William Laurance, Tropical Conservationist, Born (1957)

One of the world’s most prominent conservation biologists, Bill Laurance, was born this day in 1957.  Among the many voices heard today for saving our planet, his may be the most respected—and the most grounded in science.

William F. Laurance in 2006 (photo by Susan G. Laurance)

            William F. Laurance grew up on a ranch in the American west, where he immersed himself in nature.  In an interview, he said, “And I just loved animals, I raised mountain lions and bear cubs and I was a falconer, I had birds of prey and owls and ferrets and flying squirrels, just a whole menagerie that my long suffering parents put up with.”  He initially wanted to work in zoos, but became convinced that zoos were only a temporary answer to conservation—habitat protection was the sustainable answer.

            He received his undergraduate degree at Boise State University in Idaho, and was awarded a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley in 1989.  Since then he has performed research throughout the tropics, including Central and South America, Australia, Africa and Asia.  His research focuses on the relationships between biodiversity and habitat characteristics, particularly habitat fragmentation.  He told an interviewer, “As you probably know, about forty million acres of tropical forest are being destroyed every year. That is about eighty football fields a minute. And as a consequence we are seeing vast landscapes being denuded of forest. We are also seeing the original rain forest being chopped up into isolated islands or parcels.” (the interview doesn’t have a date, so his stated figure on acres lost may not be accurate today)

            Laurance now holds a distinguished faculty position at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.  He has published many books and hundreds of scientific and popular articles about the tropics and habitat conservation in particular.  Along the way, he has received a long list of awards and honors for his work, including receiving Australia’s Best Science Writing Award four times. 

Tropical forest fragmentation, as shown here with a logging road in Borneo, is a major concern for biodiversity conservation (photo by T. R. Shankar Raman)

            He believes that ecological scientists today must also be advocates for the resources they study.  To help that process, in 2013 he founded (and still directs) an organization called ALERT—the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & thinkers.  ALERT helps scientists get their message to journalists, decision-makers and the general public through various outlets, both written and electronic.  ALERT is designed to “help world-class researchers have a concerted, highly credible voice on key environmental issues.”

            Laurance finds it hard to be too optimistic about the state of our environment because human population continues to grow and habitat continues to be lost and fragmented.  “There have been some successes, there have been some new parks and new reserves that have been designated, but I think we have to be very vigilant. Right now, I feel like we have our fingers in the dike, and we are trying to stave off a potentially catastrophic flood of extinctions….It is going to take a lot of effort, a lot of dedication, and I think more resources than what we are currently seeing in order to really try and stave off a catastrophic situation in tropical ecosystems.”

References:

Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers.  About Us.  Available at:  http://alert-conservation.org/about-us.  Accessed February 5, 2020.

Annenberg Learner.  Interview with William F. Laurance.  Available at:  https://www.learner.org/series/the-habitable-planet-a-systems-approach-to-environmental-science/biodiversity-decline/interview-with-william-f-laurance/. Accessed February 5, 2020.

James Cook University.  Research Profile, Prof Bill Laurance.  Available at:  https://research.jcu.edu.au/portfolio/bill.laurance. Accessed February 5, 2020.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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