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Naturalist On Mission to Preserve Rain Forests

October 10, 1985|HEIDI YORKSHIRE

The house of naturalist Arnold Newman, on a tiny, winding street in the hills of Sherman Oaks, is a bit different from the others in the neighborhood.

A forest of giant Burmese bamboo guards the front gate, which opens onto a garden of rare tropical plants. A terrarium houses a collection of tiny rain forest frogs, some of which escape from time to time.

Dozens of fossils, some more than 350 million years old, fill shelves in almost every room of the house, and the toebone of a brontosaurus vies for space in the study with a wooly mammoth tusk and the perfectly-preserved skull of a saber-toothed tiger.

An eight-foot tall skeleton of a European cave bear, 80,000 years old, rears up over the coffee table in the living room, roaring into a potted palm. A few feet from the cave bear, Newman is on an urgent phone call to Costa Rica.

"Are they looking for gold?" he asks in rudimentary Spanish. "Are they near the mountains or the river? Have any trees been cut down?"

In more than 20 years exploring the tropical belt that stretches around the earth from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, Newman, 45, has become a man with a mission: to stop encroaching civilization from destroying the rain forests.

"In microcosm, the call I just got from Costa Rica is an example of what's happening to the tropcial rain forests everywhere on earth," he said. Eight gold miners and 17 logger-squatters were occupying a section of the Cathedral Rain Forest Science Preserve, a 1,000-acre field station for scientific investigation that was established by Newman, who serves as a consultant to governments of tropical countries on rain forest preservation.

"A rain forest today is just like a piece of cake at a picnic," Newman said, "all the ants are coming and swarming all over it."

Newman's fascination with the natural world began in his childhood when he couldn't wait to leave his Forest Hills, N.Y., home to go to summer camp in the mountains. He dismayed his parents by choosing the University of Miami over M.I.T., but to him the choice was logical--Florida is the home of the Everglades.

While at the university, he worked at the Miami Serpentarium Institute, extracting venom from poisonous snakes for the production of snake antivenene. Newman's senior thesis on wild life import-export regulations was adopted for use by the federal government.

After graduation, Newman explored the rain forests first-hand on expeditions throughout the world, often accompanied by his wife of 21 years, Arlene, or more recenty by their son Gandhi, 15. (They also have a daughter, Shanti, 8.)

During his travels he has discovered four new species--three plants and one animal-- including a rare luminescent fungus he collected in Papua, New Guniea, an undescribed species of Rafflesia, the world's largest flower and a type of shark found in Ecuador that was previously unknown to science.

Newman has also become a well respected field photographer, with one of the world's most extensive collections of rain forest photography. The walls of his home are lined with photographs of primitive tribes, plants, animals and insects taken on his travels.

In one photo, taken in the Sierra Macarena range in Colombia 20 years ago, Newman and his wife resemble the subjects of a turn-of-the-century tintype, staring gauntly into the camera, in battered hats, the striated light of the forest playing across their faces, with Newman clutching a rifle.

When they flew into the mountains for that expedition, Newman said, they discovered that the Colombian government had failed to make a food drop and their hired guide consequently refused to get off the plane. Rather than cancel the expedition, the Newmans, who had only a can of chocolate, a bag of bread and five potatoes with them, decided to live off the land.

They hired local Indians as guides and survived for two weeks on such delicacies as piranha fish, turtle eggs and a 50-pound rat.

Despite such hardships, Newman said, "It's a much calmer way of life in the forest than it is here. The forest rejuvenates you. The spiritual effects last weeks or months."

But currently, he said, farmers, cattle raisers and industry in tropical countries world-wide are destroying the rain forests at a rate of up to 100 acres each minute, causing the extinction of one species of animal, plant or insect every 24 hours. If the destruction continues to accelerate at its present rate, according to biologists, over one million species will become extinct by the turn of the century.

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