Thomas Lovejoy: In memoriam, celebrating the godfather of biodiversity

The late National Geographic Explorer at Large and conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy spent more than 50 years of his life illuminating and protecting the Amazon.

Published 8 Apr 2022, 10:50 BST
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Photograph by Antonio Ribeiro/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Under a verdant canopy of flora and fauna, National Geographic Explorer at Large Thomas Lovejoy trekked the rainforest floor, exploring an array of biodiversity hotspots unique to the Amazon. 

As one of the world’s leading conservation biologists, Lovejoy worked at the intersection of science and environmental policy. In addition to coining the term “biological diversity” in 1980 alongside Edward O. Wilson, he is credited with bringing the issue of tropical deforestation to light. 

Lovejoy joined the National Geographic community in 1971 when he received a grant to study the ecology of rainforest birds in the Amazon. In 1980, he published one of the first estimates of global extinction rates.

Lovejoy was enthralled by the prospect of a life filled with scientific adventures. When he began work in the Amazon’s tropical wilderness, he felt right at home. As his fascination with the rainforest grew, his focus began to shift from scientific research to environmental conservation. 

“The Amazon is one of the most important places to work in the world,” Lovejoy said in a 2015 interview with the Amazon Biodiversity Centre. 

Lovejoy dedicated the latter decades of his career to preserving the Amazon in Brazil. While research remained an integral component of his work, his passion for illuminating the natural world became its core. 

"A giant in a bowtie," recalls fellow Explorer Rodrigo Medellín, "Tom's trademark smile and bowtie always preceded enormous contributions to conservation."

Lovejoy dedicated his life not just to conservation, but to making it visible to the rest of the world, inspiring people to take action.

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Photograph by Mark Thiessen

“Hundreds of thousands of species,” Lovejoy wrote, “will be irretrievably lost as their habitats vanish, especially in tropical forests.” 

He went on to serve as a member of the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration; the chair of the Big Cats Initiatives Grants Committee; and as a scientific advisor to the Society’s Chief Scientist and its Perpetual Planet expeditions. In 2019, he was selected as a National Geographic Explorer at Large, a title he held until his passing on December 25, 2021. 

"Tom was the consummate world citizen," remembers the Society's Chief Explorer Engagement Officer Alex Moen, "who artfully engaged and reconciled a wide spectrum of viewpoints, always inviting and celebrating others and never directing the spotlight towards himself. Eternally optimistic, he wielded his extraordinary convening power in support of the greater good. Tom exemplified what it means to be a National Geographic Explorer; he made us all better.”

Lovejoy’s dream for the future was “that all the countries of the Amazon will work together to manage the Amazon as a system.” His legacy will be carried on by those whose work he continues to inspire. 

Ensure a greener future by supporting the work of National Geographic Explorers who are illuminating and protecting the Amazon and Earth’s critical ecosystems. Donate to the nonprofit National Geographic Society today.

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