It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Norman Myers. His friend Adrian Phillips, Chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) between 1994 - 2000, reflects on his life and legacy.
Nairobi in the mid-1970s was in transition. Whilst its colonial past was still much in evidence, its emergence as a free independent state had begun. Many of the Europeans who had known pre-independence Kenya (which they pronounced with a long E) had already departed; others stayed on to enjoy the comforts of wealth amidst poverty, whilst complaining about the changes. But some made the transition with ease and were proud to be part of a country where Africans were taking charge. One of these was my friend Norman Myers, who died in October aged 85. His life was extraordinarily varied: a colonial administrator, a teacher, a writer and an advocate for conservation who achieved international fame, the recipient of numerous international awards - and an impressive marathon runner.
Norman arrived in Kenya as a District Officer in the Colonial Service in 1958. His academic background was in modern languages, but he fell in love with the nature and the people of savannah Africa. When I first met him, he had already made his name as the author of the Long African Day (published 1972), in which he told the story of Kenya’s wildlife though his own highly readable prose and his stunning photographs. He took time out to get a doctorate in environmental conservation at Berkeley in 1973, after which he applied his skills in a global context in The Sinking Ark (1979). Among a community of expatriate conservationists that made Kenya their home in the 1970s, he was perhaps the most effective communicator.
Norman and family moved back to Britain in the early 1980s, setting up home in Oxford. From there, he widened his international reputation as a writer on conservation and development. He explored a number of key themes like climate change, the worldwide loss of species, the loss of tropical forests, the perverse effect of subsidies and the threat that environmental degradation posed to security – in which he predicted the phenomenon of environmental refugees. He made this knowledge more widely accessible by editing the Gaia Atlas of Planet Management (1985). The messages he promoted thirty or more years ago have now, sadly, become all too familiar.
For us in WCPA, Norman’s most powerful contribution was the promotion of the theory of biodiversity hotspots. Today it seems no more than common-sense to give priority to saving the areas where there is the greatest concentration of biodiversity, and endemic species in particular, but in most countries protected area planning before the 1990s was far less systematic. Subjective judgements, opportunism and sheer chance were often the principal drivers in choosing where to locate protected areas. But Norman’s paper of 1988, in which he first used the term “hotspots” in the context of forest conservation, showed how conservation could be made a much more methodical exercise. In 2003 EO Wilson described this as “the most important contribution to conservation biology in the last century”. Norman had a unique facility for synthesising and explaining the work of scientists.
As we struggle to save what we can of the natural world in the face of multiple dangers, protected areas remain one of our most powerful tools. We need more of them; they need to be bigger, better protected and more joined up. But this approach must be applied using the knowledge that science has given us so that we deploy conservation resources where they will do most good. Norman Myer’s impressive legacy is that he helped develop and popularise one of the most effective tools we have for doing this.
 See "Biodiversity Hotspots: a shortcut for a more complicated concept" in Global Ecology and Conservation, vol.3, January 2015