Mourning the Loss of a Conservation Titan

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by Jan Randall

On Christmas Day, the environmental community lost one of its champions. Thomas E. Lovejoy, a tireless advocate for conservation and nature, spent his life protecting biodiversity. He promoted science-based environmental policies and was ahead of his time with his recognition of the consequences of species’ loss from climate change.

Tom was a tropical ecologist who advocated for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. His first trip to the Amazon in 1965 for his Ph.D. research as a graduate student from Yale University began his over 50-year career to save the biodiversity of that vast area. Tom became the Founder and President of the non-profit Amazon Biodiversity Center, and in collaboration with Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), he participated in a large-scale experiment to study how deforestation affects the diversity of animal and plant species in the central Amazon. Tom recently warned that the Amazon was reaching its tipping point.

Tom was generous with his time and served on dozens of boards, advisory committees, and NGOs. He was employed in leadership roles in the World Wildlife Fund-US (1973-1987), the Smithsonian Institution (1987-2001), and the World Bank (1999-2002). In 1984, he invented “debt for nature” swaps, which allowed countries to trade forgiveness of a portion of their foreign debt for investments in conservation. He was also credited with being one of the first people to use the term, “biodiversity” and make it part of the public sphere. (Another titan of conservation science, E.O. Wilson—who sadly passed away in the same week—is also credited with helping to advance the term.)

At the time of Tom’s passing, he was a University Professor of Environment and Policy at George Mason University, a Senior Advisor to the President of the United Nations Foundation, and a Conservation Fellow at the National Geographic Society.

The Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) was fortunate to have Tom as a member of the ESC Scientific Advisory Committee (2016-2021). Tom’s agreement to become a member of the SAC, despite his busy schedule, was an example of his commitment to advancing the cause of biodiversity and endangered species. The SAC could always call on him for advice on biodiversity issues, and he participated in the selection of the Top 10 species on topics ranging from climate change to wildlife trafficking. Tom will be greatly missed by our scientists and by the conservation community, but his legacy in advancing conservation across the globe remains.

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Jan Randall is chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Endangered Species Coalition

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