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Everyone was speaking rapidly in Malagasy, but none of the chatter meant anything to me. Desperate to understand what was happening, I kept asking my translator, Tiana, to tell me what they were saying, but in the fear and confusion, she was silent. I knew I had to understand what was happening. I barked, “Tiana! You have to talk to me! You have to tell me what they are saying!”

She struggled to compose herself. Finally, through big wet tears, she mumbled quietly, “They are saying you are going to die.”

This is a story of life filled with wonder, discovery, fun, inspiration, danger, adventure, tragedy, dead ends, epiphanies and new paths. And within is a scheme for our best chance at preserving the natural world around us.

It started with a love of Nature, born capturing bugs in his parents’ garden and honed by collecting expeditions for lizards and snakes in the backcountry of Southern California. Schooled in biology and avian reproduction, Bill Toone began his career at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, and found himself a central player in the famed California Condor Recovery Program.

Condors led to giant peccaries, to tropical butterflies to island iguanas. Projects and research work took Bill deep into the bush of Cameroon and Papua New Guinea, the desolate Chaco of Paraguay and mountain forests of central Mexico.

He’s been the parent to a baby gorilla, appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, trekked Costa Rican parks with Olivia Newton-John and suffered a near-fatal centipede bitten Madagascar. Toone built a butterfly farm in a remote fishing village, slept on cliff sides and unmapped jungle floors, an ingratiated himself with his provincial hosts by consuming their insects, homemade hooch and local drugs.

Dealing with poachers, bureaucrats, developers, homesteaders and farmers, Bill came to understand the incredibly complex web of pressures brought on by the exponential growth and needs of a human population that threaten wild species and their habitats. And he saw how so many well-intentioned efforts by major conservation organizations failed miserably, in spite of great effort and expenditure.

It was a little barefoot boy in a remote village in Madagascar, however, who provided the final, crucial lesson in Bill’s understanding of wildlife conservation. An understanding that effective and sustainable conservation can only be done with equal attention to the environment and the people who live there and that Nature is quite capable of managing itself, if we just concentrate on managing our own effects on it. It prompted Bill to leave the San Diego Zoo, after 32 years, and to found the organization ECOLIFE Conservation, focused on wildlife conservation that really works.

On the Wings of the Condor is Bill Toone’s extraordinary story of a passion for the natural world, and a series of amazing experiences that turned that devotion into environmental achievement, and finally to a new focus for conservation.


Evolutionary biology is the study of adaptation, change and progress in the unconscious pursuit of survival. A species may start primitive, and through exposure and chance become a better creature, capable of living and thriving in a changing environment and, if lucky, improving the prospects of itself, its progeny, and even its species.

This is the story of the evolution of my good friend Bill Toone.  From catcher-of-lizards to conservation visionary.  A man who has had the great fortune – and adept perspective – to experience and learn from a life spent in work around our world and focused on conservation projects both effective and, in some cases, misguided.

I hope that you will follow and derive some lesson from Bill’s fascinating journey, and that you will at some level employ his call to support, in any way you can, the conservation of our natural world.  We owe it to all those grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who need to catch lizards and observe the great wildebeest migration in our natural world.  Thanks, Bill, for providing example and incentive in pursuit of survival.

Tom Hanscom
Public Relations Manager, Zoological Society of San Diego (retired)
Chairman emeritus for ECOLIFE Conservation

About the Author

Bill Toone is an internationally recognized conservation biologist. In addition to his early work with the California condor, he has led biological transects and expeditions through the rainforests of Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Paraguay to name a few.

Bill is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and founder of ECOLIFE Conservation, a unique conservation/humanitarian non-profit.

Bill and his wife Sunni live in Escondido, California where they enjoy food, gardening, crafts, woodworking and their pets.

These stories are funny. Heartfelt. Scientific. I love it.

Anne Middleton

Anne Middleton

Executive Director at ECOLIFE Conservation