2021 had already earned a place in the pantheon of challenging trips around the sun, but then, just ahead of the final bell, it threw a pair of haymakers. In the span of two days, we lost two giants in the field of biodiversity conservation: Tom Lovejoy and E.O. Wilson.
In a world where people with little to no life experience claim titles like “viral content creator” and “influencer,” and sometimes both, these two spent their lives conducting research and creating the content that has largely defined—and influenced—modern wildlife conservation.
Obituaries for these great scientists and conservationists are many. Here are two:
The Washington Post on Tom Lovejoy
The New York Times on E.O. Wilson
I had the privilege to know both Tom and Ed. Tom is credited with the phrase “biological diversity” and both were fierce advocates for conserving it. Ed Wilson’s incredibly influential theory of island biogeography forms the scientific bedrock for the idea of preventing mass extinction and protecting biological diversity by conserving “half-earth” by 2050. This has spawned a “Campaign for Nature” around the interim goal of conserving 30 percent of nature by 2030 or “30 x 30”.
Both had early and impactful encounters with zoos. Tom attended Millbrook School, in New York, and worked at The Trevor Zoo under zoo founders Frank and Janet Trevor (Trevor Zoo has been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums since 1989). I visited Millbrook School and Trevor Zoo, with Tom, in 2018. He recounted how influential the zoo was in his life and career, noting that his first three weeks there were what “flipped my switch in life. I was going to be a biologist."
Tom’s Washington Post obituary also mentions this:
“Dr. Lovejoy told The Post he chose his boarding school, the Millbrook School in Dutchess County, N.Y., because it had a zoo. He said the school’s founder, Frank Trevor, inspired him to study biology, particularly birds, and ‘awakened me to the fascination of nature and biology’.”
Between the ages of 9 and 11, Ed lived in Washington, D.C., and he frequently commented on the impact of his boyhood journeys into Rock Creek Park and to the Smithsonian National Zoo, as he explained in the opening paragraph to a 2016 New York Times OpEd entitled, The Global Solution to Extinction:
“DURING the summer of 1940, I was an 11-year-old living with my family in a low-income apartment in Washington, D.C. We were within easy walking distance of the National Zoo and an adjacent strip of woodland in Rock Creek Park. I lived most of my days there, visiting exotic animals and collecting butterflies and other insects with a net that I had fashioned from a broom handle, coat hanger and cheesecloth. I read nature books, field guides and past volumes of National Geographic. I had already conceived then of a world of life awaiting me, bottomless in variety.”
These were two quite extraordinary people, who led exemplary lives and had exceptional influence and impact. They used it to help save the planet’s treasure trove of life. There really isn’t a way to calculate the effect of their lives’ work or the gravity of their deaths, but both are enormous.
We live amidst a sixth mass extinction. News is ever more bleak for non-human life, and Ed Wilson aptly said, “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom.”
Well, on consecutive days—December 25 and 26—wisdom has suffered a big hit.
We can be optimistic, however, because as we read their obituaries, tomorrow’s conservation leaders are now visiting modern zoos and aquariums—even more enlightening and awakening places than those that helped inspire these two giants.
Listen. Is that the sound of switches flipping?