Sonoma Valley zoologist seeks creative ways to save mountain lions — and the planet
The day after a young male mountain lion made national news by paying a visit to the Santa Rosa Plaza in April, Quinton Martins ventured a guess as to why the feline ended up at the mall.
“Maybe he was going to the Apple Store to upgrade his Sierra,” deadpanned Martins, a big cat expert with a doctorate in zoology, a robust sense of humor and some unconventional ideas about how best to save the planet.
He followed that one-liner with a slew of scientific analysis. But the quip was vintage Martins, whose public relations instincts are as sharp as his tranquilizer darts. He is the South African-born founder of Glen Ellen’s Living With Lions, a project he leads for Audobon Canyon Ranch. One of his missions is to educate landowners, to show them that it’s better to coexist with apex predators than it is to shoot them.
With the help of volunteers and veterinarians on his team, Martins traps the big cats and collars them, allowing the public to monitor their movements and, in a way, get to know them. Not everyone is on board with this marketing-based approach.
“He’s told us many times he wants his animals to be media stars,” said Greg Martinelli, lands program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s a difference between science and advocacy.” With Martins, he thinks, “those lines are a little blurred.”
Martins, for his part, makes no apologies for his unorthodox approach.
“Obviously we need to keep doing science,” he said. “But we have enough scientific information to know that the environment is in a desperate state, and something drastic needs to be done.”
The man who seeks nothing?less than to overhaul and defibrillate the conservation movement grew up in Welkom, South Africa, which he describes as “a crappy gold-mining town” 90 miles northeast of Bloemfontein. His happiest hours were spent outdoors, camping and fishing with his father.
“We used to go to some pretty cool, wild places, to go fishing,” Martins said. “I remember the connection to nature, just sitting quietly, enjoying that peace.
“For my sins,” he said with a smile, “I studied for a degree in law. In my third year, I realized it wasn’t my scene.”
Pursuing his path
Martins followed his heart back outdoors, and found work as safari guide. First he was a hunter, then a photographer on safari camps that involved no hunting. For close to 10 years, his “offices” were some of Africa’s wildest places, including the Okavango Delta, a World Heritage site in Botswana that’s home to rhinos, cheetahs and lions.
Two things came into sharp focus for him during that decade: the importance to the planet of those vast wilderness areas, and his purpose on said planet. After earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of Capetown, he launched the Cape Leopard Trust. A precursor to Living With Lions, that program has grown and thrived - after a shaky beginning.
Securing permission from the South African government to do his research proved less problematic, he found, than paying for it. Martins hocked many of his possessions to keep the leopard trust afloat. By March 2004, he’d sold his car, was crashing at his mother’s house in Capetown and hitchhiking the 100-plus miles to the Cederberg Wilderness Area to do his fieldwork.
Later that year, when a trek took him onto the estate of a landowner, he called the man to tell him, “I was hiking out in the middle of nowhere and I kinda ended up on your property.” The landowner had heard of him, it turned out, and wanted to know more about his pet project.
“I was like, yeah, whatever,” said Martins, who by then was down to his last 57 rand - less than $4 - and had begun to lose hope. But he sent an email to that man, Johan van der Westhuizen, who then asked Martins for a meeting.
Suspecting it was a waste of time, he borrowed his brother’s car, drove to north Capetown and sat down in the office of van der Westhuizen, who pushed a check for 15,000 rand - about $2,200 - across the desk to him. “He told me, ‘I really want you to carry on this work,’?” Martins recalled, “And I burst into tears.”
Four years later, a sixth-grade teacher named Liz Bond drove to the Cederberg wilderness to recharge after a draining week. Upon returning from a long hike the following day, she met the person other backpackers had referred to as “the Leopard Man.” This was Martins, who told her, “I’m sure I know you from somewhere.”
Bond’s initial reaction: “I thought, ‘That’s a pretty lame pickup line.’ But later we figured it out.” They’d been in an archaeology class together at the University of Capetown.