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Tom Lovejoy, prominent conservation biologist, dies at 80

Photo credit: Bill Laurance

Photo credit: Bill Laurance

  • Tom Lovejoy, a prominent and influential conservation biologist who helped catalyze a global movement to save life on Earth as we know it, has died. He was 80.
  • Lovejoy was known as a pioneer of modern conservation efforts, a passionate advocate for wildlife and wild places, and a big thinker who proposed daring and innovative ideas.
  • Lovejoy is credited with coining the term “biological diversity”, developing the concept of “debt-for-nature” swap programs, and being one of the earliest to sound the alarm about the global extinction crisis.
  • “Tom was a beloved icon in the conservation field: a mentor to many, a friend to all,” said conservation biologist and ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin. “He fought for biodiversity and against climate change through his ideas, writings, projects, initiatives and all he trained and inspired.”

Thomas E. Lovejoy III, a prominent and influential conservation biologist who helped catalyze a global movement to save the Amazon rainforest and served as an advisor to a wide range of global leaders on environmental matters, has died. He was 80.

Lovejoy was known as a pioneer of modern conservation efforts, a passionate advocate for wildlife and wild places, and a big thinker who proposed daring and innovative ideas to protect the planet. He’s credited with coining the term “biological diversity”, developing the concept of “debt-for-nature” swap programs, and being one of the earliest to warn about the extent of species loss worldwide and elevate the issue of climate change as a global problem.

“Tom, more than anyone else in history, was responsible for putting Brazil, Amazonia, and the whole of South America on the international conservation agenda back in the 1970s and 1980s,” Russ Mittermeier, now chief conservation officer at Re:wild, who worked with Lovejoy for nearly 50 years, told Mongabay. “On top of that, he was among the very first to bring both biodiversity and climate change to the attention of the world, and was without a doubt the greatest of all in linking these two critical issues, something that he continued to do to the present day.”

Tom Lovejoy with Regina Luizao of INPA in the Amazon. Photo credit: William F. Laurance

Lovejoy led the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems project in the Amazon, which vastly improved biologists’ understanding of the impacts of habitat fragmentation and helped spark global concern about deforestation in the Amazon. He also helped transform the World Wildlife Fund from what was then a small NGO into a conservation behemoth working on issues on global scales and founded the public television series Nature, which informed and inspired countless people.

“In many ways he was the original ‘biopolitician’—a top-notch scientist who was just as comfortable rubbing shoulders with Prime Ministers and Senators as he was at being a muddy-kneed field biologist,” conservation biologist William F. Laurance, who joined the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems project in the late 1990s before the initiative was renamed the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), told Mongabay.

“The BDFFP evolved into one of the world’s most important field experiments and research stations and Tom used it as a platform to introduce politicians, dignitaries, and celebrities to the wonders of the Amazon rainforest.”

The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project looked at how habitat size and fragmentation affects forest health and ecology. Image credit: Maxar Technologies.

Lovejoy was a prolific writer whose work spanned papers published in prestigious academic journals to thought pieces that appeared in the world’s most read newspapers. He won many accolades, from the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement to the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award to the Blue Planet Prize.

Lovejoy worked in many capacities over the course of his six decade career in conservation, including serving as an advisor to multiple presidents, The World Bank, the United Nations Foundation, and numerous NGOs. He continued to be actively engaged with conservation through the final weeks of his life.

Tom Lovejoy. Photo credit: William F. Laurance

“Tom was a beloved icon in the conservation field: a mentor to many, a friend to all,” conservation biologist and ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team, told Mongabay. “He fought for biodiversity and against climate change through his ideas, writings, projects, initiatives and all he trained and inspired.”

This is a developing news story. Mongabay plans to publish a more detailed obituary on Tom Lovejoy at a later date.

Updates:

Related listening: Lovejoy appeared on Mongabay’s podcast in 2018 to discuss the most important environmental issues he felt we face as a society, listen here:

Selected New York Times pieces authored or co-authored by Tom Lovejoy