Today Sir David celebrates his 90th birthday. For several generations of young naturalists in the English-speaking world, Sir David was THE voice of nature on TV and radio, a man who instilled his own sense of wonder about nature in countless listeners and viewers around the world, including me. Even at age 90 he is still passionate about nature, and not just as a spectator. He works tirelessly to protect nature, and as a patron of the World Land Trust he has been especially generous in lending his time to its work, and to EcoMinga as one of the World Land Trust’s partners.
I first met Sir David in London at a World Land Trust event at the auditorium of the Linnaean Society in London. The Linnaean Society has a long and central role in the history of biology; Darwin’s first presentation of the theory of evolution had been given at a Linnaean Society meeting. So this was an inspiring venue for me. Watching over us were famous large paintings of Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, and other scientific giants on the walls. Sir David gave a talk on the importance of WLT’s work on preserving habitat, and I gave a talk on the orchid evolutionary radiations that I had discovered in Ecuador, which the WLT and EcoMinga were trying to protect. We had just recently discovered a fancy new species of tree in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, and Darin Penneys and I named it after Sir David to honor his legacy. That evening I was very pleased to be able to present Sir David with a photograph of “his” tree, Blakea attenboroughii, as a token of our appreciation.
A few years later Sir David was kind enough to write a Forward to our book of reptiles and amphibians of the EcoMinga reserves and those of the Jocotoco Foundation (another WLT partner in Ecuador, with whom we work closely). This was quite a kind thing to do for us. He wrote:
“If you protect a patch of the natural world, you should know what lives in it…In some parts of the world making such a faunal list, while time-consuming, does not present too great a challenge for competent naturalists. In the English Midlands where I grew up, there were eleven species of amphibians and reptiles. But in Ecuador there are at least 822. The numbers alone are daunting. When you add to that the wildness and inaccessibility of the places where the researchers had to work, from the bleak misty slopes of the paramo down to the warm humid rainforests of the Amazon basin, the magnitude of the task they faced becomes truly alarming. This book lists the amphibians and reptiles that are found in eleven reserves belonging to Fundacion Jocotoco and three of the five on the eastern side of the Andes belonging to Fundacion Ecominga. A team from the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences over ten years has worked in them all, in some cases several times and often in difficult conditions. They have identified and described 339 species of which 20 are new to Ecuador and at least eight new to science. This remarkable book is the fruit of all that labour. Its value is immense for it will make it possible to check on the welfare of the creatures it lists as the years pass and the threats to their survival continue to increase….It is to be hoped that this remarkable book will set an example for successive volumes that will survey all the other major groups of animals for which these Jocotoco and Ecominga reserves are such a valuable refuge…”
The next time I met him was at the BAFTA theater in London, where the UK’s equivalent of the Academy Awards are given out. This was one of the most technologically advanced lecture venues in London, and I enjoyed it very much. The event on this particular evening was the celebration of the World Land Trust’s 25th anniversary in 2014. It was an intimate evening with Sir David as the main guest. Five WLT partners from around the globe, including me, gave shorter talks on our work. Sir David spoke eloquently of the changes in our conservation concept over the years, and of the role of the World Land Trust:
Last year Sir David once again stepped up to help the WLT and EcoMinga. He agreed to make an introductory film clip for a short WLT film by Jonny Lu about my orchid discoveries, and he agreed to speak at its screening in London along with me. It was a very unusual star-studded and paparazzi-filled evening, which I described in this post; the attention the event received was due almost entirely to Sir David’s presence, as everyone in the UK adores him and is eager to meet him.
I gave my orchid talk in front of the crowd, with Sir David standing facing me just three feet away, apparently listening intently. Initially I felt nervous telling natural history stories to the world’s most famous teller of natural history stories. But once I started, Sir David somehow made me feel right at home with his attentive look. That look told me he shared my wonder, and so it was easy to let it all out. It was a very special experience for me.
So, Sir David, thank you for your lifetime of sharing wonder, and thank you for your work to help us protect those wonders.
This is how he celebrated his birthday last year: