Obituary: World Land Trust founder and conservationist, John Burton, dies aged 78

John Burton from the World Land Trust

World Land Trust founder and conservationist, John Burton, has died at the age of 78 - Credit: Submitted

A renowned conservationist, described by Sir David Attenborough as “more altruistic, more energetic, braver and more original than almost anyone I have known”, has died aged 78. 

John A. Burton, co-founder of the international conservation charity World Land Trust (WLT), has been hailed for his creative thinking, which has helped save 770,000 acres of threatened habitat which would otherwise have been lost. 

Mr Burton’s belief was that if you wanted to save endangered wildlife and important biodiversity it was important to focus on saving whole habitats rather than simply championing iconic species.

John Burton and Hrach Ghazaryan (FPWC Zoologist) birdwatching in the Khosrov Reserve Buffer Zone.

(L to R) John Burton and Hrach Ghazaryan, a zoologist, birdwatching in the Khosrov Reserve Buffer Zone circa 2012 - Credit: Mary Tibbett

For this reason, he developed a model which the WLT still follows today. That is, working with overseas project partners who, with funding from WLT donors, take on the responsibility of the long-term protection of their land.   

With a wide network of similar minded conservationists, Mr Burton was able to bring in top level support and WLT’s patrons including Sir David Attenborough, Steve Backshall, David Gower, and Chris Packham – who described him as “a very nice troublemaker”.

Born John Andrew Burton on April 2, 1944, in London, he was the son of portrait painter Andrew Burton and his wife Edna. He had two siblings, Nick and Anne. 

He attended Alleyn’s school in Dulwich, south London, and as a teenager, he became involved with a group of young birdwatchers based at the nearby Beddington sewage farm.

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Here he began ringing large numbers of birds and pioneering new ways of catching tricky species such as swifts.

John Burton of the World Land Trust

John Burton in 2012 - Credit: Submitted

On leaving school in 1962, Mr Burton began working at London’s Natural History Museum as an assistant information officer. He left in 1969 to pursue a freelance career initially as a natural history writer and journalist but soon moved into conservation in 1971 following a desire to become more hands-on. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, he worked for many high profile international environmental organisations including Friends of the Earth, Fauna and Flora International, non-government organisation Traffic, and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Unit.

He was also the founding chair of the Bat Conservation Trust.

As a consultant, he also worked for a range of government, intergovernmental and commercial agencies, including USAID, the World Bank, CITES, DFID, HarperCollins, and English Nature. And a particular passion was encouraging and supporting the career paths of young nature conservationists. 

John Burton handing over cheque at the Launch of Programme for Belize in May 1989.

John Burton in 1989 when he handed over a cheque at the launch of programme for Belize - Credit: Archant

As a journalist, during his career he was assistant editor of Animals magazine, a regular columnist with New Scientist and wrote for many other journals. He appeared as a regular broadcaster on television for Animal Magic, Countrysearch, and the BBC World Service and wrote and edited more than 40 books, including six children’s books.

In 1980 Mr Burton married Viv nee Gledhill and together, in 1989, they founded WLT from their home in Sibton Green, Suffolk. As the charity grew, they moved to bigger office space in Halesworth in 1996.   

The charity would go on to save half a million acres of threatened habitat as a result of raising more than £50m to purchase and protect land in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. 

In October 2019, he stepped down as the chief executive of WLT but continued to work as an independent researcher and consultant, developing several of the initiatives that began under his leadership.

John Burton, chief executive of World Land Trust

John Burton pictured in 2008 - Credit: Supplied

In 2005, the University of East Anglia (UEA) appointed him as a visiting fellow, and he was appointed to the editorial statutory board of the BBC Wildlife Magazine. From 2007 to 2008, he was a trustee of the then newly created BBC Wildlife Fund. 

In 2012, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Suffolk, followed by an award in 2018 from the Indian government for his work on conserving elephants. He was also awarded the Linnean Society’s John Spedan Lewis Medal for innovation in conservation in 2019.   

He was also a visiting fellow in the department of international development at UEA, and a member of the Anthropology and Environment Committee of the Royal Anthropological Society. 

Despite being known for his good-natured personality, he was prepared to hit controversy head-on and would challenge various well-meaning schemes if he believed they were not conducive to the environment. 

Mr Burton died on May 22. His wife Viv, daughter Lola, and brother Nick survive him. Anne predeceased him.