Some Reflections on George Rabb

Prominent conservationist George Rabb, who chaired the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) from 1989 to 1996, passed away on 28 July. Close friend and colleague, and Chair of the Commission between 2008 and 2016 Simon Stuart reflects on George’s legacy for the conservation movement.

Dr George Rabb Photo: © IUCN

I first met George Rabb at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in October 1985 when I was interviewed by an intimidating panel of four men and one woman for the position of Species Programme Officer at IUCN headquarters in Gland, Switzerland. George was on the panel – I don’t remember much of the interview, except that I got the job, and IUCN has defined my career ever since. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu in September 2016, 31 years later, at the goodbye party to mark the end of my eight years as Species Survival Commission Chair, George gave the final speech and, in addition to saying some kind words about me, told those present: “I hired Simon!”, underlining his constant presence to me beginning with that 1985 interview.

George was already a dominant force on the SSC Steering Committee by the time I joined IUCN. I attended my first Steering Committee meeting in March 1986, and that was when I really started to get to know George, with the first of our many one-to-one in-depth conversations. His extraordinary intellect, his deep ethical commitment to conservation, and his breadth of interests marked him as an influential force to be reckoned with. Soon after, Wayne King resigned as the SSC Deputy Chair, and George was appointed to take his place. When Gren Lucas resigned as SSC Chair in August 1989, George became Chair, and served until 1996.

George assumed his leadership of the SSC while Martin Holdgate was Director General of IUCN. The two men were similar in some respects – very sharp intellects, huge knowledge and commitment, and also both to some extent a little traditional in their mannerisms. They clearly had great respect for each other, and the SSC’s standing within the wider IUCN family grew enormously under George’s leadership. George brought about many changes during his time as SSC Chair. He brought many new and younger people from across the world on to the Steering Committee, improved its gender balance, and established many new Specialist Groups (SGs). Some of the most active SGs in SSC today, such as the Shark, Iguana and Invasive Species SGs, were established under George’s leadership.

George was not a typical leader. In many ways he was a shy and self-effacing man. He never sought to be the centre of attention and always gave great credit to others. But when a topic arose about which he cared passionately, he could speak with passion and conviction. George endeared himself to SSC members across the globe by his straightforward, uncomplicated commitment to saving the world’s species and natural places. George became the unofficial leader of the zoo community within IUCN. He was a pioneer of the movement to bringing zoos more fully into conservation, working closely alongside the likes of Bill Conway, Ulysses Seal and David Jones. George used to go to the IUCN Congress having collected a large number of proxy votes from across the zoo community.

In the days before IUCN introduced electronic voting, George became famous for holding up a fistful of ballot papers whenever a vote was taken! But although he played the IUCN political game, George was never a politician in a scheming or tactical sense. He avoided other people’s controversies and was reluctant to trade votes to get his own way. George was more of a conviction politician, fighting for things he believed to be morally right and opposing things that he believed to be wrong. He also had courage. A classic example arose in 1995 when some of the US Government’s most important conservation funding mechanisms were under serious threat of being reduced, or even closed. George invited the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, to Brookfield Zoo, and the resulting meeting led to the Speaker adopting a pro-conservation stance and defending and saving these funding streams.

George knew that his effectiveness grew from surrounding himself with top-calibre people. Compared with any SSC Chair before him, George built up a significant support team at the Brookfield Zoo, composed of people such as Tim Sullivan, Susan Tressler, Elizabeth McCance, Mena Boulanger, Maria Sadowski and Craig Pugh. This was made possible by the generous support of the Chicago Zoological Society, a recognition of the global importance of the conservation work that George was leading. George and his team worked in seamless unity with the IUCN Secretariat Species Programme team that I was leading at the time. A few weeks after George took over as SSC Chair, the great Sir Peter Scott, also a former SSC Chair, passed away. Sir Peter’s friend, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, decided to give USD 1.5 million to SSC in Sir Peter’s honour. George and his team used the Sir Peter Scott Fund to provide highly strategic grants to SSC SGs focused especially on action planning, thus starting the process to make the SGs much more proactive, as we see today.

