Tom Lovejoy, you will be dearly missed…

By Vance G. Martin

President, WILD Foundation

Sitting across from me at the dinner table in an elegant farmhouse in Northern Virginia was a smiling, youngish-looking man some 8-10 years my senior, with a bright bowtie.  It was 1984 and Ian Player – WILDs founder and legendary conservationist – had just arrived from Africa to join me in the earliest stages of organising the 4th World Wilderness Congress (Colorado, 1987). A member of our board had arranged a dinner party so that Ian and Tom Lovejoy could meet each other for the first time.  In my early 30’s and freshly returned to the United States (after 15 years abroad) to organise what would be the largest global conservation Congress ever held in the USA, I was taking notes.

Here is a short glimpse into Tom at his famous Camp 41 in the Amazon, filmed and directed three years ago by Jayme Dittmar.

It was a memorable evening, warm and friendly, as stories were exchanged of Tom’s pioneering work in the Amazon on forest fragmentation and species diversity, and Ian’s legendary global career, not the least of which was his initiative in South Africa that saved the white rhino from extinction. Tom invited us to his office the next day and we spoke for two hours of something called ‘conservation biology’ that had just recently emerged in our field, prompted in part by Tom’s coining of the phrase ‘biological diversity’ (later simply called ‘biodiversity’). I continued to take notes.

We engaged. Tom generously agreed to be involved in our planning, participated in the 4th WWC, and subsequently participated in several Congresses, most recently in 2009 at ‘WILD9’ in Mexico’s Yucatan. Fast forward to 2021 when, working with our partners in the Global Rewilding Alliance, we teamed-up with Professor Oswald Schmitz (Yale school of Environment) to bring global attention to his fascinating and important work to demonstrate the little-known, highly under-rated, and critically important role of wildlife in carbon mitigation. “Animating the Carbon Cycle” was launched through an open letter/brochure for circulation at the Climate COP in Glasgow, endorsed by 60 leading conservationists and scientists. We knew Tom was not well but of course we invited him to join. In typical style he responded: “Count me in. Long overdue.”

There is much to say about Tom, especially how, unusually for a scientist, as he daily pursued his research he also worked tirelessly and effectively with leaders in policy, business, philanthropy, the media, academia and the NGO sector, while also mentoring several subsequent generations of rising biologists.  


Professor Schmitz (‘Os’) collaborated with Tom and generously provided us with his perspective.

With the passing of Tom Lovejoy on December 25 the world lost a tireless scientist and leading spokesperson for the importance of public understanding of environmental science and its findings. He championed the importance of conserving the diversity of all living organisms in order to sustain vital ecosystem functions and services that support of all life on Earth.  And he graciously lent his expertise to local, national and international governments and non-government organisations to help them develop science-based environmental policy to conserve the world’s biota in ways that are just and respectful of human livelihoods and wellbeing.


Tom fulfilled a lifelong passion to study the diversity of species in tropical ecosystems, for which he is best known. His pioneering long-term experiments conducted in the Brazilian Amazon region mimicked tropical forest harvesting and land use change to measure how ensuing habitat fragmentation and habitat loss altered the abundance and diversity of resident bird and mammal species across landscapes. The work is exemplary for testing out and validating seminal ecological theory about drivers of landscape level pattern and process. These experiments, which were logistically challenging to establish, requiring the manipulation of 1000’s of acres of tropical forest land, set the gold standard for how to conduct real-world landscape-scale environmental analyses of ecological patterns and processes.  More importantly, the research infrastructure that he put in place in Brazil contributed to the training of countless scientists, many becoming established scientific leaders in tropical ecology and conservation in their own right.


Beyond the tropical research, Tom provided a pioneering scientific role leading a concerted effort to understand and accurately predict how global climate change—through its effects on habitats and the abilities of organisms to cope physiological—will alter patterns of species abundance and diversity globally. His seminal book on the topic “Global Warming and Biological Diversity” published by Yale University Press in 1992 was the impetus to move this research field forward. Subsequent work identified ways to leverage and manage species and ensuing ecosystem functions to sequester carbon into ecosystems and thereby help mitigate climate warming.  These ideas anticipated a modern push to identify nature-based climate solutions.


Tom’s research findings were always sobering. But he never became discouraged.  He was willing to see the bright side of things, to provide hopeful pictures for productive ways forward, in which he and his colleagues showed that by applying scientific knowhow and ingenuity and timely action we can sustain many ecosystems in support of human welfare and all of life on this planet. He knew that the trick to being successful was in gaining immediate societal interest and intentionality to proceed. This is where his commitment to enhance public understanding of science through his advisory roles informing policy-makers and through direct communication explaining science to a broader public made all the difference. 


Tom Lovejoy was that rare breed of scientist that had multifaceted capabilities. He not only had the capacity for deep technical scientific thinking and analysis, but also the ability to step back and distill that technical knowledge in ways that helped solve environmental problems. He was a genuine and caring colleague, and an excellent mentor to young scientists aspiring to assume their own careers at the nexus of scientific research and application. He made our world a better place in which to live.


 – Os Schmitz, Yale University, School of the Environment