Norman Myers - an appreciation

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.

Norman Myers

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”[1]. 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. 


[1] See "Biodiversity Hotspots: a shortcut for a more complicated concept" in Global Ecology and Conservation, vol.3, January 2015



I first met Norman Myers in 1978 when I was running the IUCN/WWF Programme in Indonesia. Norman's reputation preceded him: his The Long African Day had an honored slot in my bookcase, and the many happy hours we spent discussing species conservation in Indonesia helped support his 1979 book, the Sinking Ark, that called the world’s attention to the extinction crisis; his claim that we were losing one species every day was considered alarmist by some but was later found to be modest. I was fortunate to be able to keep in touch with Norman over the coming decades after I moved to IUCN headquarters in 1980, where his multidisciplinary approach encouraged many of us to link conservation with other major issues, including deforestation (his “hamburger connection” dramatized the clearing of forests to graze cattle and brought this issue to public attention), economics (especially perverse subsidies), environmental security, and human population growth. His energetic travels, numerous consultancies with governments and international agencies, public presentations, and Visiting Professor appointments at a dozen leading universities (helping to build a steady flow of conservation biologists) made Norman one of the most influential figures in late 20th Century conservation. Norman was a great friend, always willing to discuss his new ideas and recommend action for IUCN. His enthusiasm and creativity will be missed, but his influence on conservation is eternal.

I was so sad to hear about Norman. He was a great friend, a constant source of inspiration, and undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers and what I call "visionary synthesizers" in the history of the conservation movement. His hotspots concept alone transformed conservation over the past three decades, and certainly has played a central role in my career. And the hotspots concept is just one of his many incredible contributions.

Russell A. Mittermeier, Ph.D.
Chief Conservation Officer; Global Wildlife Conservation and Chair, IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group

The arguments in Norman’s second book, The Sinking Ark, were compelling enough to persuade me to make a fundamental change of direction, from renewable energy to biodiversity conservation. Hard to believe now, but in the early 1980s many in the conservation movement were reluctant to engage in work on tropical forest loss, which they argued would never catch the public imagination. It is largely due to Norman’s ground-breaking report for the National Academy of Sciences that the issue gained momentum: the hundreds of protected areas in tropical forests are a legacy. Norman was invariably supportive when I was working for Friends of the Earth, looking at links between the European timber trade and tropical deforestation, at a time when neither tropical forest policy nor Friends of the Earth were considered respectable. Fortunately for us, Norman was never particularly bothered by being considered respectable. It is interesting to see that his thesis on environmental refugees is now getting serious consideration, some twenty years after its rather scornful reception by mainstream academia.

Nigel Dudley,
Equilibrium Research and IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas

How many thousands were inspired by Norman Myer's 'Sinking Ark'? I know I was. As a friend and colleague Norman helped ensure an Australian IUCN resolution at the 1984 General Assembly pass, calling for a new treaty on species conservation; see the launch of Australia's first endangered species program; and successfully promote a $100 million biodiversity hotspots initiative. Thanks Norman.

I did not know Dr Myers but his inspired proposal to prioritise areas for conservation by identifying "biodiversity hotspots" has led to numerous analyses to objectively identify where best to protect nature, and recently the International Panel on Climate Change has begun a report on the effects of climate change on biodiversity hotspots. Thank you Norman.

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