One of the world’s leading conservation scientists, Dr Norman Myers, died on 20 October 2019 from dementia.
Norman Myers’ most well known scientific contribution was developing the concept of “biodiversity hotspots”. Hotspots were defined as (a) areas with exceptional concentrations of species with high levels of endemism, and (b) areas experiencing exceptional levels of threat. Protecting such areas offered a very effective means of conserving biodiversity.
Norman was born in Lancashire in 1934 to a poor family on a sheep farm but Norman’s mother ensured he had an education and after graduating from grammar school he studied modern languages at Oxford University.
Norman has described developing a great interest in African wildlife as a result of reading Rider Haggard as a boy. In 1958, during the last days of the British Empire, he joined the Colonial Service and took up a post in Kenya. After two or three years, Kenya became independent and Norman lost his job. He became a high school teacher and later a professional wildlife photographer. It was while photographing African wildlife that Norman became interested in species generally.
His studies on cheetah and leopard populations in Kenya earned him a PhD from University of California Berkeley in 1973.
Norman did not have a typical background to being a scientist and never held an academic appointment. Despite that, his scientific contributions have been outstandingly significant. But his contributions were not initially recognised. His first paper on ‘hotspots’ was rejected by mainstream ecology journals but was eventually published in 1988. He developed the concept further and his major paper, Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities, published with colleagues in Nature in 2000, has been cited more than 13,000 times.
In that paper, Myers et al. noted that 44% of all species of vascular plants and 35% of all species in four vertebrate groups are confined to 25 hotspots comprising only 1.4% of the land surface of the Earth.
Norman Myers was particularly interested in tropical forests. His paper, Threatened biotas: “hot spots” in tropical rainforests, published in Environmentalist 8 in 1988, noted that tropical forests contain at least half of all Earth’s species but are being depleted faster than any other biome. In that paper he refers to the tropical rainforests of Queensland as an example of a hot spot area in a developed country, citing ARCS publications on their conservation significance and noting that “despite the scientific value of the area, it continues to be logged, with support from the Queensland Government in the form of abundant subsidies.”
Norman Myers was among the first scientists to draw attention to the increasing rate of species extinctions. In 1979, he published a book The Sinking Ark, A New Look at the Problem of Disappearing Species. At the time, it was general considered that the rate of species extinction was one a year. Myers determined that it was more like one a day. For that he was attacked by the scientific community but was later proved to be right. Leading conservation scientist, Dr Peter Raven of Missouri Botanic Gardens and a friend of ARCS, told science writer Tim Radford “I don’t think Norman’s been seriously wrong on anything.”
Norman Myers produced a ground-breaking and highly influential report in 1980 on the loss of tropical rainforests for the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences.
Norman Myers was a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and advised FAO on the loss of tropical forests noting the impacts of the “displaced peasant or landless farmer” on deforestation. In 2008, Myers told FAO “What we do – or don’t do – in the next few decades, will determine the future of our planet for at least the next five million years”.
In 1987, ARCS arranged for Norman Myers to visit Brisbane and he gave a talk at an ARCS meeting to a capacity audience in Brisbane City Hall. This event was a peak in our public campaign to protect the rainforests of Northeast Queensland — the Wet Tropics.
Over his lifetime. Norman Myers received many honours. He was appointed foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences, named by Time magazine as one of its Heroes of the Environment and made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George by the British Government. In 1992, he shared the prestigious Volvo Environment Prize with Peter Raven. He was also appointed distinguished or visiting professor at numerous universities around the world.
His contribution to biodiversity conservation will be sorely missed. He will forever live in our own hearts as a good friend and unstinting supporter.