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Remembering Tom Lovejoy

Remembering Tom Lovejoy: The "Godfather of Biodiversity"

By Russ Mittermeier on January 07, 2022   duration

Tom Lovejoy in the Amazon Forest
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He was a friend and mentor to countless individuals over his career and was one of the few who we can say truly “changed the course of conservation history”—in large part by changing the lives of people such as myself.

- Russ Mittermeier

On Christmas morning, in his delightful historic home in front of his beloved fireplace, surrounded by family members, one of conservation’s towering figures of the last half century, Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy, 80, passed away. Tom was a truly special person to many in conservation, myself included. Here I pay tribute to the powerful influence this remarkable man had on my life, as he had on the lives of so many others.

My first contact with Tom was a note that he sent me at the end of 1973, responding to a long letter that he found on his desk at World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF-US), when he started there as Vice President for Science. I had just completed an expedition to the Amazon, retracing the steps of the great 19th century explorer-naturalists Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, to look for rare and endangered monkeys like the very poorly known Uakaris and Bearded Sakis, and also to study turtles. I had handwritten a 20-page letter about this trip, making more than a dozen carbon copies, and had sent them to friends and supporters in the U.S. and Brazil. The letter that Tom found was not actually addressed to him, but rather to his immediate predecessor, but Tom read it and realized that he had found another kindred spirit in love with Amazonia. He replied immediately and said we should get in touch, which we eventually did.

Tom Lovejoy in the Rio de Janeiro Primate Center, ca. 1980.  From left, Russ Mittermeier, Celio Valle, Adelmar F. Coimba-Filho (founder of the Center) and Tom.
Tom Lovejoy in the Rio de Janeiro Primate Center, ca. 1980. From left, Russ Mittermeier, Celio Valle, Adelmar F. Coimba-Filho (founder of the Center) and Tom.

Tom and I first met in person in 1975, on the campus of Harvard University where I was a graduate student working on primates and reptiles in both the Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Department of Anthropology. We immediately had a strong connection and discussed what could be done for primates in Amazonia. However, as interested as I was in Amazonian primates, an earlier trip to the Atlantic Forest of Brazil had convinced me that my initial focus should be on the two dozen species of monkeys found in that heavily impacted region. We agreed that once I had finished my thesis, I should apply for a grant to do a large-scale survey of primates and protected areas of the Atlantic Forest.

At the time the norm was for recent Harvard Ph.Ds was to go straight into academia and eventually become tenured professors. The discipline of “conservation biology” did not yet exist. Tom got his Ph.D. from Yale, but went right into conservation, breaking the mold. This made it easier for me to contemplate working as a conservationist. In particular, as soon as I finished my Ph.D., Tom supported me to write the first-ever Global Strategy for Primate Conservation and put into practice my new position as Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. I did this as an employee of the Bronx Zoo (the New York Zoological Society), but funded by Tom through WWF-US. So in a real way Tom enabled me to become a professional conservationist, unconstrained by the limits of a career in academia.

Less than a year later, Tom and then President of WWF-US Russ Train (himself a great early leader of the environmental movement) created a Primate Program, put me in charge as Director, and even gave me the small grant mechanism called the Primate Action Fund. This decision changed my life forever, and I continued to work for WWF-US over the next decade, most of the time under Tom’s supervision.

Tom Lovejoy and friends on top of the Voltzberg Dome in central Suriname, 1995 (photo by R. A. Mittermeier)
Tom Lovejoy and friends on top of the Voltzberg Dome in central Suriname, 1995 (photo by R. A. Mittermeier)

I recount this here in some detail because it shows how strong an influence Tom had on my life. But I was just one of the many people that Tom helped in their careers, providing guidance, wisdom, perspective, and financial support. He was a friend and mentor to countless individuals over his career and was one of the few  who we can say truly “changed the course of conservation history”—in large part by changing the lives of people such as myself.

My Brazilian colleagues and I will always remember him as the person who really put Brazil, Amazonia, and eventually all of South America on the international conservation map. South America received little attention from the conservation world back in the 1960s and early 1970s at the birth of the modern conservation movement, but Tom changed that. In particular, he got WWF-US to focus attention on South and Central America, and especially on Brazil, and he continued to do that throughout his distinguished career, becoming a beloved figure in Brazilian conservation circles and continuing his strong involvement there until his last days.

Tom is widely credited with coming up with the term “biodiversity”, derived from “biological diversity”, in the early 1980s, and certainly became one of its major proponents over the years. It was a word that gave focus to all concerned about the vast variety of life on Earth. At the same time, he was one of the earliest scientists to really push the importance of climate change when it was nowhere near the level of popularity and visibility that it has today, and, most importantly, to link biodiversity and climate change, especially through the importance of tropical forests like Amazonia. This could in many ways be considered his most important contribution and led to a growing focus on what today we call “nature-based solutions.”

