Picture of the Amazon River delta

This visionary inspired Amazon conservation—and a new Nat Geo expedition

National Geographic and Rolex have announced a new plan to explore the Amazon Basin. It owes a great intellectual debt to one man: Tom Lovejoy.

At its delta in the Brazilian states of Pará and Amapá, the Amazon River delivers 20 percent of the world's river water to the sea.
Photograph by Victor Moriyama
This article was supported by Rolex, which is partnering with the National Geographic Society on science-based expeditions to explore, study, and document change in the planet's most unique regions.

Last week the National Geographic Society announced that its highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, will be awarded posthumously to Thomas E. Lovejoy, the American ecologist and visionary conservationist who long labored for the protection of the Amazon forest. It’s a fitting recognition of Lovejoy, who died at 80 on December 25, 2021. He was, among his many roles and honors, a National Geographic Explorer at Large and a longtime advisor to the Society. His commitment to saving the Amazon resonates in the books he left behind, the people he inspired—and in a program called the Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition, which the Society is launching today in partnership with Rolex.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, encompassing 1.4 billion acres of terra firma forest, seasonal wetlands, meandering rivers and tributaries, and perhaps 10 percent of Earth’s biological diversity. Thanks to prodigious rainfall, it carries 20 percent of the planet’s river water from the Andes to the Atlantic, and its vegetation delivers seven trillion gallons daily back into the sky, by transpiration from leaves. The new NGS-Rolex program will address aspects of this vast living complex by way of a series of scientific studies, funded for two years (as a start) and carried out by National Geographic Explorers from the region. The fieldwork begins today.

The program grew from a proposal by National Geographic Explorer and photographer Thomas Peschak to conduct a comprehensive photographic survey of the river, from the Andes to the sea, that would focus on the aquatic underworld rather than the more visible forest. The Society embraced Peschak’s storytelling vision and decided to pair it with scientific research. Peschak helped select the scientists and their projects. 

Tom Lovejoy, who had gotten his own first grant from the Society in 1971, gave time and energy and sage advice toward imagining the initiative into existence. Its purpose, illuminating the Amazon in ways that can make people care, was near the core of his own lifelong concerns, and its realization would have made him smile.

One big thing

He smiled often, this sage elder with a cherubic grin above his trademark bow tie. He was a tireless but calming man, generous, sweet-spirited, wicked smart, who loved jokes and believed in hope. He sat on uncountable boards and committees, almost all devoted to biodiversity science and conservation, and advised world leaders and bankers. He introduced the very term “biological diversity” to scientific discussion. And he advanced, more than anyone else except Edward O. Wilson—who died the day after Lovejoy did—a fundamental idea: Nature, to be diverse and functional and steady, must be large.

 There’s an adage, traceable to a fragment from the ancient Greek poet Archilocus: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” A fox is a wily predator, with a hundred ways to hunt, hide, and survive. The one big thing a hedgehog knows is defense: To protect itself against its enemies, including owls, badgers, and foxes, it rolls itself into a tight ball with its sharp quills splayed outward. Lovejoy also knew a big thing: the importance of bigness itself, for the Amazon and other ecosystems. That’s why I nicknamed him, 25 years ago in a book, the Hedgehog of the Amazon.

In 1973, two years after finishing a Ph.D. on the diversity and abundance of lower Amazonian birds, Lovejoy became program director of the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. It was a transitional time for the science of nature conservation; conservation biology did not yet exist as a recognized discipline. But the acorn from which that intellectual tree would grow had been planted, in the form of a small book with a drab yellow cover published by two young ecologists in 1967. One of those authors was Ed Wilson; the other was Robert H. MacArthur, a brilliant mathematical ecologist who died in 1972. Their book was The Theory of Island Biogeography. It opened the eyes of ecologists (and, eventually, of nonscientist conservationists) to the fact that islands lose biological diversity at especially high rates and, when the planet’s great ecosystems are broken up into island-like fragments by human incursion, those fragments lose their diversity too.

