Remembering three conservation giants

by Steve Burns, Chair of the Saola Foundation

January 18, 2022

It’s been some tough weeks recently for conservation. In a stretch of 9 days, three of wildlife conservation’s giants all passed away—Thomas Lovejoy, Richard Leakey and E.O. Wilson. These three men began their careers trying to understand how nature worked. Ed Wilson started by studying ants, Leakey as a safari guide and Lovejoy in the Amazon rain forest. While they may have studied different species and ecosystems, they all had one discovery in common—just how fragile nature is. As Wilson worked to understand islands, he uncovered the secret of just how easy it was for species to go extinct on them. While Lovejoy worked to understand the Amazon, he discovered that its immensity masked its delicacy. While Leakey started out studying humanity’s past, he shifted his focus to protecting humanity’s future.

These men weren’t just your ordinary wildlife conservationists. Lovejoy coined the term “biodiversity”, invented the debt-for-nature swap and started the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragmentation Project, which helped us understand what happens to the Amazon when it is carved up by people. Leakey discovered the incredibly important fossil remains of “Turkana boy”. He chaired the Kenyan Wildlife Service. He burned Kenya’s 12-ton stockpile of confiscated ivory to show the world that it was worthless unless attached to an elephant. Wilson could have spent a lifetime studying the complexities of ants, but instead he co-created the Theory of Island Biogeography, invented the discipline of social biology and invented the concept of “Half Earth.”

Saola Foundation Board Chair Steve Burns (left) with E.O. Wilson

As I reflect on the passing of these three brilliant scientists, what I will miss most is not their body of scientific work but rather their bravery and their leadership. They could have spent lives blissfully passing the years figuring out some new biological model, but their greatest discovery was realizing that the natural world needed more than that. What nature really needed was their voices, for them to get outside of their comfort zones and speak up. To ask the hard questions. To take a stand. To challenge us to do better. To be better.

Like many people, I consider these men to be some of my heroes. The couple of times I had the good fortune to meet with Ed Wilson were some of the best days of my life. I once got to take a 15-minute walk with him. If you had been flying a drone over our path, you would have only recorded one set of footprints because I was floating six inches off the ground. As I have watched them age, I have asked myself many times, “where will the next generation of conservation leaders come from? Who is going to take up the mantle once they are gone?”

This is why I am proud to serve on the Board of the Saola Foundation for Annamite Mountains Conservation. Over the last couple of years, as I have tried to explain to people what the Saola Foundation does, I often get a puzzled look in response. I often get a question that sounds something like this. “So you’re looking for a handful of animals that no one has seen in years in a rainforest the size of New Jersey?” Followed simply by the question “…why?”

The answer to that question is also simple. “Yes, because that is what nature needs from us.” Nature needs us to take the risk of finding one of its most elusive creations. Nature needs us to focus more attention on one its most diverse, yet undiscovered places, the Annamite Mountains. It needs us to inspire people around the world that nature isn’t lost, but rather that it can be found. What nature needs from us is to be brave.

For me, I no longer have to answer the question of where the next generation of conservation leaders will come from. I have the good fortune of working with them.

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