Ever concerned with the destruction, degradation and fragmentation of tropical forests, in 1978 Tom created the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems Project in an area to the north of the city of Manaus in the huge Brazilian state of Amazonas. Carried out in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazonia, based in Manaus, and with a host of Brazilian and international researchers, this project became the largest natural ecological experiment in history and changed the way we look at forest dynamics and especially fragmentation. Later changing its name to the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, it continues to the present day, continually refining our thinking about these amazing ecosystems. In particular, it shows rigorously that conservation areas needed to be large and intact if they are not to decline and lose species, now a paradigm for evidence-based conservation in the tropics. In 2018, Tom also created a U.S.-based NGO called the Amazon Biodiversity Center to ensure that this project continue in perpetuity. Our organization, Re:wild, is proud to be a one of the supporters of this very important project, before Re:wild launched in 2021, bringing together three decades of experience by Global Wildlife Conservation and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Tom and Brazilian friends in the forest, 1985.  Front left: Angelo Machado, Tom, Anthony Rylands, and in the back leaning on the tree, Celio Valle
Tom and Brazilian friends in the forest, 1985. Front left: Angelo Machado, Tom, Anthony Rylands, and in the back leaning on the tree, Celio Valle

One of the most important parts of this project was the site known as Camp 41, located 41 km north of Manaus in the middle of the forest of the project site. This small camp became a Mecca for influential people to learn about Amazonia firsthand, with Tom bringing hundreds of members of Congress, corporate executives, foundation heads, celebrities, and private donors to this Camp over the next four decades, changing the way they perceived tropical forests and converting many to the cause of conservation.

What is more, this project helped to train many conservation leaders, both Brazilian and international, among them Rob Bierregaard, Claude Gascon, and Rita Mesquita, each of whom led the project at different times in their impressive careers. This was just another way in which Tom touched the lives of so many.

This, together with the many dinners and Christmas parties that Tom hosted at Drover’s Rest, had huge impact on conservation. Having personally participated in dozens of these, I am certain that more conservation was achieved at Tom’s dinners than in all the rest of Washington, D.C. meetings combined. 

Another great accomplishment of Tom’s ever creative mind was the “debt-for-nature” concept, in which discounted debt in tropical countries could be purchased and converted to funds for conservation. Tom first came up with this concept in 1983, and it was first put into practice in a debt-for-nature swap by Conservation International in Bolivia in 1987. This almost immediately stimulated a huge number of other swaps and greatly increased the scale of conservation investment in the late 1980s and 1990s, and it continues to the present day. It is hard to calculate how many millions more this mechanism pumped into conservation over the ensuing decades, but I would conservatively estimate an increase of two orders of magnitude.

Tom was a friend and advisor to many influential people over the years, both in the USA and internationally, a list too long to cover here. Suffice it to say that they have ranged from major political figures like Al Gore, John Kerry, John Heinz, Tim Wirth and Bill Bradley, to renowned scientists such as Peter Raven and Paul Ehrlich, to celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford, to great media figures such as Tom Brokaw, Ben Bradlee and Walter Cronkite, to famous conservationists such as E. O. Wilson and Gerald and Lee Durrell, to several World Bank presidents, to great Brazilian conservation pioneers such as Paulo Nogueira Neto, Maria Tereza Jorge Padua, Israel Klabin, Jose Roberto Marinho, Ibsen de Gusmao Camara, Adelmar F. Coimbra-Filho, Celio Valle, Angelo Machado, Jose Pedro de Oliveira Costa, Fabio Feldmann, Braulio Dias, Roberto Cavalcanti, Gustavo Fonseca and Roberto Klabin.

Although Tom is most often associated with Brazil and Amazonia, it is perhaps less known that he also had a big impact in Australia. He visited many times, of his own accord and at the invitation of both governments and NGOs, and his scientific reputation gave him access to number federal environment ministers and Prime Ministers offices. Through these connections, facilitated by another very good friend, Michael Kennedy of the Humane Society International, he successfully influenced the development and implementation of national biodiversity policy and law, made public the linkages between climate change and biodiversity, directly advised the Commonwealth on which conservation projects to fund in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, and helped raise significant funds to conserve high biodiversity value land within Australia.

His list of other accomplishments, affiliations and board memberships are legendary in scope, and he served on dozens of boards from the biggest NGOs to those of small, often struggling start-ups. He knew his name lent instant credibility, and he was generous in allowing people to hitch their wagon to him. To mention just a few, he was Chairman of the Board of Wildlife Preservation Trust International, Coordinator of the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize, Trustee of the Millbrook School in New York (where he was a student, and much later influenced two of my children, Michael and Juliana, to attend as well), Principal Advisor to the “Nature” Series of Channel 13 in New York, Senior Scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, Chief Biodiversity Officer at the World Bank, President and later Biodiversity Chair at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, Board Member of Rainforest Trust, professor at George Mason University in northern Virginia, Chairman of the Board of IUCN-US, and longtime member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. His association with IUCN dates back to the 1970s, and he participated in many General Assemblies and World Conservation Congresses over the years.

Among the many awards that he received in his lifetime, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the Asahi Glass Foundation’s Blue Planet Prize are particularly noteworthy.

Tom at the Rio + 20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, receiving the Asahi Glass Foundation Blue Planet Prize, June, 2012.
Tom at the Rio + 20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, receiving the Asahi Glass Foundation Blue Planet Prize, June, 2012.

Tom is survived by his three daughters, Elizabeth Paige Lovejoy, Katherine Lovejoy Petty, and Anne Lovejoy Jenkins, and by six grandchildren. Every holiday he would send a delightful card in which he would be surrounded by his growing family and beaming his famous smile of good will to all. Tom was a kind gentle soul who would always be there for those lucky people in his wide circle of friends around the world. 

I feel privileged to have counted him as a dear friend for half a century and will miss him deeply. There will never again be anyone like Tom Lovejoy.

About the author

Russ Mittermeier

Dr. Russ Mittermeier is Re:wild’s Chief Conservation Officer. In this role, he leverages his extensive experience and network to protect wildlife and wildlands—enormous reservoirs of biodiversity and key components in preventing runaway climate change— particularly in biodiversity hotspots and critical wilderness areas. Mittermeier was previously with Conservation International, where he served as president from 1989 until 2014, and most recently as executive vice chair. He also chairs the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group.

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