Leslie E. Sponsel was born to German American parents in Indianapolis, Indiana. He earned the B.A. in geology from Indiana University (1965), and the M.A. (1973) and Ph.D. (1981) in biological and cultural anthropology from Cornell University. Also he took summer courses at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the University of Oklahoma (practical field linguistics), New York University (primate behavior and ecology field school in Ethiopia), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (field methods in nutritional anthropology). At Cornell Sponsel's professors included Drs. Kenneth A.R. Kennedy (advisor), Barbara Harrisson, Louis Leakey, John Murra, William Stini, and Brooke Thomas.
Over the last four decades Sponsel has taught at seven universities in four countries including Indiana University, University of Sakaskatchewan (Saskatoon), Mount Royal College (Calgary), University of Massachusetts (Amherst), Cornell University, Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigations (Caracas), and Prince of Songkla University (Pattani, Thailand), the last two including as a Fulbright Fellow.
Currently Sponsel is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai'i where he has taught 22 different courses since 1981. There he was hired specifically to develop and direct the Ecological Anthropology Program. He teaches courses on ecological anthropology and biodiversity studies; human ecology and adaptation in tropical forest ecosystems; anthropology of religion, spiritual ecology, and sacred places; cultural change, applied anthropology, advocacy anthropology and human rights; and anthropological aspects of war studies and of peace studies. Twice Sponsel was recognized with an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Hawai`i. (See http://www.anthropology.hawaii.edu).
From 1974-1981, Sponsel made several field research trips to the Venezuelan Amazon to study the ecology of foraging with various indigenous groups including Sanema (northern subgroup of Yanomami), Curripaco, and Ye'kuana. He collaborated as a researcher in the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Project Number 1 based at San Carlos de Rio Negro and was a consultant for the indigenous project "Community-Based Biodiversity Conservation in Ye'kuana Territory, Amazonas, Venezuela."
Almost yearly since 1986 Sponsel has made field research trips to southern Thailand to collaborate with ecology colleagues at Prince of Songkla University (Pattani) in exploring various aspects of Buddhist and Muslim ecology as well as sacred places and biodiversity conservation. He returned to Thailand in the summer of 2005 to launch a new interdisciplinary team research project exploring the ecological relationships among Buddhist monks, sacred caves, bats, forests, and biodiversity conservation.
Over the years Sponsel's various projects have been supported by grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, UNESCO-Man and the Biosphere Programme, UN University in Tokyo, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and World Conservation Union (IUCN), among others.
Sponsel has published more than two dozen journal articles, three dozen book chapters, and 29 articles in seven different scientific encyclopedias. He is editor of two books: Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World (University of Arizona Press 1995); and Endangered Peoples of Southeast and East Asia: Struggles to Survive and Thrive (Greenwood Press 2000). In addition, he is principal co-editor of two other books: The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence (Lynne Rienner Publisher 1994), and Tropical Deforestation: The Human Dimension (Columbia University Press 1996). Among several of his book manuscripts in various stages of development are: Ecocide or Ecosanity?: Toward An Ecological Anthropology of Diversity; Natural Wisdom: Meditations on Buddhist Ecology; and Thailand: Essays on Cultural and Spiritual Ecology.
Sponsel’s main contributions in teaching and research have focused on exploring the interfaces within five arenas: (1) biological and cultural anthropology through ecology; (2) cultural anthropology and primatology through ethnoprimatology; (3) cultural anthropology on the one hand and on the other war studies, peace studies, and human rights; (4) religions and spiritualities on the one hand and on the other ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms, especially through Buddhist ecology; and (5) sacred places and biodiversity conservation, particularly through fieldwork in Thailand.
Since 1987, Sponsel has organized and chaired symposia every year, except 1989, at the American Anthropological Association, many sessions invited by AAA officials for their units. He was a founding member and Chair of the Commission for Human Rights (1992-1995) and subsequent permanent Committee for Human Rights (1996) of the AAA. (See Committee for Human Rights at: http://www.aaanet.org). From 1998 to the present, he has been serving on the Advisory Board of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard University. (See http://environment.harvard.edu/religion). Since 1999, he has been on the Editorial Board of the journal Social Justice, Anthropology, Peace and Human Rights of the Commission for Peace and Human Rights of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. From 2000-2005, Sponsel worked on the Asia Task Force for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2005) to which he contributed ten articles and also served as one of the Associate Editors. (See http://www.religionandnature.com).
Sponsel is a member of the following organizations: American Academy of Religion, American Anthropological Association, Anthropology and Environment Section (AAA), Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Association of Current Anthropology, Hawai`i Association of International Buddhists, International Network of Engaged Buddhists, International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Siam Society, Sigma Xi, Society for the Anthropology of Religion (AAA), Society for Latin American Anthropology (AAA), and Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA).
He is married to Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel who is from Thailand and works as an Assistant Professor at Chaminade University of Honolulu where she is Director of Gender Studies and of Buddhist Studies. They collaborate in research and publications on Buddhist ecology and environmentalism in general and in Thailand in particular.
Sponsel's hobbies include traveling to explore sacred places, hiking, trees, photography, art, classical music, and violin.
See the intellectual biography PowerPoint presentation under Photos on this homepage.
[Also see entry in Vered Amit, ed., 2004, Biographical Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology, New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 485-486].