During his tenure as SSC Chair, George typically visited Switzerland at least twice a year on IUCN business. He often stayed with my family and me, and we enjoyed the evenings together, as he unwound from the affairs of IUCN by playing with my little daughter Claire. He often brought her soft toy animals from the Brookfield Zoo shop. I often wondered how much sadness George and Mary might have felt at not having children of their own. But as we all know, George was a very private person and avoided talking about himself.

George and I shared a love for classical music. He once took me and some of his SSC team to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. And he gave me many classical CDs over the years; one by Alfred Deller conducting choral music by Purcell stands out (George noted how a recording from the 1950s could have sound quality just as good as modern digital recordings if the producer knew how to position the microphones properly – an example of George’s broad interests and knowledge!). I also remember in one conversation when George and I had a meeting of minds in agreeing that the greatest piece of music ever written by a teenager is Mendelssohn’s Octet!

George pursued many conservation passions during his long life. He loved the okapi, and this led to an abiding interest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the research station at Epulu. When all the captive animals at the station were killed in 2012 during the terrible civil strife in that suffering country, George was heartbroken, but characteristically also took the initiative in generating a constructive response. He got a late emergency motion on the okapi submitted and adopted at the 2012 IUCN Congress, calling for urgent assistance for okapi conservation. The publication of the SSC Okapi Action Plan in 2016, a joint initiative with the DRC Government, followed on from this call.  George became great friends with the long-term head of conservation in the DRC, Dr Mankoto ma Mbaelele. It was heart-warming to witness them meeting each again at the IUCN Congress in 2012 after many years.

George was also heavily involved in the SSC Conservation Breeding SG. He was a close advisor and supporter of Ulie Seal, CBSG’s founding chair. Most significantly George recruited the leading population geneticist, Bob Lacy, to work at Brookfield Zoo, and made him available to the CBSG. Bob wrote the Population and Habitat Viability Analysis (PHVA) software, Vortex, which became the basis for the CBSG’s many PHVA workshops held in many parts of the world, and is still widely used today. Bob later became CBSG Chair following Ulie’s death.

George was also involved in other organizations. He was a board member of the Center for Humans and Nature, Defenders of Wildlife, and many others. He was a prime mover of the Chicago Wilderness initiative, showing his ability to focus on both the local and the global. His earlier natural history exploits have faded with time, but remain remarkable. For example, he discovered several species of salamander in Mexico in the 1950s, published a paper on wolf social behaviour in 1967, and was one of the last people to see Bachman’s warbler in the field. He had an abiding interest in environmental ethics and was heavily involved in the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law’s Ethics Specialist Group. He was a major contributor to the Draft International Covenant on Environment and Development. And in the past few years he was part of the movement to establish a “World Organization on the Environment”.

Despite all of these interests and achievements, George’s largest single contribution was to amphibian conservation. It is no exaggeration to say that George was the founder of the amphibian conservation movement. As noted above, George was already working on amphibians back in the 1950s. But things suddenly changed at the First World Herpetological Congress in 1989, when the alarm bell of unexplained and dramatic amphibian declines and extinctions taking place around the world was first sounded. This could have resulted in a shocked scientific world with no follow-up action. However, George had the vision and leadership to turn the alarm bell into a clarion call to mobilise action for amphibian conservation and research. As a direct result, the global amphibian conservation movement started to develop, focused on both understanding the science and the scale of the problem, and then working on conservation solutions.

The very first step was the formation of the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (DAPTF) within IUCN SSC, and everything followed from that. The DAPTF demonstrated conclusively that amphibian declines were real phenomena, and eventually the underlying cause of many of these declines, a fungal pathogen, was discovered. George was involved in all of the major steps that subsequently took place: the Global Amphibian Assessment in 2004 (which I was privileged to lead and showed the global extent of the crisis); the founding of Amphibian Ark in 2005 which started the mobilisation of zoos to give high priority to ex situ amphibian conservation; the Amphibian Conservation Summit in 2005 (and subsequent mini-summit in 2009); the transformation of the DAPTF into the SSC Amphibian Specialist Group (2005), the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan (2006 and subsequently updated); and the founding of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (2010) which has become the umbrella body for amphibian conservation. Nobody else was involved at every stage in the way that George was. He was without doubt the founder and “spiritual” leader of the amphibian conservation movement. It is for this reason that an Amphibian Conservation Fund will soon be launched in George’s honour, something that George agreed to in his usual self-deprecatory manner shortly before his last illness.

