Clive Marsh, 1951-2000

That most rare and precious kind of person: a truly successful rainforest conservationist.

Clive died in his prime at 49, after struggling with illness caused by encephalitis contracted in Laos. Since 1996 he had been working for the World Conservation Union (IUCN), advising the Lao Department of Forestry on conservation issues. These efforts focussed on biodiversity and ecosystem management, including policy, training, transfrontier co-operation, legislation, and ways to manage protected areas in collaboration with local people. They were focused on some of the least-known tropical forests in the world, in a country just emerging from the ravages of war. This complex job demanded supreme skills in combining the science and politics of conservation to achieve the objective of saving forests. He was doing it brilliantly, for Clive had been well-trained and his skills tempered by many years in Africa and Asia.


A passionate interest in biology was ignited at school and burned fiercely thereafter, carrying Clive to Uganda in 1971 for an undergraduate project on pied kingfishers, and to Kenya in 1972 to begin a doctoral study of red colobus monkeys on the Tana River. Supported by the New York Zoological Society, for four years he documented the ecology and behaviour of these animals. Meanwhile, with deepening knowledge and understanding of the Tana forest ecosystem, Clive realized that the very forest that he was observing and describing was itself under threat.


He found he could not be content with science alone, and accepted the dual responsibility to do rigorous research and to take conservation action. He therefore began an intimate dialogue with people living in and around the forest, and with regional and national administrators, international funding agencies, and many others. Visitors to the Tana in those days remember Clive in intricate discussion with village elders, on land rights, grazing, logging, reserve boundaries, ecotourism opportunities, and all the other details and implications of managing a protected area while enhancing the lives of local people. These efforts led in 1976 to the creation of the Tana River Primate National Reserve, a 175 square km protected area that exists to this day. This accomplishment took commitment and patience beyond measure, well-honed political skills and the ability to generate respect and trust amongst an enormous range of people. It defined Clive’s character and the way he would live and work from then on.


After his success in Kenya, Clive returned to Bristol to write up his research, being awarded his Ph.D. in 1978. He was then recruited by Cambridge University to undertake a three-year survey of wild primate populations in Peninsular Malaysia. This he did with great vigour and determination, criss-crossing the peninsula and developing an enthusiasm for that most uninviting and uncomfortable of habitats, tropical peat swamps. In the process he created the first real overview of key factors governing monkey and gibbon distribution in Malaysian forests, and much insight into their conservation needs. This was a transitional phase for Clive, being his introduction to the subtle challenges of working in Asia, where he would spend the rest of his professional life.


In 1981, he crossed the South China Sea to join the Sabah Foundation, a non-profit corporation owned by the Sabah state government and responsible for managing a million hectares of north Borneo’s rain forests for the long-term benefit of the people of Sabah. As its Conservation Officer, Clive’s role was a perfect fit for his skills and passion for conservation, for his job was to work within an organization whose primary mission was commercial forestry but which also had a mandate to conserve the resources on which it depended. Clive relished the challenge and set about his new role with energy, enthusiasm, technical competence, and sheer professionalism. All those skills honed on the banks of the Tana River were dusted off, sharpened up, and brought to bear.


With the timber industry occupying a central place in Sabah’s economy, and the demand for timber revenues increasing steadily, Clive soon realised that for conservation to succeed in the extremely rich lowland forests of Sabah, some of the areas designated for logging needed to be set aside and permanently protected. He identified two such areas in the Sabah Foundation’s concession: the Maliau Basin and the Danum Valley. With consumate skill, persistence, diligent alliance-building and the arguments of sound science and enlightened economics, Clive was able to work with the Sabah Foundation to set aside these two sites as Conservation Areas. The 438 square km Danum Valley Conservation Area was later given full legal protection.


Danum Valley came to absorb the lion’s share of Clive’s energies, as he negotiated and guided major investments there. These included from 1986 a major collaborative training, education and research programme involving the Sabah Forestry Department, Malaysian universities and the British Royal Society, which supported more than 100 research projects over ten years and established a large and permanent field studies centre. Clive was also the key player in the development of a major ecotourism facility at Danum, the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, which opened for business in 1994.


Clive’s sustained professional energy came partly from the careful way he husbanded and refreshed his personal energies. He was renowned for the saying that “any fool can be uncomfortable in a rain forest”, and proved himself the opposite through his choice of field equipment (which often included a folding chair) and field schedule (which always included an afternoon nap). Off-duty, he was a devotee of the Hash House Harriers, the ‘Flashman’ books, and other innocent entertainments that helped him maintain an even keel. This kept him going with efficiency and optimism through many an adverse circumstance.


Clive’s long-term commitment to Danum Valley made possible the next and rarest step in conservation – the full integration of a major protected area into the mainstream life of the country, supported by a critical mass of people and groups whose futures are inextricably bound up with it. As a result, Danum now stands as the most enduring monument to Clive’s work and professional life. Yet he did not rest there. He also had the foresight to raise awareness of nature among the next generation of Sabahans. In 1987, therefore, Clive founded the Sabah Nature Club, a membership organization for secondary school children, which by 1995 had attracted 25,000 members at 102 schools and laid a new foundation for future public support for conservation. In 1992 Clive once again broke new ground, this time through the development of carbon offset projects with the US-based New England Power Company and the Netherlands-based Face (Forests Absorbing Carbon Emissions) Foundation. These were the first such initiatives in Asia, allowing carbon dioxide-producing industries to fund compensatory measures by the Sabah Foundation such as reduced-impact logging and enrichment planting. The precedents and procedures they established are becoming increasingly important worldwide.


Because of Clive many wild species and precious habitats now have a far better chance of survival. His family, friends and colleagues share a great sadness that he has gone, but can all draw inspiration from his great and varied achievements in a field where success on such a scale is sadly all too rare.


Clive Wallis Marsh, conservationist: born London 22nd January 1951; Oundle School, Peterborough, 1963-1968; B.Sc. Bristol University, 1972; Ph.D. Bristol University, 1978; Research Associate, New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society), 1972-1978; Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Cambridge University and National University of Malaysia, 1978-1981; Senior Conservation Officer (1981-1984), Principal Conservation Officer (1984-1990), Assistant General Manager (Conservation and Environmental Services, 1990-1994), Sabah Foundation, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah; Senior Protected Areas Adviser, Lao PDR, World Conservation Union (IUCN, 1996-2000); married 1985 Ignatia Valentina Olim (two sons, Marco born 1989, Carl born 1993); died Oxford 16th October 2000.


Julian Caldecott and Christopher Tuite.  Published in The Independent, November 2000.