“Fragmentation hadn’t previously aroused much scientific interest or environmental concern, because fragments lost their species gradually,” Lovejoy wrote recently, with his coauthor John W. Reid, in his final book, Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet “The island comparison brought the issue into focus.”

MacArthur and Wilson’s little monograph triggered what Lovejoy and Reid recall as a “spirited argument” about conservation strategy. Given that funding and political capital were always finite, was it better to protect a few large areas or many small ones? Lovejoy realized, in his early years at WWF, that his organization needed an answer. They needed to know more about the consequences of habitat fragmentation. 

So, with his knowledge of the Amazon from his Ph.D. fieldwork, his fluency in ecology and in Portuguese, and his diplomatic aplomb, he imagined and lobbied into existence a grand natural experiment. Brazilian law at the time stipulated that landowners in the Amazon, if they wished to clear forest for cattle pastures or crops, had to leave 50 percent of their forest acreage standing. Lovejoy persuaded some of them, in an area north of the city of Manaus, to leave those remnants in the form of rectilinear patches of different sizes. They would become rainforest islands in a sea of sunbaked clear-cut. Then he and other scientists he recruited would study those forest islands to see how isolation and size of patch affected loss of diversity.

The monitoring began in 1979. The scientists soon found evidence of what the MacArthur-Wilson theory predicted: that islands of forest did lose species, and that smaller islands suffered losses faster and more severely than larger islands. If a forest patch was too small to support white-lipped peccaries, for example, then it would also lose at least four species of specialized frogs that live in peccary wallows. And so on. The subtraction of one species would have cascading effects upon others. This inexorable loss of diversity became known as ecosystem decay.

Encounter with a beetle

By the time I met Lovejoy, in the middle 1980s, his experiment was famous, at least in the literature of conservation science. I had picked up the thread, which ran from MacArthur and Wilson’s book to the argument over size to Lovejoy’s Amazon islands, and I wanted to write about it all. During a conference in Yellowstone National Park (which is itself part of an island ecosystem in the modern American West, as a few people then recognized), I buttonholed Lovejoy. We sat for some time in a bar—at Lake Lodge, as I recall—while I asked about the Amazon experiment and excitedly drew various-sized islands on a cocktail napkin, inviting him to confirm or correct my understanding. He smiled his cherubic smile. Let’s go to the Amazon, he said.

Several months later, we rendezvoused in the Miami airport and boarded a plane for Manaus. He was wearing a suit, fresh from his WWF work in Washington. When we reached Manaus International Airport, next morning, it was raining torrentially. Lovejoy stepped off the plane and unfurled a collapsible umbrella. He knew the drill.

Late one afternoon, after a few days in the forest around his Camp 41, a rustic field station 41 kilometers north of Manaus, we sat soaking our sweaty bodies in a small pool fed by a stream. Dark fell quickly, as it does in the tropics. Suddenly, to my amazement, an apparition occurred: a sizable orange glob of light zigzagging toward us through the understory. Are there UFOs in this jungle? I wondered. The orange light disappeared, then came zigging back, ten times too large and speedy to be a firefly. We were befuddled. Our jaws hung low and our imaginations ran high, until the thing stopped, in mid-air, and seemed to hover. I climbed out of the water and walked toward it with some trepidation, until I got close enough to see what it was: a two-inch-long beetle, with a luminescent organ, now stuck in one of the mist nets spread open to trap bats. It pulsed more brightly when I touched it, as though vehement at the indignity.

We gathered this beetle carefully into a Ziploc bag, and it sat on the camp table as we ate our dinner of fish stew. We talked about conservation politics and research funding and various other things, and eventually we turned our attention back to the beetle. I could see that it was an elater—in simple language, a click beetle—one of those elongated coleopterans hinged with a spring-like device between the thorax and the abdomen, so it could flip itself right-side up when it got overturned. It had two big oval eyespots on its thorax, glowing luminescent green and complementing the luminescent orange of its abdominal lantern. Quite an imposing creature. I asked Tom what species this was, expecting that it must figure famously in the local fauna. I thought he would answer off the top of his head.

