nature's healing properties.

Lea Lane  2:13  
Yes. You know, I, I went up to the Adirondacks once and there's a place called Tear of the Clouds, this tiny little drip. It's the beginning of the Hudson River drip and I will never forget that: I've been all over the world as you have. But that is something I remember as special. It was a quest of a sort to see the beginning of it, and it didn't disappoint me. So let's talk about some of your other quests. This was the first one. But tell us about finding Alfred Russell Wallace.

Paul S  2:40  
Oh, Alfred Russell Wallace is my hero. He's my mentor. A bit of background. Alfred Russell Wallace was born to a middle class family in 1823. And next year is the 200th anniversary of his birth. Now, Wallace was a curious smart guy without a lot of life advantages. He left school at the age of 13. Now, I don't know about you, Lea, but I've always been a good procrastinator. Yes. And Wallace wasn't. He managed to write 600 articles and papers and 23 books. Without having finished what we would call high school. He got friendly with Henry Walter Bates in England, and he and Bates would go out to the English countryside collecting beetles. And while I was fascinated by that, in the countryside of England, you could have such a diversity of creatures and he and Bates had the truly astounding, crazy idea to go to Brazil. Now these are two young men 23 and 25. They had never been out of the country. They didn't have a passport, they didn't have education, they didn't have contacts, they didn't have money. So they got a small boat. They went up the Amazon and Wallace stayed there for years collecting also looking for evidence or what became known as the theory of natural selection. What we know is evolution. Wallace was coming back from Brazil, he lost most of his collection and almost his life when his boat caught fire. He swore I'm never going on another boat again. Well, two years later he did he went to Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. He spent eight years in what is known as the Malay Archipelago. And I was living in Sarawak in Borneo. And almost accidentally, I realized that I was following Wallace, I was living in the same places that he was living. I was looking at some of the same bits of nature that he was exploring. And I said, "Well, let's make this a conscious decision. And I'll follow him." And I've been doing that for over 40 years. And I wrote a few books about that. Charles Darwin was on a Royal Navy boat. He basically had a floating hotel, he had a place to store his stuff. He had security, he had a cabin. He had people to do his laundry for him. Wallace he had to get by by schmoozing. And he got that by selling net what he called natural productions, beetles, birds, orangutans, monkeys, selling them to his beetle agent in London. Part of my quest to find Wallace. I've always been interested in the supernatural and spiritualism and I don't believe it, but I'm fascinated by it. So I wrote a book called Dead But Still Kicking. And part of it involves talking to mediums in Indonesia, UK, Switzerland, trying to talk to Wallace things that only Wallace would know. Who knows maybe?

Lea Lane  5:30  
Yeah, that's another conversation. But I think it's a good thing for a traveler to keep an open mind as well as curiosity. That's a good combination.

Paul S  5:37  
When I was working in nature conservation, I became interested in what we call sacred forests, or holy groves. I said, this is swell. This is great. This is what I live for. It's not so easy. It's like finding like finding Atlantis. It might never have existed. It took me 12 years to put together a little expedition. And we're walking up this mountain and up this mountain to about 3500 meters. We get to the village and you can see Donageere mountain, and it's red. It's like bleeding red in the sun. And then I met this old lady called [...], very sweet old lady from the village. Anyway, I hope to go back there next year.

Lea Lane  6:26  
This is a quest indeed. I remember I was in one sacred forest. It was in the North Island of New Zealand. You may have been there, the Waiapua forest. The Maoris supposedly came there, and Tanu Mahata  is the great kauri tree, the God of the forest, I felt the spirituality there of the people who worship these beautiful kauri trees that are 2500 years old, some of them, so I have a little taste of what you do, but not 12 years in quest. Incredible. So hey, let me just ask you -- as a conservationist, you're aware of the marketing of conservation support and so we all know it, tell us about some charismatic mega- vertebrates, such as orangutans

Paul S  7:07  
With my friend Jeff McNealy, was also a co author, I think we coined the term charismatic mega vertebrates.

Lea Lane  7:15  
That's what I got it from your book, right?

