John A. Burton FLS (1944–2022): A far-sighted conservationist, naturalist and author

Passionate and inspiring, John Burton forged new approaches to conservation, mentored generations of young conservationists, and has left a legacy of over 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) saved for conservation worldwide.

Published on 21st June 2022

Paul Henderson and John Burton

Then-Vice President Professor Paul Henderson presents John A. Burton FLS with the John Spedan Lewis Medal in 2019, for his 'significant and innovative contribution to conservation'. (The Linnean Society of London)

The conservation world has recently lost a great friend and leader in John Andrew Burton. His enormous legacy includes 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) acres of land saved from destruction, now forming protected areas and habitat corridors around the world; conservation project successes achieved through multi-lateral and local on-the-ground partnerships; innovative ways of looking at carbon offsetting; and the foundation of a number of international and national conservation organisations which continue to prosper and grow including TRAFFIC (an international NGO monitoring wildlife trade, originally set up within the IUCN Species Survival Commission), the Bat Conservation Trust and, together with his wife Viv, co-founding the World Land Trust in 1989, of which he was Chief Executive Officer for 30 years.

Among his numerous awards, John received the John Spedan Lewis Medal awarded at the Linnean Society (2019) for 'making a significant and innovative contribution to conservation', received an award from the Government of India (2018) for his work on conserving elephants, and, in 2012, received an Honorary Doctorate from the University Campus Suffolk in honour of his work for international environmental organisations over three decades.

Always an avid naturalist, from an early age John regularly visited the Natural History Museum, London, later joining the staff as an Assistant Information Officer. From there he moved into a successful career as a natural history writer and journalist, a profession he maintained all his life, authoring or editing over 40 publications including field guides and seminal works on birds and endangered mammals, and regularly broadcasting on television and radio.

John Burton, in my view, was a truly wonderful man, more altruistic, more energetic, braver and more original than almost anyone I have known.

Sir David Attenborough OM GCMG CH FRS HonMLS

Building a lasting network for conservation

John Burton India c. Emma Beckett/WLT

John Burton on a WLT Supporters visit to India, Dec 2010. (Emma Beckett/WLT)

However, it is as a conservationist that John will be remembered most. His passion for the natural world led him to become one of its most effective defenders. His energy, his search for the truth, his direct approach, made him one of the most innovative conservationists of our time. He was also adventurous and prepared to take risks. His absolute lack of tolerance for any form of ‘greenwash’ or sluggish process often made for controversy, but he was usually right. He had an innate understanding of the natural world and its creatures and fought passionately to preserve them.

In the 1970s, there was a new urgency in conservation, with a much greater awareness of species and habitat loss, and a will to drive change. John became the first wildlife consultant to a new environmental organisation—Friends of the Earth. He became Executive Director of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (FFPS), now Fauna and Flora International (FFI), then based at the London Zoo. Following the launch of CITES in 1975, John was appointed Chairman of a small volunteer group of the IUCN Survival Service Commission (now the IUCN Species Survival Commission) to gather wildlife trade data. John set about gathering funds and assembling staff and founded TRAFFIC, an organisation that monitors the illegal trade in wildlife, becoming its first leader. Today TRAFFIC has over 170 staff working on five continents working towards the shared goal of reducing the pressure of unsustainable trade on natural biodiversity.

In 1980, John and Viv (Gledhill) were married. At the time Viv was working for Sir Peter Scott CH CBE, Founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and later went on to work for the eminent botanist Professor Grenville (Gren) Lucas OBE FLS and Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. For several years they commuted between London and Suffolk where they bought and restored a unique group of agricultural workers cottages, with John converting the small mission hall into his natural history library, with books floor to ceiling. Suffolk remained their home county from then on.