“I’ve never seen it before,” he said.

So possibly a new species, unknown to science? I hadn’t heard about any entomological sampling at this field site. I assumed we would collect the beetle—that is, kill it and pin it or pickle it—so that some taxonomist in Manaus or in Washington could examine it, write a description, classify it, give it a scientific name, and slot it thereby into the archives of taxonomy, maybe, sometime. There are thousands of unknown beetles, already collected, awaiting this treatment from overworked taxonomists in the museums of the world. But no. Tom had no such inclination. After dinner, we let the beetle go.

This, I think, was Tom’s unspoken point: The little things are important as well as the big ones. An individual life is valuable, even the life of one beetle, and especially so when it’s still part of the great living whole.

Then came climate change

Decades passed. Lovejoy went from WWF-US to the Smithsonian Institution to being chief biodiversity advisor at the World Bank, then onward to other positions and roles. But his mission didn’t change: alerting the world, both citizenry and leadership, to the crisis of biodiversity loss and the human actions that drive it. Habitat destruction and fragmentation remained devastating and paramount, but to those he soon added—sooner than most people—the corrosive effects of climate change.

In 1992, he co-edited a book, Global Warming and Biodiversity, containing scientific papers from a symposium—probably the world’s first on that subject—that he had helped convene at the National Zoo in Washington. Two more books on the same subject would follow, with ecologist and climate scientist Lee Hannah as co-editor. All three were full of case studies and scary trends—but also policy recommendations. Despair and resignation were not options for Lovejoy. He loved nature too much to give up and watch it leach away.

But he was acutely aware that dire thresholds were being reached, and he never forgot how much the sheer size of an ecosystem matters. In 2019, he coauthored an important editorial with the Brazilian meteorologist Carlos Nobre, titled “Amazon Tipping Point: Last Chance for Action.” The Amazon forest makes its own weather, to a great degree, by way of its hydrological cycle, sending trillions of gallons of rainfall back into the air by evapotranspiration (plant breathing plus evaporation from all surfaces). The water is carried westward to the Andes on moving air masses and then cycled back to the forest as more rain. 

Reduce the rainforest beyond some minimum critical size—by cutting and burning and climate change that brings drying and a transition to grassland and then more fire—and that hydrological cycle will fail. The tipping point will be reached. The harsh reality, Lovejoy and Nobre wrote, is that “the precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction.” And when that forest goes, they added, further dire consequences would follow—consequences for humans as well as for frogs and peccaries and beetles.

This gloomy result could still be avoided, they wrote, but it would take “will and imagination” to tip the balance back. Tom Lovejoy was rich in both of those qualities. Now he’s gone, and it’s up to us. The new NGS-Rolex program is conceived to illuminate parts and aspects of the great ecosystem while considering how each contributes to the wholeness of the whole.

A basin-wide plan

Thiago Silva and colleagues will investigate how human-caused alterations, notably climate change and hydropower development, affect the function and diversity of seasonally flooded Amazon forests, where aquatic wildlife feed and breed beneath fruiting trees. João Campos-Silva (a Rolex Laureate) and Andressa Scabin will study how Amazonian aquatic megafauna—including the giant otter, the black caiman, the Amazon river dolphin, and the giant South American river turtle—are faring against heavy exploitation and changed habitat conditions throughout the basin. In partnership with local people, they'll also explore promising initiatives in community-based conservation. 

Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya and colleagues will track the habitat use of the Andean bear, the only mammal whose range spans from the cloud forest down to the foothill grasslands. On the other side of the continent, Angelo Bernardino and colleagues will monitor the health of the coastal Amazon mangroves, the world’s largest continuous mangrove belt, and assess how they store carbon and stabilize coastlines.

These studies and others, on topics that range from the weather of the high Andes to the effects of gold mining to the composition of soils under the mangroves, will advance the vital task of better understanding how the Amazon works. Each of them is just a small part of all the urgent work to be done. But the little things, as Tom had reminded me through the parable of the beetle, are important too.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of Explorers in the Amazon.  Learn more about the Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition.

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