A tribute to Lee Merriam Talbot (1930 – 2021)
IUCN is deeply saddened by the passing of its former Director General, Lee Merriam Talbot. A lifelong conservation champion, Lee is remembered in the personal tribute below by Russell Mittermeier, Chief Conservation Officer at Re:wild (formerly Global Wildlife Conservation) and Chair of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group.
Photo: IUCN Photo Library / © WWF / Michèle Dépraz
Photo: Jennifer Lewis
I was very sad this past week to learn of the passing, on April 27, of one of our greatest conservation pioneers and my very dear friend, Lee Merriam Talbot. I first met Lee when he was Director General of IUCN (1980-1982) and I was just starting as a member of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission Steering Committee. I was immediately impressed by his charm, his good nature, and the depth of his knowledge of conservation issues, and we struck up a friendship that lasted 40 years.
However, I already knew about Lee way before that first meeting, having read some of the ground-breaking publications from his early work in the 1950s in Kenya and Tanzania (then still Tanganyika) back when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College in the late 1960s. These important studies showed how the diverse array of native ungulate species used the available resources much more efficiently than cattle, and this work contributed significantly to the creation of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve.
Over the years, he and his wife Marty spent long periods of time assessing the status of species in many parts of Africa and Asia, again contributing to the creation of protected areas as diverse as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and India’s Gir National Park, the home of the Asiatic lion. Most recently he and Marty dedicated a lot of time working in Laos, continuing to do active field work well into their 80s.
Aside from his role as an IUCN Director General, Lee had many other major impacts in the early days of conservation in the latter half of the 20th century. During his time as a senior US Government official, he was a primary architect of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and played very important roles in the adoption of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.
He served as Senior Scientist and Director of International Affairs of the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter. Another little-known fact is that he ran the Office of Ecology for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. from 1965 to 1968, which provided support for a number of early researchers. In the last phase of his career, he taught Environmental Science and Policy and advised graduate students at George Mason University in northern Virginia, a post that he occupied for 29 years.
His publications include more than 300 scientific and popular articles and 17 books. His first book, published in the UK in 1960, was entitled “A Look at Threatened Species,” and many of his later works also focused on endangered species and their role in broader conservation issues. His career took him and Marty to more than 130 countries across the world, often in the role of advisor to governments and NGOs.
What many in conservation might not know about Lee is that he also loved car racing, not the usual fare for people in our business. He was 18 when he entered his first professional race in 1948, and he was 87 when he raced for the last time in 2017, a remarkable racing career of 69 years! He not only competed in, but often won, races in many different kinds of vehicles and at a wide variety of venues.
When I look back at my long relationship with Lee, I am proudest of what we managed to put together on behalf of our close friend, and perhaps the most influential of all the early conservation pioneers, Dr. Harold Jefferson Coolidge. Both Lee and I had long relationships with Hal, who was one of the founders of IUCN, the first Chair of the Species Survival Commission, and a very early field researcher who carried out studies of primates and ungulates (especially the Kouprey) in Southeast Asia, gorillas in Africa, and many other species. Without Hal and his support as the principal fundraiser for IUCN from 1948 to the 1980s, IUCN might not have made it through its first few decades.
About 20 years ago, Lee and I became very concerned that Hal’s importance to IUCN was starting to be forgotten, and we conspired to create an award in his name. We both supported this financially and convinced IUCN that it was an absolute necessity, with the result that the Union created the Harold Jefferson Coolidge Memorial Medal and awarded it for the first time at the 2008 World Conservation Congress in Barcelona.
The first recipient was Dr. Robert Goodland, for decades the voice for conservation at the World Bank, followed by Dr. Wolfgang Burhenne, the long-time Chair of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, who received it at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea in 2012. The last medal was awarded at the 2016 Congress in Hawaii, and I was delighted and honored to be able to make the presentation to none other than Lee Merriam Talbot himself.
Lee was also the grandson of the renowned American zoologist C. Hart Merriam, considered by many to be “the Father of American mammalogy” and also a major figure in American ornithology. Among many other major contributions, Merriam was the founder of the U.S. Biological Survey, which eventually became the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This relationship is reflected in Lee’s middle name and also in the middle name of his son Rusty and grandson Jack.
One of Lee’s sons, Rusty, described him in his obituary for the Explorer’s Club Washington Group as “a truly towering figure… an amalgamation of the best aspects of John Muir, Ernest Hemingway, and James Bond, but .… humbler and, arguably, more influential than any of these characters.” Another great conservation pioneer, Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy, when describing Lee’s career, said, “If you want to know why species like tigers and gorillas and rhinos and African elephants are still roaming the wild, here’s why…”. Lovejoy also said that it was hard to imagine a life that he didn’t touch. I can’t do better than that. All I can say is that he was a wonderful loyal friend for many, many years and that I, and the entire global conservation community, will miss him very much.
Lee was 90 at the time of his passing. He is survived by Marty, his wife of nearly 62 years, their sons Lawrence and Rusty, two grandchildren, Jack and Ryder, and his sister Zenaida Mott.
Russell A. Mittermeier, Chief Conservation Officer, Re:wild (formerly Global Wildlife Conservation); Chair, IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group; and Honorary Member, IUCN.
IUCN invites anyone who would like to pay tribute to Lee to add a few words in the comments below.