Defenders of Wildlife is mourning the loss of two titans in the conservation community—Dr. Edward O. Wilson and Dr. Thomas Lovejoy—both of whom passed away in late December. As pioneers in conservation biology, their leading-edge research charted the course for generations of scientists and conservationists to explore, understand and celebrate the interdependence of species, their habitats and sustainable coexistence.
Defenders remembers both of them for their numerous contributions to advancing the protection of biodiversity as well as their generosity in passing their vision, passion and knowledge on to all of us who care deeply about the planet.
To call them heroes seems incomplete or trite, especially given most people’s understanding of the term. With both these men, it truly cannot be overstated how special, how impactful and how incredibly humble they were. These trailblazers were respected by people far beyond the ranks of conservation biology—beyond the students they taught, the research they conducted, the speeches they delivered and their numerous publications that occupy many of our bookshelves. World leaders and policymakers respected and revered them, yet they always interacted as one of us; modest and kind despite their renown.
Dr. Edward O. Wilson
Dr. E.O. Wilson was one of the most distinguished and recognized American scientists in modern history. When he spoke up, people stopped and listened. He was an esteemed naturalist and academic who wrote hundreds of papers, published dozens of books and was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes. Ed, as I knew him, influenced countless students and academic colleagues alike as Professor, Emeritus in the Department of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.
Ed’s influence stretched far beyond Cambridge, MA, for he inspired students and followers within and outside of the field of conservation biology. He was tireless in his commitment to train, educate and inspire passion in the multiple generations of conservationists that are now carrying his torch forward. When Ed died, hundreds of his former students and admirers from around the world paid their respects on social media and wrote about his impact on their lives and careers.
Ed also served as an invaluable member of our Defenders’ community as one of our Science Advisors and worked with us to amplify efforts to enhance public understanding of the necessity to protect nature. He was Defenders’ first Legacy Award recipient at our 60th Anniversary dinner in 2007. Spending the evening by his side and listening to him address the spellbound audience reinforced for me what a one-of-a-kind “unicorn” he was and how fortunate I, as a biologist, was to have interacted with and learned from him over the years.
We will desperately miss his wonderful nature and his unwavering activism, keen insights and determined drive to understand, explain and, ultimately, preserve wildlife.
Dr. Thomas Lovejoy
Dr. Tom Lovejoy was also an important and influential conservation biology scientist. A tireless advocate for saving the planet, he was a noted ecologist, founder and president of the Amazon Biodiversity Center, senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and director of the Institute for a Sustainable Earth at George Mason University. Tom was also a good friend to me and so many others in the Defenders’ community.
The recipient of the Spirit of Defenders Award for Science in 2008, Tom frequently worked with our staff, having most recently collaborated on a BioScience journal article about the damage the border wall is doing to wildlife in the southwestern United States. He was a fierce defender of environmental laws and an unapologetic advocate for strengthening the science and policy frameworks to guide conservation decisions.
As a leading voice on the prevention of species extinction, Tom was instrumental in demonstrating how pollution, climate change and habitat destruction put species at risk around the planet. His passionate advocacy and unique observations helped millions appreciate all life on earth and, perhaps most importantly, showed how and why it must be protected. In his signature bowtie, he was the original ambassador for biodiversity and conservation biology in an increasingly politicized world.
Living Legacy: What They Taught Us
Ed and Tom were two naturalists who helped pioneer and elevate the field of conservation biology. They were also close friends and colleagues throughout much of their careers. They first met in the 1970s. Once, over lunch, the two came up with the term “biological diversity” and began to use it in their work. Later, the phrase became biodiversity, now the cornerstone of Defenders of Wildlife’s work.
Despite the escalating challenges facing biodiversity, they were always hopeful and undaunted. Tom liked to say, “optimism is the only option,” and believed there was still time to save the majority of the Amazon rainforest. Toward the end of his book “The Future of Life,” Ed wrote, “I believe we will choose wisely.”
Ed and Tom saw the bigger picture and the ripple effects people cause on this planet. I am so grateful for their contributions to our understanding of natural systems and human behavior as well as the solutions that are still within reach. Their strength and resolve are important reminders that we have work to do and we must continue as they would expect. The best way we can honor Ed and Tom is to follow in their footsteps; prove that optimism is the way. I believe that we can, we must and we will choose wisely.