The death of Simon Thirgood at the age of just 46 marks the loss of one of the UK’s leading ecologists and conservation biologists. Simon worked tirelessly to conduct and support ecological science that was useful, that made a difference, and that could be used to develop practical, scientifically informed environmental management strategies for a diverse range of conservation problems, both in the UK and overseas.
Simon was born in Liberia in 1962 and grew up in Vancouver, Canada, before moving to Scotland to study Zoology at the University of Aberdeen. Despite the distractions of the University’s Lairig Club (the UK’s most active mountaineering club) he graduated, and went on to complete a PhD at the University of Southampton with Rory Putman on how fallow deer choose their mates. A post-doctoral position at Cambridge preceded his move to the Game Conservancy Trust where, with his friend and colleague Steve Redpath, he studied the controversial interactions of moorland management for red grouse and birds of prey. In Britain, there is a long-standing conflict of interest between estate managers who wish to run profitable grouse shooting, and the conservation of raptors that prey on grouse. In their 1997 landmark publication Birds of Prey and Red Grouse, Simon and Steve demonstrated that raptors, particularly hen harriers, could reduce grouse numbers below those required for economically viable grouse shooting. However, they went on to show that properly conducted and appropriately articulated science could persuade even those with the most entrenched opinions to consider workable compromise solutions. The mix of science and policy, game-keepers and conservation biologists, theory and natural environments, was a perfect match to his character. Simon was particularly good at seeing the simple structure of complex-looking problems, and communicating the relevant science in straightforward ways to the people that mattered.
While at the Game Conservancy Trust, Simon met and married Karen Laurenson, a veterinary epidemiologist, and together they went on to form a formidable and highly complementary scientific partnership. In 2003, they moved with their two young daughters to the Serengeti to work with the Frankfurt Zoological Society. This was an ideal environment for his mixture of practical science, policy development and implementation. Responsible for a wide range of projects in Tanzania, Zambia and Ethiopia, Simon was also increasingly aware of the need for educational opportunities in countries facing the most acute conservation problems, and he became very active in his support of training for African scientists in particular. His organization of the first Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute symposium in 2007 and publication of the proceedings in the journal Conservation Biology was a highlight for science and conservation in Africa. So were his efforts to get a record number of African scientists to the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Durban (Tanzania had the fourth largest delegation). His efforts to promote Tanzanian conservation biology were recognized in a letter of commendation from the President, Jakaya Kikwete.
In 2005 the family returned to Scotland, with Simon taking a senior position at the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen. Here, he ran a large research group, renewed his interests in Scottish upland ecology, further developed his interests in African conservation, and established an extraordinarily broad network of collaborations across the UK. He set out to develop and lead a science programme infused with his values of pragmatism and policy relevance. Effective and inspiring science leadership is a rare skill and Simon became very good at it. Ultimately, he published more than 100 scientific papers, edited two books, and received honorary positions at the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen in recognition of the strong collaboratory links he developed with scientists at these institutions. As well as editing the Journal of Applied Ecology, he worked with the Journal of African Ecology, and Wildlife Biology.
Simon provided a compelling demonstration that the best science and the most effective conservation are performed together; that science is enriched by conservation, and conservation strengthened by science. This rare and important perspective, imbued in his collaborations and instilled in the scientists that he trained, will be sustained as an enduring legacy by those tackling the conservation challenges of the future.
Simon had a keen eye for nonsense, and was often less than stoic (and very entertaining) when forced to endure windy presentations of science he regarded as indulgent. However, with his many collaborators he was superb and friendship was central. His inputs were always positive and constructive, as he doggedly nudged the science to focus on the most useful and important questions, gently chiding those overly pre-occupied with a technical detail, and constantly injecting humour and encouragement into the process. He was a driven critic of the inexorable bureaucratization of science, and while irreverent about the political niceties of modern science, he was, at the same time, very effective in their practice. He was much amused by self-importance and prioritized his time to mentor younger scientists, with whom he was hugely popular. Simon supervised numerous doctoral students, even though he worked in University environments only briefly.
Simon lived and worked in some of the most spectacular ecosystems in the world, retaining always a great appreciation for the beauty of wild landscapes and the animals that live on them. He was an active outdoorsman, with a passion for climbing, particularly the rather masochistic form often practiced in Scotland. The history and traditions of Scottish mountaineering ran deep in him. There were few Munros he didn’t know well and he joyfully imparted his enthusiasm and experience to others. Later, the ravages of middle-age led him to more tranquil pursuits including canoeing and walking. Ultimately though, Simon was a family man, a loving husband, and wonderful father to his daughters Pippa and Katie. The family homes he and Karen created, whether tucked away on the banks of the Dee or nestled into the rocky outcrops of the Serengeti, were bastions for friends and colleagues alike, and legendary for the warmth and generosity of their entertaining hospitality.
Following the award of a large European grant to study sustainable hunting in Africa and Europe he embarked on a hectic schedule of overseas travel. The week he died he was visiting conservationists in Ethiopia to set up a project, funded by the UK Darwin initiative, to link monitoring of biodiversity by local communities with more scientific approaches. He was killed when a building in which he was staying collapsed during a sudden storm. His life was full of energy, humour and friendship. His death is a sudden and huge blow to UK and international conservation at a time when his unusual combination of skills is so desperately needed, and a terrible loss to the family he adored, and who can be so proud of him.