Paul S  7:18  
When I was hired at WWF, and I started working there, in 1981, I was coming from Indonesia, where I had been working in advertising before that, I was in the Peace Corps in Borneo. And they hired me to help promote the brand of WWF. As you know, any kind of NGO nonprofit lives and dies by branding, by success stories, by tugging on heartstrings. I saw my role as helping to get nature conservation on the global agenda. If you go back to 1981, conservation wasn't a front page story anywhere. It was sort of unfortunately back of the newspaper with the gardening tips. We tried to follow a scientific program, but our donors wanted us to follow an emotional program, we would promote charismatic mega vertebrates like the panda in China. My colleagues went to China, and we can credit them with opening up China to nature conservation because the Chinese at that time, It was only a few years after Richard Nixon's ping pong diplomacy. I remember. (We're the same Generation. Yes, we have a common language.) And we help them work with panda diplomacy. We said to them, this is one way you can rejoin the international community. And the panda was a wonderful symbol, and it became the WWF logo. It's cute (very) it's endangered (very), it lives in an exotic part of the world. And as Sir Peter Scott, the first chairman of WWF said, it can be reproduced in black and white. The other well known charismatic mega vertebrates that we raised money for were elephants, tigers, and my favorite the orangutan. Now, Lea, have you ever been up close and personal with orangutans?

Lea Lane  9:19  
Only in a zoo. I have been up close and personal with a lemur in Madagascar, but not an orangutan and I would have loved to.

Paul S  9:26  
Well, distant relatives, right. It's hard to be close to an orangutan without feeling a connection. It's what Edward O Wilson called biophilia, a connection with another species, and they are wonderful animals intelligent but not necessarily in the way that we want them to. Orangutans live in rain forests, only on two islands, Sumatra, and Borneo. These islands have extensive oil palm plantations,

Lea Lane  9:56  
I've driven through them endless, endless oil palms in Malaysia.

Paul S  10:03  
So you're familiar with the destruction and how a monoculture like oil palm is not good for biodiversity. So a lot of my work in the last 15 years has been trying to stop rainforest destruction supporting local communities. That's the theme of not only some of my nonfiction books, but also some of my fictional books, where people are trying some off the wall methods to stop rainforest destruction. And in fact, next week, I'm going back to Indonesia, and I'll visit some of these rainforest areas and some of these orangutan rehabilitation centers trying to understand more about it. Oil palm is a very interesting villain. Oil palm is a terrific crop. It is found in about half of all the products in our supermarkets. It makes ice cream creamier. It's cheap, it's productive. It's about eight times more productive than raising soybeans. It grows quickly. And it provides livelihood for millions of people in Southeast Asia, I was invited to a small dinner with a senior Indonesian minister who was living in Geneva where I live, she had two visitors from Jakarta, the capital, and she had to show them that she understood the approved rhetoric. So the dinner was going on very nicely. The food was very nice. We had a nice bottle of wine. And then I opened my big mouth. And I said, Well, let's talk about oil palm. And the conversation went quiet. And she said, Your background is conservation. I said yes. And she said, My background is economics and trade and support for local people. And in essence, what she told me was you you conservationists, you care more about orangutans than you do about people. I walked into it. And it was her home, I didn't want to be too strong about it. So I said, my piece, we lift at night, and I never was invited back to her home. We tried to show how nature is in fact, supporting local people and how they are poorer when nature's destroyed. And that's the constant dialogue that we have.

Lea Lane  12:23  
Now, in your book, you have many characters: just tell us about the guy in Laos and the white elephant.