Programme for Belize was born from an initiative to save tropical forest in Belize, with Dr Gerard (Jerry) Bertrand, Executive President of Massachusetts Audubon Society, to protect the habitat of migrating bird species on their way to New England. The Burtons launched a fundraising campaign, raising US$50,000 within six weeks of launching. They developed the concept of ‘buy an acre’ to raise the funding needed which proved extremely popular, making it accessible to everyone with a tangible result. The funds received were made over directly to the local organisation partner, Programme for Belize, to enable them to fund the land purchase and to manage and to protect the habitat.

From this auspicious start, what became the incredibly successful World Land Trust (WLT) was formed in 1989, with support from Sir David Attenborough OM GCMG CH FRS HonMLS, Bill Oddie OBE and Gerald Durrell OBE and his wife Dr Lee Durrell MBE. WLT moved onto projects in Costa Rica, the Philippines, and Brazil, using the same funding model—raise the money, but fund local conservation partners to enable land purchase, provide protection through rangers, run nursery schemes for replanting degraded habitat, and offer training and workshops at both local and international levels.

Over the next 30 years WLT raised more than £50 million for conservation and became global in its outreach with projects across central and South America, Africa, India, and Malaysian Borneo as well as Europe (Armenia being a recent conservation passion of John’s). Funds have supported conservation organisations worldwide to protect critically threatened habitats and all the biodiversity that depends on it. Other innovations include the very effective carbon offsetting programme run by long-term associate and friend Roger Wilson (1949–2017), and highly-valued REDD+ training for NGO’s with the IUCN National Committee for the Netherlands (IUCN NL). I have had the privilege of serving as a WLT Council member three times and also working on a number of projects with John and Viv over the years. A highlight included an exhibit for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (2010) on ‘Saving the Atlantic Rainforest’ to highlight internationally this area of huge conservation concern, for which they won an RHS Chelsea gold medal and best Continuous Learning Exhibit and achieved their purpose of raising worldwide attention on the issue. Another was the free dissemination of species and conservation action plans to NGO’s in developing countries through a joint IUCN—International Union for Conservation of Nature, WLT and Natural History Book Service initiative—ensuring informed conservation practice was made available where it was most needed.

Other great gifts that John and Viv shared were of building lasting relationships with their conservation partners worldwide, bringing together likeminded people, and mentoring younger conservationists who have then gone on to build conservation careers of their own.

John and the Linnean Society

John Burton Spedan Lewis Medal

John after receiving the John Spedan Lewis Medal. (Sarah Barton/WLT)

John loved the Linnean Society, called it his ‘London home’ and used it regularly. He had a deep affection for the Library and served on the Library Committee, which later formed part of the Collections Committee. He has donated to the Society his full collection of IUCN Red List of Threatened Species publications, collected over 30 years, a valuable conservation archive. For the Linnaean Tercentenary, WLT and the Linnean Society partnered on an exhibition highlighting Linnaeus’s floral clock, winning the People’s Award. The Society was the preferred venue for WLT’s quarterly Board Meetings, as well as for John’s meet-ups with like-minded friends and associates. Many of the WLT’s biggest launch events were held at the Society, including the launch of the Borneo Rainforest Appeal (2013) to raise one million pounds to secure a wildlife corridor for Bornean orang-utans in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo; and the Big Cat Big Match Fortnight (2014) appeal for £500,000 to secure wildlife corridors, larger reserves and greater protection for big cats. Over the last two years, John has been one of the Society’s most energetic Fellows in the support of our Burlington House campaign.

In 2019, John retired as CEO of the WLT having successfully battled cancer. He continued to work on conservation projects close to his heart and as a consultant, particularly relating to his work with indigenous groups and anthropologists. He was a visiting Fellow in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and a member of the Anthropology and Environment Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Sadly the cancer recently returned, and John passed away on Biodiversity Day, 22 May 2022.

Our thoughts go out to Viv and their daughter Lola, his family, friends and all those sharing his loss.

Elaine Shaughnessy FLS

Linnean Society Council member, WLT Ambassador and past member of the WLT Council