I first met Martin Edwin Nicoll in Antsiranana (Diego), some 25 years ago over dinner at one of his favourite Italian restaurants, on the first floor terrasse overlooking city hall. I was trying to recruit Martin to come back to work for WWF for a programme in support of Madagascar’s Protected Areas. As in any conversation you engaged in with Martin, you needed strong rational, Cartesian arguments to sway him. For Martin was a scientist, he enjoyed and respected rigorous analysis. He was passionate about many things – astronomy, new scientific discoveries, Orangea protected area near Diego (including its almost extinct palm tree), Madagascar, the latest GPS technology, and the aquatic tenrec he loved so dearly, to name a few of the things that would make Martin happy.
Martin had a fast pen, and could produce high quality (sic) proposals and reports, in record time, in English and in French. It is telling and fitting that his last professional contribution to Madagascar’s conservation movement, was for the listing of Malagasy dry forests as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of many he prepared so carefully and efficiently.
Martin had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Madagascar’s protected areas and its biodiversity. Few scientists or persons have had such profound impact on a country’s protected areas system. His contribution was all the more magical for it was for one of the hotspots of our Planet’s biodiversity.
Martin will not be remembered for his fashionable looks, though he could have been an Ambassador for Vuarnet sunglasses, so much he was in love with the only pair of glasses one could really wear and own. Martin’s ‘uniform’ was monotonous — his salt pepper hair and scruffy beard, were complemented by his worn-out T-shirts, which tightly embraced the shape of his growing belly — blue jeans, brown Timberland shoes, and his black leather jacket worn on cooler days. In this attire, he would order his preferred breakfast at the terrasse of the Hotel Colbert – “petit pâté salé”, a small salty pastry with paté, and of course a Coke. He would walk into the office, and in his inimitable French with heavy English accent, say hello to Christiana and Mialy: “Bon-jooor shay-reees…!”
The same Martin, could also be a genuine diplomat of the highest ilk. More than once, I asked him to represented WWF with Ministers and senior government officials. Including back to the Seychelles where he did his PhD, to support the country’s efforts to join the Ramsar Convention.
Martin was generous, a very kind person, generous, humble, and demanding as a scientists. Passionate about conservation in Africa and Madagascar – from Mauritania, to Gabon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Seychelles and his beloved Madagascar, where we wanted to lay in rest forever, near of the Baobab trees and spiny forests of his “native” Toliara. Madagascar will miss him; we miss you already. Will be thinking of you as often as we do of Léon.
Rest in Peace, dear Martin. Jean-Paul Paddack (WWF)
Martin was inspirational. Every time I had the pleasure to meet him during the 10 years that I was in Madagascar I was left in awe at his great knowledge of the flora and fauna of Madagascar – which was surely unrivalled. I loved the way he become visibly intrigued when presented with a reported sighting of a species from somewhere that he was not expecting. He seemed driven by a life-long interest in nature and the desire to protect wild things in wild places – especially in Madagascar. Richard Jenkins
I am still struggling to cope with the shock and sadness at hearing this news. Martin and I first met in 1985 – at Tsimbazaza, when I had just returned from surveying mammals in Zahemena and he was conducting research for his Smithsonian postdoc. He had an immense impact on my early research and career path, helping me plan my undergraduate project on Malagasy small mammal ecology and providing support and advice throughout my PhD on tenrecs. We went on to work together in the WWF Africa Programme, and our paths crossed again in Switzerland, Kenya and Tanzania, as well as back in Madagascar. He was a joy to work with and to spend time with.
I saw less of Martin in recent years after my move to Switzerland, but whenever I visited Madagascar our friendship continued where it had left off. I was very pleased that on my last trip we had a chance to look for tenrecs and lemurs together again in our old stomping ground of Perinet, rekindling memories of many memorable field trips over the years.
Martin was a passionate and knowledgeable scientist and conservationist, inspiring many he worked with, advised and mentored. His strategic thinking was a great asset in planning and evaluating conservation projects. He was erudite, humorous, generous and sympathetic. While on one hand he was very sociable and gregarious, on the other he was a very private person. He was notoriously difficult to pin down for a meal, and hopeless at personal correspondence.
On the tenrec front, Martin was one of the pioneers of research on tenrecs, a family of mammals still very poorly known when he started his PhD. He went on to produce the first every conservation action plan for tenrecs in 1990, and shortly before his death co-authored an update on the status and conservation priorities of these mammals. Martin had a lot more left to give – this is a terribly sad time.
Madagascar has lost one of its finest environmentalists, the conservation world has lost a skilled and potent advocate, and I – and many others – have lost a very dear friend. I can’t believe that I’ll never again get a chance to talk tenrecs with Martin over a THB.
Martin touched and enriched the lives of many people from many places and walks of life. I am pleased to see efforts underway to find suitable ways to honour and remember him. I am available to help in any way I can.
In great sadness, PJ Stephenson (IUCN, ex-WWF)
When I first worked in Mauritania in 1996 I read the management plan for the Banc d’Arguin and immediately recognized his unmistakeable and amazingly clear style of writing in French. He was at the vanguard of the new conservation wave of the 1980s and his impact has been immense and lasting and a source of inspiration for many others. As Julie mentions, we were privileged to have worked with Martin on one of his last assignments, the submission for world heritage status for Madagascar’s dry forests. His presentations on the process were as clear, constructive and patient as ever. As a friend and mentor, he would patiently explain any issue and hear out and respond to any contrary argument, but tease you kindly when it was appropriate. He inspired people to achieve and gave praise and encouragement to others.
