Simon Thirgood, 1962-2009

October 22, 2009

An ecologist who influenced conservation policy from the Scottish grouse moors to the Serengeti has died.

Simon Thirgood was born in Liberia on 6 December 1962 and brought up in Vancouver, where his father was professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia. He studied zoology at the University of Aberdeen, where he developed a passion for mountaineering and the outdoor life.

He worked as a volunteer researching mountain hares for the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Banchory, and supported himself by working on oil rigs. He then gained a PhD at the University of Southampton in 1990, completing his thesis on the mating strategies of fallow deer.

After briefly continuing his research at the University of Cambridge, Professor Thirgood switched track to work with the conservation organisation Birdlife International, and later took a job in Scotland with the Game Conservancy Trust. It was here that he first confronted the political dimensions of conservation work.

The book he co-authored with Steve Redpath, Birds of Prey and Red Grouse (1997), made clear that raptors such as hen harriers can reduce grouse populations to levels that make shooting impossible, raising a possible justification for culls.

As someone who later co-edited a collection of papers called People and Wildlife: Conflict or Co-existence? (2005), Professor Thirgood was a firm believer in pragmatism and diplomacy.

He argued that the interests of ecologists and estate managers could be reconciled by providing alternative food for hen harriers or by moving some of their chicks off the grouse moors.

After his marriage to Karen Laurenson, a veterinary epidemiologist who shared his love of Africa, the pair joined the Frankfurt Zoological Society, working together in the Serengeti National Park. Even when he returned to Aberdeen as head of ecology at the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in 2005, Professor Thirgood retained strong links with a number of African projects.

Steve Albon, senior scientist at the Macaulay Institute, remembers a man who was "very personable, very warm and considerate, and always took the time to help".

He added: "He was passionate about making a difference in the conservation world, particularly in Africa. He wanted to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity while accepting people's need to derive income from the land. And he was keen to train Africans to ensure that they had greater control over their own destiny."

Professor Thirgood died in Ethiopia on 30 August, when a storm destroyed the building where he was working. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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