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Tom Lovejoy’s enduring legacy to the planet

  • Conservation biologist Tom Lovejoy died on Christmas day, 2021 at the age of 80.
  • Through his innovative ideas, leadership, and advocacy, Lovejoy leaves an enduring legacy to the field of conservation, writes Jeremy Hance.
  • “Among career highlights, Lovejoy published one of the first estimates of global extinction rates in 1980; invented the debt-for-nature swap, a massive boon to conservation areas the world over; he helped raise awareness of the plight of rainforests worldwide, and the Amazon in particular, during the 1980s during the peak save-the-rainforest movement; and he was an advisor to the PBS program, NATURE,” Hance writes.
  • “Lovejoy’s work lives on, not only through his fragments project in Brazil, but through years of advising and collaborating with other researchers, celebrities and world leaders, including four US presidents, to preserve the ecological integrity of our natural world.”

“All of a sudden, in one little lump, this project leaked into my mind,” Thomas Lovejoy recalled to writer David Quammen for the book The Song of the Dodo, about a night in December 1976 when he suddenly conceived what would become one of world’s most important ecological research projects: the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP).

Jargony title notwithstanding, the project would produce reams of data and research over decades about how tropical rainforests, particularly the Amazon, are responding to ongoing deforestation and degradation. It would discover that fragments of forest—even ones as large as a hundred hectares (247 acres)—will hemorrhage species over time, resulting in biodiversity loss and ecological weakening.

Bill Laurance, tropical ecologist at James Cook University, calls the Fragments Project, Thomas Lovejoy’s “greatest achievement.” And that’s out of many achievements.

Photo credit: Bill Laurance

Lovejoy died on Christmas day, just one day before E.O. Wilson’s death, another conservation and science great.

But Lovejoy’s work lives on, not only through his fragments project in Brazil, but through years of advising and collaborating with other researchers, celebrities and world leaders, including four US presidents, to preserve the ecological integrity of our natural world.

A Fragmental Problem

Dying within just days of one another, both E.O. Wilson and Lovejoy’s most important works are deeply linked. In 1967, Wilson and Robert MacArthur published a theory of biogeography that became a staple of ecology and conservation. It found that islands—whether islands at sea or islands of habitat surrounded by human areas—had an equilibrium of species. If species were lost, new ones could move in to take the niche. However, when humans shrink “islands”—as we do via deforestation and other impacts—the habitats shed species, leading to local extinctions.

By the 1970s, the theory led to a fierce debate among conservationists about whether it was better to have several small protected areas or one large protected area. Lovejoy decided the whole debate could do with more and better data.

He headed to Manaus, Brazil and thanks to a proclivity to quickly make allies, convince government officials, and find researchers to do the daily work, Lovejoy kickstarted the Fragments Project in 1979. He worked with landowners—who were deforesting what was then the borderlands of the hyderdiverse Amazon for cattle ranches—to maintain specific-sized fragments, so that they could be studied before and after deforestation.

The result has been more productive than anyone could have imagined. As of 2020, the project has resulted in nearly 800 papers and 150 graduate dissertations, spanning a mind-spinning variety of topics.

Google Earth images showing forest fragments in a deforested landscape in Rio Omerê, Rondônia, Brazil.

The main takeaway? It’s complicated. But Lovejoy and his innumerable colleagues’ have found that forest fragments rapidly lose some species, such as larger, roaming mammals and specialist birds. Over time, more specialist species vanished, from monkeys to shade-loving butterflies. The smaller fragments suffered worse, of course, but even the large fragments were not immune to loss and degradation.

The project also helped define the science of edge effects, which showed that the trees and plants near the edge of any forest fragment suffered quickly. Not evolved for the harsh winds, drought and constant sunshine of the surrounding cattle ranches, edge trees would topple and perish, leaving the fragment increasingly more vulnerable, like an army losing its vanguard over-and-over.

“Originally the project was planned to run for 20 years, but of course we had no real idea of rates of change in advance. It is clear that the 100-hectare plots will continue to change over hundreds of years,” Lovejoy told me in 2011.