We will all miss him greatly. Andrew Cooke (Madagascar)
Martin’s conservation impact extends far beyond Madagascar. As a conservation neophyte, I had the opportunity to shadow Martin in Gabon as we explored the creation of national park in the Gamba region. Several decades later, I was lucky to reconnect with him in the Madagascar he so loved. His conservation knowledge and passion was always impressive.
It is sad to know that I will not see him again.
My condolences to his friends and family, Lisa Steel (WWF-US)
I was sad to learn about Martin’s passing yesterday. He will be sorely missed, as a friend and a colleague. His great contributions to conservation, rational development, and to each of us as individuals is a legacy that will continue to celebrate his life. Richard Hughes (ex-WWF-Madagascar)
So sorry. Always has the kindest of words for Martin. Behind the rough face was a gentle man. May he rest in peace. Niall O’Connor (ex-WWF)
I have just found your message, along with an outpouring of sadness and affection from many. Thank you so much for letting me know. Still lost for words. Martin was an integral part of Bob’s and my life for so many years – as yours. I knew he’d had health problems in recent years (of which he never spoke, of course), but not this. It happened so fast. I think of him now… kind, bright, funny, endlessly knowledgeable, endlessly working for Madagascar. No one like him. I rarely saw him, but already miss him. The end of an era. Feeling so very sad. I will come to the memorial service if I possibly can, and would be very grateful if you could let me know the date when it is set.
With great sadness,
Love, Alison Richard
Very, very sad news. Martin had a powerful and motivating impact on so many people and projects, and contributed his energy to conserving so much biodiversity across the world. Chris Raxworthy (AMNH)
I am very sad to hear of Martin’s death and please give my condolences to his family. I first met Martin in 1984 in Perinet at the Train Station Hotel. He was the first biologist I met who worked in Madagascar. We worked closely in the late 1980s and 1990. Very sad news. Dr. Patricia Wright (Herrnstein Endowed Chair in Conservation Biology)
I just heard the incredibly sad news about Martin’s passing. He was a force of nature, and an inspiration to so many of us. I’m sending you and all our friends at WWF our deepest condolences, on behalf of all of us at BV. With deepest sympathy. Alasdair Harris (Blue Ventures)
As Lisa says, Martin’s imprint went far and wide – when I first worked in Mauritania in 1996 I read the management plan for the Banc d’Arguin and immediately recognized his unmistakeable and amazingly clear style of writing in French. He was at the vanguard of the new conservation wave of the 1980s and his impact has been immense and lasting and a source of inspiration for many others. As Julie mentions, we were privileged to have worked with Martin on one of his last assignments, the submission for world heritage status for Madagascar’s dry forests. His presentations on the process were as clear, constructive and patient as ever. As a friend and mentor, he would patiently explain any issue and hear out and respond to any contrary argument, but tease you kindly when it was appropriate. He inspired people to achieve and gave praise and encouragement to others.
We will all miss him greatly. Andrew Cooke (Mikajy)
This is a very sad news. My condolences to Martin’s family and the whole of WWF-Madagascar, I know how close you were. As you say Martin was a very passionate about nature and Madagascar, and I remember he was always positive and eager to work on conservations issues for Madagascar. I wish you and the team strength during this period. Paolo Tibaldeschi (WWF-Norway)
On behalf of WWF Sweden I send our condolences on this great loss for WWF. As you know Martin was a tremendous help in developing the Leading the Change program as well as being a support to us for many years before that. Risa Rosenberg (WWF-Sweden)
I’m just back on emails after the break and devastated to learn of Martin’s passing.
Martin played a big role in me getting to know conservation in Madagascar, and was a great ally and a friend. I can’t imagine Tana without him. From the outset I really appreciated his efforts to facilitate partnerships between Blue Ventures and WWF as I got started in a daunting new role. Such a passionate, knowledgeable and open man; I always knew that if I needed to get advice, I could give him a call and he’d would have time for me and be generous with his wise insights and perspectives. With both of us travelling frequently between Toliara and Tana, more often than not I would bump into him at the airport and I would both enjoy and learn from the long and fascinating conversation that would ensue.
Such a loss to your team, and to the conservation community. My thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues, and I am with you in spirit today to remember Martin, if not in person.
All my best wishes to you, your family and your team, Kitty Brayne, Blue Ventures
I’m honoured to have been asked, as one of Martin’s countrymen, and representative of the British government in Madagascar, to say a few words today.
Since Martin passed away – just a week ago – I have been struck by the warmth and number of messages of condolence and memories of him that have circulated around the conservation and British communities.
What shines out for me is the sheer constancy, and ever presence, of Martin. Those who have worked in Madagascar for decades describe him as one of the first people they met when they arrived. That he mentored them as young conservationists, and then collaborated with them when they became successful in their own careers. That he inspired young students and grizzled old professionals alike. It feels like everyone who has ever worked in conservation in Madagascar knew Martin, and held him in deep respect and affection.
And it is impossible to overstate the importance of his work. To imagine what would now be the state of the biodiversity and protected areas of Madagascar if his intellectual firepower, his grasp of detail, and his passion, had never been brought to bear on the myriad threats and challenges facing them. He made a difference.
Martin was the best of us. Gentle, funny, clever and kind. Private, but also open and giving. And the kind of person that was able to hold on to the deep fascination for, and love of, nature throughout his whole life. The UK has lost perhaps its best-known and most respected ambassador to Madagascar. And we have all lost a dear friend and colleague. For that, and for Martin, we mourn.
But we are perhaps comforted by the knowledge that Martin’s legacy – his extraordinary body of academic work, his projects and programmes, his mentoring and training of others, and his deep strategic thinking – will live on, and its effects will be felt for a long time. And our personal memories – the stories, the field trips, the conversations – will continue to make us smile and reflect. So for that, we are thankful. Dr Phil Boyle, UK Ambassador to Madagascar and Comoros