Paul S  12:29  
Oh, his name is Moom, Somesee. Now in the West, we think of a white elephant as something that's expensive, not productive, a pain, a burden. The reason that we think that is an evolution of a Thai punishment in Thailand, in Laos, in Cambodia, in Burma, white elephants are symbols of the king. They represent a ruler, a king, who is just kind and helps give prosperity to the people. A white elephant is precious, sacred, and the old Thai kings were always being bothered by people who wanted something, and he was too polite to say "get lost." So he gave them the irrefusable honor of looking after one of his white elephants. Now a white elephant has to be fed the finest sugarcane, hand-fed to him by the most beautiful virgins, and they have to live in these wonderful palaces and so on. And the guy quickly became bankrupt. Poor farmer in the south of Laos, he had a dream that if he went into the forest, he would find a prize of great value. He did. And although he had no experience as an elephant catcher, he caught a white elephant. He brought it back to the village word got out, and the man from Cambodia came and offered him a lot of money for his white elephant. Before he could do the deal, another man came to the door and said, "Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you. And the guy says, "Congratulations, you have just collected a white elephant. That is the property of the state. Thank you for donating it. And the guy says, a small guy against this big guy from the government. He had to ride his white elephant about a week to the capital, where he was given nothing except a hand painted picture of him and his white elephant, who wanted the white elephant. Now this is the real story, the first prime minister and the first president of Laos, Mr. Qassem only when his wife was named Madame Tong Vin, and she was Vietnamese. This was an arranged marriage. The Vietnamese had told this Lao politician married Madame Tong Vin and you will become prime minister. Madame Tong then became the Martha Washington of Laos. She was desperate to show that she was royalty to show that she was At a high level, she wanted this white elephant because this was a symbol of her power of her authority. Because nobody liked her very much. I wanted to see this white elephant. So through a few contexts in Laos, I got in touch with her, and she agreed to see me. Now her white elephant was being kept in a nature reserve. And we were in touch with a veterinarian, we were going to see him and visit the white elephant, we got to her compound, and I think she had been sleeping, and I don't, I think she had forgotten that we had an appointment. And I'll be very polite and say that she was not very polite to us. She was dressed in an old house dress, she grudgingly offered us some water. And in any house in Asia, you're offered tea and biscuits and she said, Where are you from? And I knew what she was getting at. I said America and her face went dark, because she still had the memories of the American war. And she said "Why are you interested in the white elephant? What do you want?" And she said it in quite an aggressive manner. And I said, "Well, I'm interested in how it's a symbol of royalty and how you relate to the white elephant," blah, blah, blah, blah, and went on like this for a little while. She told me one or two interesting stories about how she dreamed she was flying to another country and the white elephant was flying. Yes, and how if she was sick, it was because the white elephant was sick. And what we're going to be seeing your white elephants tomorrow, and she didn't see anything. So the next morning, we're driving along to this nature reserve and my friend who arranged he said, "Oh, by the way, I've got some bad news. Your visit has been canceled." Oh, no. We went there. Anyway, we met the vet. Very nice man. By the way, is it really white, a white elephant is not pure white. There are eight characteristics that the ancient texts have declared a white elephant should have, it's almost impossible to get all eight in one elephant. It includes the number of fingernails, the shape of the ears includes the shape of the tail, the shape of the head of fair skin. So these are not necessarily albino elephants.

Now you have to keep going because you haven't seen one yet. Is that correct?

I've seen several. Okay, and Burma is very proud of them. In fact, a few weeks ago, they found another one.

Lea Lane  17:26  
Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember, I usually ask my guests to give us a story. But I'm gonna read a quote from your book, a Conservation Notebook. And it goes like this, "My hope in a few decades when we are safely up in heaven playing beach volleyball and writing novels that when the heavenly Pulitzer Prize, we will look down on earth and say, by golly, we were wrong. Our descendants were smarter than we were. They took care of the problems and solved the challenges we whine about." I know you've spent your life not only traveling the world, but trying to make the world a better place and trying to save us from destroying it. And I hope you're right on that last quote. Thank you, Paul Spencer's Soca Joy ski. Your life has been fascinating. You've traveled the world but more important to us. You've been one of the good guys who's tried for many years to conserve our precious Earth. You've inspired others and you tell some great stories. So thank you so much.

Paul S  18:24  
Thank you for having me, Lea.

The influence of Alfred Russell Wallace
Paul's first quest
The influence of Alfred Russell Wallace
Sacred forests
Charismatic mega-vertebrates
Dealing with oil palms
White elephants
Ending with a quote