Michael Douglas Gwynne



Dr Michael Gwynne, 23 November 1932–9 February 2012

Source: Reproduced courtesy of the United Nations Environment Programme

After a long illness, Michael Gwynne died in Nairobi on 9 February 2012.

Michael was a true disciple of the Enlightenment, an international biologist with a lasting belief in the value of carefully garnered empirical evidence to support arguments for conservation. Like Darwin and Dawkins, his love of rationality led him to atheism yet he retained a hope that humanity's slide into environmental destruction might be halted by scientific demonstration of ecological change. Whilst Director of the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) Programme Activity Centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), he travelled to most corners of the globe to inspire monitoring of nature following standardised procedures so that comparable measurements could be analysed rigorously. In this laudable but mammoth task of ensuring data quality and to avoid what he termed ‘windy generalisations’, he was only partially successful, environmental controversies continue in many ‘rationalities’ and discourses.

Although born in England in 1932, Michael spent his childhood in the United States returning to the austerity of post-war Britain in 1948 and continuing his school and undergraduate education in Edinburgh. With a first class honours degree in botany and zoology, he moved to Oxford for postgraduate study at Oriel and Balliol Colleges. His doctoral studies of the germination of seeds under anoxic conditions involved both laboratory experiments and fieldwork in bogs, some close to Oxford and some in the Scottish Highlands. His international outlook and love of adventure was fostered by participation in the Oxford University 1956 Expedition as the only biologist in the six-man expedition, led by Douglas Botting FRGS, to the island of Socotra off the Yemen coast, where the unusual and fascinating flora and fauna were inspirational. The report of the expedition noted that Michael ‘was constantly busy with his biological collections’ which were donated to the British Museum (Natural History).

After completing his doctorate, he travelled to Kenya in 1959 as a Nuffield Research Fellow in Tropical Ecology joining the Plant Physiology Division of the East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organisation to research crop production and rangeland utilisation. From 1967 to 1970, he led a 40-strong, multidisciplinary research team, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society as the South Turkana (North West Kenya) Expedition to study competitive food relationships between livestock and wildlife. Census and monitoring techniques were developed to produce the earliest quantitative land use survey in semi-arid northern Kenya. This benchmark survey of a distinctive habitat, before it underwent further anthropogenic and ecologic change, proved of lasting value and is recorded in an important and much cited observational classification of land use and ecology in East Africa (Pratt et al. 1977). Michael's involvement in this expedition led to him being awarded the 1972 Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

Michael's love of Kenya was established, along with his preference for applied science where there was a clear benefit to humanity. In 1973, he was appointed Project Manager of a Habitat Utilization Project funded by the United Nations Development Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. With the help of the Canadian International Development Agency his unit developed into the Kenya Rangeland and Ecological Monitoring Unit (KREMU), which pioneered the Kenya National Remote Sensing Programme.

The scope and ambition of Michael's ecological studies expanded enormously with growing awareness of the fragility of the biosphere. From 1978, he served in UNEP, establishing global monitoring and assessment of tropical forests, extension of deserts, pollution, soils, biodiversity and genetic resources. His responsibilities increased not only within UNEP but in developing cooperative programmes with other UN agencies and leading governmental and non-governmental organisations. His work was demanding, involving much travel and diplomatic efforts to enthuse policymakers to take seriously the many threats to habitats from both direct use by humanity and inadvertent destruction though pollution. In 1985, he launched the Global Resource Information Database (GRID) and in 1989 he became Director of GEMS and Assistant Executive Director of UNEP.

Throughout his time in Africa and travelling the world, he retained his links with academic life in the UK. He was a Fellow of Balliol College, University of Oxford, and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies in the University of Sussex (1968–80), returning on furloughs to refresh his knowledge of the rapidly growing and changing field of ecology. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society from 1959, and from 1989 to 1991, he served on its Council. He was also a Fellow of the Linnaean Society. He wrote many scientific papers and reports and, in 1997, edited and contributed to two volumes on the global environment (Brune et al. 1997). He served on the Editorial Boards of the East African Wildlife Journal and the International Journal of Monitoring and Assessment.

After retirement from UNEP in 1993, he returned to his lifelong love of birds by studying adaptation of the turacao to modified habitats.

He leaves his widow, Maureen, whom he married in 1965, two daughters and two grandchildren.