What is less widely known is that as well as being the driving force behind the initial establishment of Amphibian Ark and the Amphibian Survival Alliance, he was also a major and faithful donor to both of them, but characteristically had no interest in this being widely known. Although George died knowing that the amphibian crisis was far from solved, I hope that he was able to draw some pleasure from the rapid growth of amphibian conservation globally as civil society and academia respond to the crisis. I believe that this would not have happened without George’s initial leadership.

Another remarkable characteristic of George was his ability to stay on top of the scientific literature, right up until the end. He was constantly looking forward to the next challenges, and always pushed the Amphibian Survival Alliance to be proactive and ready for the next change. In the last few months of his life he became a strong advocate of exploring the potential of new genetic technology to develop solutions in the fight against amphibian disease. As Phil Bishop wrote recently, he was always ahead of his time. While George was Director at Brookfield Zoo, his wife Mary worked in the zoo’s library. She systematically made photocopies of all the scientific papers that she thought he should be reading, and this enabled him to stay current.

Later on after his retirement from the zoo, Mary’s health started to deteriorate and George devoted more and more of his life to being her carer. As a result, he had much less time for his conservation activities. When she passed away he was devastated and I, along with many others, wondered how he would cope. But instead he threw himself headlong into a whole range of activities in all the organisations named above. He was perhaps the most faithful contributor to the monthly conference calls of the Amphibian Survival Alliance’s Global Council. He was scheduled to come to Canterbury in June this year to take part in the annual meeting of the Global Council but had to cancel. But when he did not show up to participate remotely, his close friend Anne Baker from Amphibian Ark and I knew that this was very uncharacteristic and that something was seriously wrong. Unfortunately we were right. Over the subsequent weeks, George’s faithful office team kept us updated. Sometimes we were more hopeful; other times not. When the news we were all dreading finally came there was much sadness all across the world from the thousands of people whose lives had been touched by George.

George was always a generous man and this showed itself in many ways. He would frequently send well-chosen scientific papers to his many acolytes to make sure that we were focusing on what he saw as the key issues. And whenever a group of people went out for a meal, there was an unstated and unnegotiable rule that George would pay! In 2009 the SSC Steering Committee decided to establish the George Rabb Award for Conservation Innovation. George immediately decided to fund the award at USD 5,000 per recipient. There have been four recipients to date: Bob Lacy; Resit Akcakaya; Penny Langhammer; and Mike Hoffmann.

Probably more people would describe George as their mentor than anyone else I can imagine. I am proud to be one of them. But strangely enough, I don’t think George ever set out to be an intentional mentor of anyone. He just became a mentor by his example, his ethics, his commitment, his constant challenging of us, and his kindness. George was not always easy on his mentees. He could be irascible and impatient at times, but it was all for the greater conservation course. Despite being a very private person, he became close to many of us. I certainly did not agree with him on everything, but on the fundamental conservation issues we were of one mind. It is hard to imagine life now without George. He is irreplaceable, but he also leaves a tremendous legacy.

Thank you George for being there for me every step of the way these past 32 years. I will miss you hugely but count myself as hugely blessed by having you as part of my life.

Work area: 


No one ever described Dr. George Rabb as charismatic. It is amazing that someone who was as shy as George could have had such an incredible impact, but his passion and vision inspired many to join in the battle to save the earth’s vanishing species and habitats. He was one of those rare people whose focus was never on himself, but on what needed to be done for conservation. Often operating behind-the-scenes, George encouraged, and frequently directed, others to tackle difficult conservation issues, always providing the knowledge and encouragement necessary to support their efforts. Those who knew George knew that behind what sometimes seemed to be a gruff exterior there was a kind, generous, and caring man with a heart of gold. Many have described him as a true gentleman and indeed he was.