Lovejoy believed that the project played a vital role in conservation even before results began trickling out. The very idea of studying habit fragments, he explained, pushed policymakers to think bigger and be more ambitious. It helped bring about the idea of wildlife corridors, areas where large-ranging mammals and birds could roam from one protected area to another.

Satellite image of forest islands in the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project in the Brazilian Amazon. Image credit: Maxar Technologies with processing by Mongabay.

“I just hope the BDFFP can keep going now that Tom won’t be there to guide and support it,” Laurance said.

Lovejoy founded the Amazon Biodiversity Center in 2018 to manage the project in the long-term.

Hands in lots of pies

“I have a tendency to start things and then get other people to do the follow-through,” Lovejoy admitted in The Song of the Dodo.

This doesn’t mean he abandoned projects, but rather he was an adept manager, finding the right talent to take over while he took on increasingly more roles. He was in many ways an idea’s person, a Jack-of-all-Trades, so long as those trades linked to his life goal of ecological conservation.

With a PhD from Yale, Lovejoy, would hold numerous leadership roles in conservation—nearly always in a bowtie—from the vice president at WWF-US in the 1980s to the Smithsonian Institution in the late 80s and 90s.

He served as chief biodiversity officer at the World Bank from 1999 to 2002, a perfect position for Lovejoy since he was one of the first people to employ the term, “biological diversity”, and an advocate for instilling the idea of what would become “biodiversity” into both the scientific and public spheres.

Lovejoy appeared on Mongabay’s podcast to discuss his biggest ideas, listen here.

Tom Lovejoy speaking at the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington D.C. Image credit: Earth Optimism Summit.

Among career highlights, Lovejoy published one of the first estimates of global extinction rates in 1980; invented the debt-for-nature swap, a massive boon to conservation areas the world over; he helped raise awareness of the plight of rainforests worldwide, and the Amazon in particular, during the 1980s during the peak save-the-rainforest movement; and he was an advisor to the PBS program, NATURE.

Always at the forefront, he was an early researcher in climate change biology, which studies how global climate change was impacting species. He argued passionately for forest conservation and restoration as key to tackling the climate emergency, and recently wrote in the New York Times, along with economist John Reid, that we must grant land rights to Indigenous People to aid the effort.

“Tom dealt with the tough issues around biological collapse forthrightly, but he maintained a lovely sense of humor, a sunny attitude, an erudite charm, and an unwavering work ethic dedicated to protecting and restoring Earth’s biodiversity,” Tim Kelly, the executive director at EarthHQ, says. Kelly is also a member of Mongabay’s board.

Political expert

Lovejoy loved to host. At the BDFFP, he hosted such luminaries as Al Gore, Tom Cruise, Olivia Newton-John, Jack Heinz, and Jaws novelist and ocean advocate Peter Benchley in hammocks and Amazonian fare at the site known as Camp 41.

“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,” says Laurance.

Outside of the Amazon rainforest, Lovejoy would also host elaborate dinner parties at his 17th Century farm house in Virginia.

See related: E.O. Wilson’s last dream

Sunrise over the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Tim Kelly describes such dinners as a kind of modern-day “salon” focused on conservation, biology and politics.

“He always assembled an eclectic and interesting group to debate, discuss, laugh and mourn the colossal folly of humanity’s destruction of nature,” Kelly says, remembering that the dinners also allowed guests to look through Lovejoy’s massive collection of original exploration writings going back hundreds of years.

Lovejoy provided an advisory role to three U.S. Presidents—Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton—as well as a number of world leaders.

The Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

“Tom worked at every level from the field to the halls of Congress and World Forums to save tropical nature. He took on big problems, well before others, in understanding the scope and naming biological diversity loss, in connecting climate change with its effects on nature and our world,” Patricia Wright, a conservation biologist at Stony Brook University said, adding “[He] is one of the great pioneers, a true political warrior, a champion of tropical rainforests. We are going to miss him so much.”

Last August, young student scientists began returning to the Fragments Project in Brazil after a year of remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In them, and in numerous protected areas around the world, and in our very understanding of life on Earth, Lovejoy’s legacy endures.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Lovejoy appeared on the show to discuss biodiversity, conservation, and his biggest ideas, listen here: