A Tribute to the Birdman of the Amazon, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy

by Lynne Cherry, YVFP Founder and Board Member

We at Young Voices for the Planet and I, on a personal level, mourn the loss of our dear friend, mentor, and colleague, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy.  Tom was a world-class scientist, honored and lauded for his innovative research on rainforest ecosystems. He was also a passionate conservationist dedicated to preserving Earth’s natural treasures.  In his books, scientific papers, hundreds of presentations he made at national and international conferences, and media interviews, Tom warned that we were destroying our planet’s life support systems before we had even a rudimentary understanding of how they fit together into complex ecosystems of plant, animal, and biosphere interactions.  

Tom coined the term “biological diversity”. He was a major force behind the establishment of the field of conservation biology.  For five decades, Tom worked in the rainforest and alerted the world to the threat of tropical deforestation and species extinctions. His seminal research on the Critical Size of Forest Fragments determined how large an area different species needed in order to survive when the forest was fragmented. 

Tom was also a wonderfully generous mentor and worked indefatigably behind the scenes to help ideas become reality. If he thought someone could help protect his beloved rainforests, he would invite them to his base camp in the Amazon. He was legendary for the number of movie stars, politicians, dignitaries, and writers like me who he introduced to the rainforest’s transcendent magic, beauty, and mystery. Visiting the rainforest reset our brains and reminded us of our primordial roots, when we were beings in relationship directly with the food we ate, the earth beneath our feet, the air we breathed, and the water that fell from the sky. 

Tom felt strongly about the importance of reaching young people and instilling in them a love of nature.  In fact, I first learned about the rainforest in an article he wrote in the November 1974 “Amazon Jungle Issue” of Ranger Rick Magazine. The article entitled “Bird Man of the Amazon” described what it was to be an ornithologist banding and studying birds (this was before the Amazon forests came to be known as ‘rainforests’).

Many times in my life I have experienced Tom’s generosity – and his commitment to educate children and the public about the importance of saving rainforests. In 1988, when I got the idea to write a book about the Amazon rainforest, Tom was Vice President of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and I went there to get his advice. He introduced me to the WWF staff scientists and asked them to help me with the research for my book, to share their photographs of the animals and plants in the rainforest, and to look over the illustrations for scientific accuracy. Tom then arranged an artist-in-residency, so I could illustrate the book at WWF. I incorporated many of the birds pictured in that “Birdman of the Amazon” article into my illustrations for The Great Kapok Tree.

Tom told me that I couldn’t illustrate the book without experiencing the ambience of the forest firsthand and, with the help of his colleagues Victor Bullen and Brian Boom, he facilitated my trip to Manaus and, from there, to Km 41, his famous base camp in the Amazon. Sitting alone in the forest, seeing and smelling, drawing and painting the plants and animals was indeed a life-changing experience. This was the kind of thing that Tom did, bringing together people and organizations in an effort to save his beloved Amazon.

 

Tom’s stewardship made The Great Kapok Tree a scientifically accurate and authentic children’s book. It became a New York Times best-selling book, was translated into many other languages, sold a million copies and, most importantly, is used in elementary classrooms to teach the importance of protecting and preserving the rainforest. As Tom moved from the Smithsonian, to the Heinz Foundation, to the United Nations Foundation, and to George Mason University, he proudly hung one of the original illustrations from the Great Kapok Tree on the wall behind his desk.

Twenty years later, Tom’s research, and his support for such organizations as the Woodwell Climate Research Center (previously the Woods Hole Research Center), helped the world understand the importance of the tropical rainforest in mitigating climate change — how deforestation changes the ability of the planet to sequester carbon and alters the water cycle that drives planetary weather. 

So, when photojournalist Gary Braasch and I had the idea of creating a non-profit to share youth success stories about fighting climate change, Tom was the first person we approached for advice. With excitement, he agreed that such an organization was just what we needed–not more doom and gloom, but hopeful stories about how to move forward. When, to my delight, Tom joined the Young Voices for the Planet (YVFP) advisory board, I showed him my precious Ranger Rick magazine, which I had kept for nearly 40 years. He laughed and signed it “To Lynne, with love from the Bird Man April 2010”. 

Tom connected YVFP to many people and organizations, such as National Geographic and the United Nations Foundations, and the YVFP films were streamed on their websites. National Geographic brought one of our young film stars on an expedition to the Arctic to see the effects of climate change firsthand. 

In my mind’s eye, I see Tom’s sparkling eyes and forever boyish smile, and I am thankful for this remarkable and exemplary human being. Generations of children will remember Dr. Thomas Lovejoy and carry on his legacy. As so many of us continue to work to protect Earth’s biodiversity, Tom’s spirit will be with us breaking trail through that magical misty rainforest.

Contributions can be made to the Thomas E. Lovejoy Endowed Fellowship for Biological Diversity.

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