George’s accomplishments are many and diverse. During his nearly 30 year tenure as Director of the Brookfield Zoo, he established the first zoo research department devoted to conservation, infused science into the practice of animal management, and integrated the concepts emerging from the developing discipline of conservation psychology into exhibit design. He was instrumental in the formation of the International Species Information System (now Species360), the Society for Conservation Biology, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums SSP program, and Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance of conservation partners. He was always a strong advocate for international cooperation and linking ex situ with in situ conservation – as evidenced by his support for collaboration across continents to strengthen okapi breeding programs and his support for the Okapi Conservation Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

From 1989 to 1996 he chaired the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He vigorously supported the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (now the Conservation Planning Specialist Group, CPSG), both in his advocacy for its ambitious mission and in his long-time personal support. He was an active board member of the Center for Humans and Nature, Chicago Wilderness, the Illinois State Museum, and the Defenders of Wildlife. Perhaps George’s biggest contribution was as founder and champion of the amphibian conservation movement. Recognizing the alarming rate of amphibian declines worldwide, as SSC chair he formed the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force. This led to the Global Amphibian Assessment in 2004, the formation of the SSC Amphibian Specialist Group (2005) and the Amphibian Ark (2006), the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan (2005), and in 2011 the founding of the Amphibian Survival Alliance. George remained involved every step of the way and many amphibian species persist today because of his efforts. We will miss him very much.

Thank you Simon. A truly eloquent and heartfelt tribute.

George chaired the SSC when I was in my first term as WCPA (then CNPPA) chair (1994-1996). He was a sort of shop steward for all six Commission chairs, and very good at it too – looked up to by all the other chairs. In Council meetings his contributions were always listened to. He was a truly decent  and gentle

person. While he was 100% committed to the cause that IUCN represents, and fearless and outspoken in Council when needed, he was also patient and polite as only the best of negotiators and  leaders can be.

I often thought how fortunate SSC members were to have him as their chair. He was a great advocate for species conservation and for parks – causes that lie at the core of IUCN’s mission . While he defended and supported the many, varied networks of experts that made up his own Commission, his respect for volunteer conservation experts extended to all the Commissions. Indeed he was a passionate defender of the idea that the six Commissions were – and must remain -  an essential feature of IUCN.

I  wish I had been to see him in Chicago after his time a SSC chair. And indeed I regret that I did not get to know him better, but Simon’s richly detailed tribute has helped me to understand the fullness of George’s career and life.

So thank you Simon from all of us: I would guess that very few people knew more than about a quarter of what you told us. As so often happens, it is only when someone dies that we learn all we should know about our departed colleague. We have now learnt a great deal about this good man and conservation leader. He will be much missed.

Adrian Phillips 

Started admiring George Rabb with the pages of 'Species'.
As a pioneer and innovator in SSC he will always remain alive with us.

My first meeting with George Rabb in June, 1960, was memorable and we became good friends, with an early shared passion for tropical salamanders. He was instrumental in my obtaining my first academic position at the University of Chicago in 1964. Even after I left for Berkeley in 1969, we remained friends and professional colleagues. When I became alarmed by amphibian declines in the 1980s I consulted George, and he attended the first workshop that I organized and ran sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences in Irvine, CA, in February, 1990. An outcome of that workshop was vastly increased activity on amphibians. I worked closely with George in the founding of the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (DAPTF), which would have been impossible without his strong leadership and support. Simon has recounted subsequent events from his perspective and I only will add that George stayed in touch with me and the amphibian community virtually to the end of his life. He played a critical role in recognition of the impact of a chytrid fungus, newly discovered in the late 1990s, on amphibians, and that has proven to be a key component of their decline. There is so much more to be said about George, but for now let us remember him as a stalwart proponent of wildlife, a wonderful and supportive person, and a fast and loyal friend.

I was only lucky to meet with George once, when he hosted two of my visiting Chinese colleagues and I at Brookfield Zoo in 2001. He came in on a Sunday, just to visit with us and talk about giant panda conservation. He made us feel welcome and included in his endeavors. He was sweet to stay in touch with me for years afterward, cheering me on in any conservation project I was lucky enough to be involved in. His presence and impact made a positive influence in my life and I am sad we have lost him.

