Thomas E. Lovejoy

Tropical and Conservation Biologist


Archipelago of Anavilhanas at Amazon River. Brazil
Photo: Thomas Lovejoy

Photograph by Rob Bierregaard

Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy directed the World Wildlife Fund-US program from 1973 to 1987 and was responsible for its scientific, Western Hemisphere, and tropical forest orientation. From 1985 to 1987, he served as the Fund’s executive vice president. He is generally credited with having brought the tropical forest problem to the fore as a public issue, and is one of the main protagonists for the science and conservation of biological diversity. He was the first person to use the term biological diversity in 1980 and made the first projection of global extinction rates in the Global 2000 Report to the President that same year.

In the field of international conservation, Lovejoy is the originator of the innovative concept of debt-for-nature swaps. Many such swaps of international debt for conservation projects have been initiated in countries that include Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Philippines, Madagascar, Jamaica and Zambia. Over a billion dollars in conservation funds have already been made available with this mechanism.

Lovejoy is the founder of the public television series Nature, and for many years he served as principal advisor to the series. The program is the most popular long-term series on public television.

In 1987, Lovejoy was appointed assistant secretary for environmental and external affairs for the Smithsonian Institution. As assistant secretary he supervised the membership programs, the Smithsonian magazine, the Smithsonian Press, the Office of Government Relations, the Office of Development, the Office of Telecommunications, the Office of International Relations, and the Visitor Information and Reception Center. From 1994-2000, he served as counselor to the secretary for biodiversity and environmental affairs for the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1988, he served briefly on the White House Science Council. From 1989 to 1992 he served on the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST), and from 1992 to 1998 was co-chair for the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) under the Executive Office of the President’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). He is past president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, past chairman of the United States Man and Biosphere Program, and past president of the Society for Conservation Biology.

In 1993, Lovejoy was chosen by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to be the science advisor. Among many responsibilities, he participated in the coordination of a new agency called the National Biological Survey. He served as scientific advisor to the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme from 1994 to 1997.

In 1998, he became chief biodiversity advisor for the World Bank, as well as lead specialist for the environment for the Latin America region.

In 2001, Lovejoy became senior advisor to the president of the United Nations Foundation (created by Ted Turner and located in Washington, D.C.). He retains a link to the Smithsonian as research associate of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

A tropical biologist and conservation biologist, he has worked in the Amazon of Brazil since 1965. His Ph.D. thesis (1971) introduced the technique of banding to Brazil and identified patterns of community structure in the first major long-term study of birds in the Amazon.

Lovejoy conceived the idea for the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems project, also known as the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project. It is a joint research project of the Smithsonian Institution and Brazil’s National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA – Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia). This program, considered a centerpiece of the newly emerging discipline of conservation biology, is essentially a giant experiment designed to define the minimum size for national parks and biological reserves as well as management strategies for small areas. For this work and many conservation initiatives in Brazil, Lovejoy was decorated by the Brazilian government in 1988, becoming the first environmentalist to receive the Order of Rio Branco. In 1998, Brazil awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Scientific Merit. In April 2001, he received the John & Alice Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

He serves on numerous scientific and conservation boards and advisory groups, including: the New York Botanical Garden, Committee for the National Institute for the Environment, Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Wildlife Preservation Trust, Resources for the Future, and Woods Hole Research Center. He is chairman of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Linnaean Society of London, and the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Lovejoy is the author of numerous articles and is author or editor of five books, including: Key Environments: Amazonia, with G.T. Prance; Global Warming and Biological Diversity (Yale University Press), with R.L. Peters; and Ecology, Conservation and Management of Southeast Asian Rainforests (Yale University Press), with R.O. Bierregaard, Jr., C. Gascon, and R. Mesquita.


In Their Words

We still tend to think in the very short term and locally when in fact we are disturbing global systems and the way that the planet actually works. We need to consciously manage the planet.

—Thomas Lovejoy


  • lovejoy-climate-change.jpg

    Climate Change Endgame

    Lovejoy explains why leaders are missing the biggest issue: the deteriorating global environment and its ability to support us.

  • Image: Blue Planet logo

    Lovejoy Awarded Blue Planet Prize

    A delighted Lovejoy accepted the 21st annual Blue Planet Prize for his work in biodiversity and conservation.


Listen to Thomas Lovejoy

Hear an interview with Thomas Lovejoy on National Geographic Weekend.

  • 00:06:00 Thomas Lovejoy

    In the world of conservation, the concept of "biodiversity" has become a staple that must be protected, or else face a collapse that could affect nearly every species of animal in a region. While working in the Amazon region in the 1970's and 80's, National Geographic Fellow Dr. Thomas Lovejoy first coined the concept to describe the very diverse ecosystem. He was awarded the Blue Planet Prize in recognition of his life's work.

Road to Rio+20

Big Cats Initiative Project

  • Photo: Lion bares his teeth

    Cause an Uproar

    Big cats are quickly disappearing. Now is the time to act. Cause an uproar to save big cats today.

Our Explorers in Action

See Photos »

Meet All Our Explorers

  • NationalGeographic_1289095-flag.jpg

    Explorers A-Z

    At the heart of our explorers program is the quest for knowledge through exploration and the people who make it possible.

  • Photo: Michael Lombardi diving

    Explorers by Category

    Browse our different areas of exploration and discover the fascinating people behind the projects.