A Giant in Whale Conservation—A Giant for All Life on Earth
“As my time runs out, I am possessed with the hope that humans worldwide are smart enough and adaptable enough to put the saving of other species where it belongs: at the top of the list of our most important jobs. I believe that science can help us survive our folly.” Dr. Roger Payne, Time Magzine, June 5, 2023
The following tribute to Dr. Roger Payne, who died June 10, was issued today by the Wildlife Conservation Society:
Dr. Roger Payne, a giant in whale conservation, inspired generations of conservationists to never give up on saving every single species—on land and sea. Just five days before he died, Roger published an essay with the headline which read in part: “I Spent My Life Saving the Whales.”
In reality, it’s clear Roger spent his life saving all life on Earth.
During his life and for generations to come, Roger has and will certainly inspire conservationists across the world to develop the science needed to protect all forms of biodiversity and to develop the strategies needed to make us all feel the urgency to save all of nature.
Roger, along with his team including then-wife Katy Payne, is best known for discovering in 1967 that whales sing to each other. The whale sounds recorded for that research more than 50 years ago were turned into an album, “Songs of the Humpback Whale” in 1970. Sales of the album, the best-selling environmental album in history, launched the ‘Save the Whales’ movement which resulted in the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. That in turn, is credited with saving several whales species. Roger knew better than any of us that science was meant to inform policy, and it was also meant to motivate the masses behind saving nature.
Roger helped launch our global conservation program at WCS. He first came to the New York Zoological Society (NYZS) now the Wildlife Conservation Society as part of the Institute for Research in Animal Behavior (IRAB). A joint effort between the New York Zoological Society and Rockefeller University, the Institute included both field researchers and lab scientists.
The IRAB was the first non-governmental organization to employ a full-time field staff conducting long-term research. Chief field and behavioral studies conducted under IRAB's auspices included George Schaller’s studies of lions in the Serengeti, Thomas Struhsaker’s studies of primates in West Africa, and Roger Payne’s studies of whales. In 1972, IRAB was discontinued, and the experimentally oriented component remained administered by Rockefeller University, while the Center for Field Biology and Conservation, focusing on field research and wildlife conservation worldwide, was established as an NYZS department, with George Schaller as Coordinator. In 1978, both Schaller and Payne were awarded the Knight of the Golden Ark, given by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. In 1979, the Center merged with the NYZS Department of Conservation to form a new department, which by 1980 was named the Animal Research and Conservation Center. George Schaller became Director of Conservation, while Thomas Struhsaker and Roger Payne continued their research under the auspices of the new department. In 1985, the department was renamed Wildlife Conservation International. By 1992, Conservation had become a full-fledged division of NYZS, named International Conservation until 2007, when the name was changed to Global Conservation. Today, this program has conservation project in more than 50 countries and works to protect more than 50 percent of the world’s known biodiversity. Roger’s pioneering work in bioacoustics continues today with WCS leading science and conservation to help protect numerous whales, dolphins and marine mammals around the world. WCS leads novel passive acoustic monitoring for large whales in the Atlantic, North Pacific (Arctic), and Indian Oceans and long-term studies of Southern right whales off Argentina are on-going with WCS and partners almost fifty years after Roger’s ground-breaking work.
All of us at WCS extend our condolences to Roger’s family and we will forever hold Roger’s memories and inspiration close.
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