I became involved in IUCN in 1979 when Peter Scott asked me to found the Tortoise Specialist Group (now Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group), Species Survival Commission. For ten years I chaired this group and dealt with the trade, conservation and ecology of these forty or so species. I had great help from many individuals including Gren Lucas and Simon Stuart when he joined in 1985 but I was struck by George Rabb who I met regularly given my close association with Gerald Durrell and Jersey Zoo, along with Bill Conway and many others. 1989 was a seminal year both for me and George. I directed the First World Congress of Herpetology which took 5 years out of my life, founded DICE (The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent), created the Herpetological Conservation Trust (now the Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Trust) and the journal 'Biodiversity and Conservation'. George played a significant role in helping me as did Simon and frankly without them I am not sure the Congress especially would have been the success it was but with some skillful management, helped by IUCN, and international cooperation we hosted 1600 people from nearly every country for a week - the largest meeting of herpetologists that had ever met. Delegates especially from eastern Europe arrived sometimes without funds and were helped by their fellow delegates, my American friends foremost. Many herpetologists had collaborated for decades but were never allowed to meet until then and fell on each other's shoulders in tears. Becoming Chair of SSC, George helped me directly, quickly and effectively in the same manner as he directed Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. He was a great conservationist and a great friend; a man of substance.

George was one of my most important mentors and definitely the model I have been looking at since our first meeting. I first met him in Rome, at my university, where I organized the meeting of the SSC to back to back the International Mammalogy Congress. I could not imagine, at the time, that that event would change my life as a conservationist. Soon after the meeting, George asked me to join the Steering Committee of SSC. I was overhelmed by what was, and has remained since, an incredible privilege. Before then, I knew George's name because, in 1967, he had written one of the first papers on wolf social behaviour, my main research interest. We often jocked about that lonely publication on wolves in George's long list of writings. Working with him was easy, terribly easy, and I became addicted to his style of leadership, clarity of minds, effectiveness of his interventions, immense passion and determination for conservation. I often thought he could lead a group or a meeting only with the way is was looking at people, most often smiling but also serious, always listening all voices. I have seen him many times in the last decades as our friendship continued through the changes in our roles and work; but I always found the same smile, those few words that reassured me in my challenges in conservation, IUCN, wolves and whatever else. A sweet, charming person that has deeply changed the conservation world with grace.

I remember George very fondly as a genuinely thoughtful, intelligent and caring man. I also remember him with enormous gratitude. He was an extremely important early mentor for me. At a time when zoos were embarking on a serious role in conservation, George was a deep, moral and ethical thinker, with a strong respect for science. He became a magnet for my emerging interest in conservation because he made it possible to do what seemed to be the right things, many of which were really visionary! He did not baulk at difficult issues, and was more driven by important problems. Over the years, I learned a great deal from him. Early on, he was extremely open and welcoming to me and I felt hugely honoured to be welcomed into the ‘family’ that he fostered in the SSC. He encouraged and supported the work that Simon Stuart and I did on the Red List criteria. His support was unflinching and his guidance was essential. I think his modesty and unassuming manner mean that he is less widely appreciated than he should be. To me he remains a shining beacon for conservation in the real world, and I am so sorry that I cannot attend the memorial in person to pay tribute to him.

I had the great pleasure to meet George and Mary Rabb in 1974, and through their work at Brookfield Zoo was introduced to IUCN, George allowed me access to the Red Data Books maintained at the Brookfield library, already a unique resource at that time. He promoted my interest in nature conservation, and the following year encouraged me to apply to work at IUCN's Environmental Law Centre. Needless to say, that changed my life.

Throughout my conservation career, George provided words of advice and encouragement. He recognised the importance of international cooperation and I was greatly honoured when he presented me with a medal from Brookfield Zoo commemorating the launch of the Ramsar Convention and my designation as its first Secretary General. At a ceremony held at the Riverside Country Club, George spoke eloquently about the importance of international environmental law. Not at all the shy personage that many people remember.

Others have recalled George's many contributions to world conservation. Let me simply note that George provided the vision and the hard work to transform the Brookfield Zoo into a leading conservation institution. And he devoted this same vision and hard work to advance the work of SSC. George was always a very friendly and approachable, despite his heavy schedule. It is a honor to be be able to add my name to those praising and thanking George for his mentorship. A truly remarkable man.

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