IN MEMORIAM - FOUNDING BOARD MEMBER RICHARD D. ESTES, Ph.D
Profound sadness, deep love and affection, and tremendous respect fill our hearts as I share the news of Richard D. Estes’s passing. These are words I hoped never to write, even as the difference in our ages foretold that someday I would. Today is that day, and it is my solemn privilege to reflect on this wonderfully important person— this brilliantly insightful man, friend, mentor, and kindred spirit—thanks to whom my life has been so much richer and more purposeful. Others will write far better tributes and comprehensive histories than I possibly can, but none will be more heartfelt.
I first heard of Dick Estes while I was an idealistic student at Hopkins. Reading his detailed accounts of the behavior and ecology of large African herbivores was a delight, and this was my first naïve foray into the universe of wildlife conservation at a truly grand scale. At that time, I never imagined that many years later I would meet Dick, much less convince him to become a founding trustee of a fledgling, equally idealistic organization known as RSCF. Jessie Williams, thank you for bringing him into my life, and into the RSCF family, and for helping nurture our collective energies and passions for conservation.
As the penultimate naturalist, Dick captured the essence of a good scientist—endless curiosity blended with inexhaustible observational rigor and discipline. His was an unbridled intellect, unbounded by convention and stuffy academic theory, liberated by a unique harmony of insight and full grasp of his subjects. As a prodigious writer and unrivaled thinker, he articulated complex ideas, challenged paradigms, and openly shared his thoughts—providing generations of ecologists, behaviorists, and conservationists with an amazing breadth of understanding about African wildlife-- its glorious past, troubled present and very uncertain future.
I never got enough time to spend with Dick, but always cherished our time together. His willingness to openly engage, to discuss difficult topics with courage and passion, inspires me always. Even as evolutionary processes and their complex behavioral and ecological underpinnings might occupy his forebrain, Dick was ever mindful of the imperative to save the creatures and landscapes he studied and adored. This extraordinary dimension was evident to all who knew him, and his outspokenness about the inescapable, urgent application of good field science—saving nature—was one of the many things I admired about him. Every part of RSCF resonates with his philosophy that nature has intrinsic value.
Through his decades of arduous, painstaking, yet joyous fieldwork, Dick came to understand the ebb and flow of life perhaps better than anyone. Documenting the wildebeest’s great migration—one of nature’s most awe-inspiring life cycles—no doubt imbued Dick with a wisdom about nature’s holism and humankind’s integral role. I have grown to appreciate that, over time, this understanding necessarily evolved from caring, to stewardship, to responsibility. Dick and I discussed conservation philosophies, approaches, and methodologies endlessly, but we always grounded our ideas with the prerequisite that anything we try must actually help. The flagship-species concept, that leveraging the conservation of key species can protect priority biodiversity areas, is rooted in modern society’s indebtedness to wildlife and wild areas. Dick could convey the power and fullness of flagship-species conservation with incredible clarity, always drawing from real-world experiences and sound science. Most importantly, we shared the deeply personal part of the work—that helping save nature gives our own lives meaning.
I wish Dick could have seen the second return of the mountain bongo antelope to Kenya, now scheduled 18 years after the first repatriation in 2004. This incredible project emerged from brainstorming here in Loxahatchee in the early 1990s, captured in a conservation concept document in 1994. As the record-setting, longstanding chairman of the IUCN Antelope Specialist Group, Dick not only understood but helped set in motion the critical first steps toward the bongo’s recovery. Without him and his pioneering diplomacy and fortitude, I believe the bongo today might only be found in zoos. As we move toward the next chapter in the bongo-recovery story, I pledge RSCF’s commitment in Dick’s honor. In my heart, I know that all the magnificent, striped beasts here at the Conservatory hung their heads in sorrow today, but they, like me, are forever grateful.
Dick Estes was one of the truly dynamic people I have been fortunate to know, and I will miss him dearly and forever. I’ve no doubt that he grasped his mortality while he made the most of his life, driven by great determination and guided by integrity. Above all, he was a truly genuine person, authentic in every respect. His legacies in conservation and science—which include his amazing, indominable wife Runi and children Lyndon and Anna, who are writing the next chapter in the Estes conservation chronology— are now only momentarily eclipsed by our profound appreciation for his time on this Earth.
Go well, Dr. Estes.
Paul R. Reillo, RSCF Director