Thomas E. Lovejoy (1941–2021)

Thomas E. Lovejoy, one of the world’s foremost conservation biologists, died on December 25, 2021 at the age of 80. Lovejoy was a renowned expert on biodiversity, rainforests and climate change who spent much of his career working in the Amazon. , the largest rainforest in the world. Our natural world, and those who study and protect it, will be poorer for its loss.

Lovejoy was born in New York in 1941, the only child of a prominent and politically connected family. An avid reader and lover of the outdoors, he attended Millbrook School, a private boarding school in upstate New York, largely because it had a zoo whose wildlife piqued his interest. Later, he enrolled at Yale University, earning his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1964 while working as a zoological assistant at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He then spent a sabbatical year exploring the Nile region of Nubia in East Africa before beginning a doctorate at Yale on the ecology of Amazon rainforest birds, which he completed in 1969.

After completing his doctorate, Lovejoy moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where he quickly became a new breed of scientist – a “biopolitician” who was equally comfortable rubbing shoulders with politicians, celebrities and billionaires. foreground that he was exploring ecosystems. as a muddy-knee field biologist. Over a career spanning half a century, Lovejoy has held senior positions with organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United Nations Foundation, among others. He has also served as environmental advisor to Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton and Chief Biodiversity Advisor to the World Bank, where he helped strengthen environmental safeguards for World Bank-funded projects.

Lovejoy was in every sense an international scientific leader. He made key contributions to President Carter’s campaign World Report 2000 which in 1980 raised urgent concerns about biodiversity loss, population growth and other environmental threats. He designed the first debt-for-nature swap (in which a cash-strapped country exchanges part of its external debt for a commitment to undertake environmental protection), an innovative financial tool that has so far mobilized more than a billion dollars for nature conservation in at least three dozen nations. He popularized – or, some say, coined – the iconic modern term “biodiversity.” Perhaps most notably, during her dynamic career, Lovejoy has served on numerous boards and advisory committees for scientific, academic, environmental, and philanthropic organizations. This has given him remarkable influence as well as personal connections to a long series of global players.


Of all of Lovejoy’s accomplishments, probably the closest and dearest to his heart was the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP) in the Central Amazon. Together with Brazilian colleagues, Lovejoy founded the BDFFP in 1979 to study how habitat fragmentation affects Amazonian birds, bats, trees, vines, insects and other elements of the biodiversity of rainforest. Today it is one of the largest and oldest ecological experiments in the world, spanning some 1000 km2. Along the way, the project has been a scientific and educational boon, producing nearly 800 technical publications, 180 student theses, and advanced training for more than 700 environmental professionals from across Latin America. The large study area of ​​the BDFFP also plays a key role in limiting deforestation associated with the rapid expansion of roads in the central Amazon.

Lovejoy and I met in 1996 when I was hired as a senior researcher at the BDFFP. At that time, part of the project’s annual funding came from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and Lovejoy occasionally clashed with the directors of the institute, who wanted him to share access to the many wealthy donors and philanthropists who had funded his work over the years. years. Lovejoy invariably refused, and the resulting clashes could be memorable. Those were the only times I’ve ever seen the normally buttoned-up Lovejoy lose his temper.

As a colleague, Lovejoy was charming, politically astute and brilliant. He was also a stylish dresser (after his death, Lovejoy’s daughters discovered he owned 362 bow ties). Among many personal accolades, Lovejoy received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2001, the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology (which he and I shared equally) in 2008, and the Blue Planet Prize in 2012. Last year he was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in recognition of his seminal contributions to the study of tropical ecosystems and his vital work with Brazilian tipping point researcher Carlos Nobre. of the Amazon.

Of all of Lovejoy’s countless accomplishments, I believe the BDFFP will be the most enduring and treasured. Over the past four decades, Lovejoy has used the project as a living laboratory to introduce countless politicians, artists, and wealthy patrons to the Amazon rainforest. Prominent visitors such as Al Gore, Tom Cruise and Walter Cronkite ended their tour of the study area with a stay at Camp 41, the project’s best-known field camp, where they spent a captivating evening with a caipirinha (a powerful Brazilian cocktail). in one hand and a plate of tambaqui (delicious Amazonian fish) in the other. It was a transformative experience for many visitors, who slept in hammocks under pristine night skies untarnished by the brilliance of civilization. Upon awakening, some were lucky enough to discover softball-sized footprints where a curious jaguar had recently passed through camp.

Will Lovejoy’s singular research project survive without him? In 2018, he helped found the Amazon Biodiversity Center, a non-governmental group in the United States dedicated to funding the BDFFP. The Smithsonian Institution will also provide ongoing support. Such funds are uncertain, however, without Lovejoy to spearhead the fundraising. In my opinion, the most important way to honor Tom Lovejoy is to ensure the long-term survival of his extraordinary legacy in the Amazon.

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