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Biodiversity Loses its Godfather – Thomas Lovejoy (1941‑2021)

Over Christmas weekend 2021, the planet lost two of its most precious moral leaders in Archbishop Desmond Tutu and conservationist Dr. Thomas Lovejoy.

For those of us dedicated to saving nature, the loss of a giant like Lovejoy is profound. Forty years ago, his insights led him to coin the phrase biological diversity, shortened in today’s efficiency-oriented world to the familiar word biodiversity.

A member of BirdLife’s Global Advisory Group, whose last meeting he joined just this November, Lovejoy wrote an Op-Ed that month in The New York Times. He said,  “Finding our way through the climate crisis also requires that we remember how our home planet works — as a linked biological and physical system with a beating, photosynthesizing, rainmaking heart of wild woods.”

With the recent Glasgow Climate COP finally recognising the inextricable link between nature and climate, two sides of the same coin if we are to successfully address both existential crises, Lovejoy’s legacy is again evident.

When she started her conservation career in the Ecuadorian Amazon, BirdLife’s CEO, Patricia Zurita, remembers the thrust of Lovejoy’s articles, papers and books on how how critical contiguous functional ecosystems are for maintaining life on earth. She speaks of the moment 20 years ago, having moved to Washington DC, of the excitement at meeting the man who became known as the “godfather of biodiversity”.  Finally, in 2016, Zurita became friends with Lovejoy through their mutual friends, Hank and Wendy Paulson, all birdwatching together on Little Saint Simon Island in Georgia, watching waders and counting migrating peregrine falcons. It was then she invited him to join BirdLife’s Global Advisory Group, which, as she put it  “Being the generous soul he was, especially with his time and with his wisdom, he gladly accepted.” 

Zurita said, “Losing Tom is painful.  It’s like losing a master, a guru, a mentor, someone you so admire. But it was not only about nature, Tom would also share his wisdom with me about parenting twins.  The conservation community has lost one of its pillars, one of its foundations. The Amazon has definitely lost one of his strongest advocates.  Tom was not only an extraordinary scientist, but a very clear thinker and an eloquent voice for nature.  His passion for the Amazon extended to the whole planet and he was able to put it in simple terms why we needed to protect the planet. Almost always wearing a bowtie and with an incredibly warm smile, Tom was a generous human being who believed in our ability to turn things around and the importance to work together and who would happily use his gravitas and knowledge to support us…we will honour the extraordinary legacy Tom left us, protecting our birds, which if we do so, can solve as he said, most of the environmental problems in the world.”

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy (1941-2021)

If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environment problems in the world.

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy
Patricia Zurita, BirdLife CEO and Tom Lovejoy

BirdLife’s Honorary President, Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado of Japan, shared her own sense of loss. “…a huge shock, I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He was a champion for global conservation efforts, as well as a warm, and caring person, and I consider myself lucky to have enjoyed his friendship over the years. He will be greatly missed as we enter a critical phase in our fight against climate change. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. He was such a gentle, warm and caring friend.”