Ron Tilson grew up hunting and fishing in the Montana wilderness.
“I thought if I could find a job being in the outdoors, that would be the way to go,” Tilson said.
He took that dream to an extreme. Tilson, the Minnesota Zoo’s conservation director, will retire today after 27 years of studying and saving tigers, rhinos and other endangered species — and spending long stints in the world’s jungles and wilderness in the process.
“I’ve been permitted to live in some of the finest outdoor areas on Earth you can imagine,” said Tilson, 66. “It’s very spiritual.”
The Minnesota Zoo has been credited as a leader in species and habitat conservation, a zoo movement Tilson helped spearhead. His last day is today, Earth Day.
Tilson, who is probably best known for his work with tigers, wrote the book on tiger conservation — literally. “Tigers of the World,” published in 1988 and updated last year, “put together in one volume, for the first time, the state of science about tigers,” said Phillip Nyhus, professor of environmental studies at Colby University in Maine.
“It had an enormous impact,” said Nyhus, who co-wrote the updated volume and is one of many people Tilson has mentored who work in the conservation field.
Tilson also has been in charge of the massive breeding database for the big cats in North America for almost his entire career with the Apple Valley zoo, a duty he will pass on to another yet-to-be-named conservationist.
Oh, and he was instrumental in convincing a reluctant Chinese government that tigers had vanished from its wilderness — an almost insurmountable feat, say others in the conservation field. Plans are under way to attempt to reintroduce the South Chinese Tiger to the wild.
“He exemplified a sea change in what zoos are all about today,” zoo Director Lee Ehmke said. “Zoos started to say, ‘If we’re going to conserve wildlife, it does mean a commitment to conserving their wild habitat.’ ”
Indeed, Tilson points to the Adopt-a-Park program, in which the Minnesota Zoo “adopted” an Indonesian national park, as his greatest accomplishment.
The program started in 1990. Over the years, the zoo and its sponsors have focused on helping guards at Ujung Kulon National Park, home to the rare Javan rhino, be better stewards of the site.
“It flourished, and it worked,” Tilson said.
Other zoos have started similar programs.
Tilson’s influence on the zoo world and conservation movement will live on through numerous students and young scientists he has mentored over the years, Nyhus said.
Not all of Tilson’s work will stop when he leaves his post at the zoo. Retirement, he said, is not the right word for what he’ll be doing.
“I’m just not going to be at the zoo in meetings I don’t want to be in,” Tilson said. “I’m really just an old-fashioned field biologist.”
Tilson will continue his work in China, where biologists are studying the best region to reintroduce the extinct tigers.
That endeavor began with a survey, commissioned by the Chinese government in 2000, to determine how many South Chinese tigers were left in the wild.
“We spent 18 months humping up and down these high mountains and discovered there were none,” Tilson said. “There were no tigers left. They were gone.”
It took several years to convince the Chinese government that they must reintroduce tigers to the wild, Tilson said.
Tilson also will work in an emeritus role as a senior conservation adviser to the Minnesota Zoo Foundation.
Tilson will be replaced at the zoo by Tara Harris, a conservation biologist who spent four years living and working in Uganda, studying colobus monkeys.
“Ron has been my mentor,” Harris said. “He’s involved me in everything he’s done. I feel ready to take over because of that.”
Ehmke described Harris as a “brilliant and hard-working woman of great potential.”
But he said the staff would miss Tilson’s big personality.
“He’s got more stories than anybody,” Ehmke said. “And his level of respect around the world with other conservation organizations is not going to be replaceable.”
Tilson, who has developed an allergy to tigers over the years, said he nevertheless feels fortunate to have spent his life studying such magnificent creatures.
“Tigers are the true symbol of Asian wilderness,” Tilson said. “They need vast areas. They need lots of prey. They own the jungle. They rule. How can you not be fascinated by an animal like that?”
Jessica Fleming can be reached at 651-228-5435.