Heaven's eyes: Luc Hoffmann, unsung hero of nature conservation

A portrait of Luc taken in the Rheinthal (Switzerland) in May 2007.
A portrait of Luc taken in the Rheinthal (Switzerland) in May 2007.
Born into the wealthy family that founded the Roche pharmaceutical and chemical giant, Luc Hoffman turned his back on the comforts of wealth at an early age, writes James Breiding, and dedicated his life, and his money, to conservation. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to this man of few words, encyclopedic knowledge, decisive action and unswerving commitment.
Hoffmann spent his whole life shunning the limelight, dispensing his wealth, and gently avoiding any abuses of power. Here is a person who may have singularly contributed more than anyone during any lifetime to the conservation of nature.

Birdwatchers are a strange lot.

Who among us eagerly jumps out of bed at 4:30 am to stand motionless and silent in a frosty field, looking up into the clear blue sky, with a cramped neck and feet throbbing in cold with the vague expectation we'll spot something, maybe even a species we've never seen before?

This was the world that fascinated Hans Lukas (Luc) Hoffmann, heir to the Roche fortune, and one of the Spiritus Rectors of the World Wildlife Fund ('WWF').

A zoologist by training and ornithologist by passion, Hoffmann helped initiate, oversee and fund WWF development into the world's largest organization encouraging preservation of nature. He died in bed in Camargue on July 21st at the age of 93.

A burst of obituaries were published shortly following Luc Hoffmann's recent death from the likes of The Economist, Le Monde, the Guardian and more. Most of them were hastily prepared to meet deadlines and necessarily consisted of 'cut & paste' of official press releases for lack of time and want of copy.

Hoffmann is broadly depicted as a reclusive aristocrat with a penchant for birds who dabbled in conservation as a means to spend his vast inheritance. This caricature, while convenient, and carefully disguised by Hoffmann's obsession for secrecy, widely misses the mark.

On closer examination, Hoffmann may have had more impact in defining and advancing the environmental movement more than anyone of his generation. Who was this man? What motivated him? What were his achievements? What lessons could we learn from him?

In an attempt to answer these questions and set the record straight, I conducted extensive interviews with senior members of management of the World Wildlife Fund, Roche, conservationists, and others who were close to Hoffmann throughout his life. As far as I know, no such research has ever been performed, let alone published.

Privileged beginnings in Basel

Hoffmann was born in Basel, Switzerland, to Emanuel Hoffmann, a businessman and art collector, and the sculptor Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin. His grandfather, Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche, was a visionary entrepreneur who understood that future prosperity lay in the infant pharmaceutical industry.

Hoffmann-La Roche founded the company of the same name in 1896, so the young Luc grew up in a wealthy and privileged environment. His mother was an avid supporter of young artists and classical music.

Basel has historically been at the cutting edge of humanism; the notion that individual agency matters. The city, despite its modest medieval village appearance, has outpunched its weight across a range of fronts. It has given us Euler in mathematics, and Paracelsus in medicine. It provided refuge and published history bending works for Calvin, Erasmus and Rousseau. It was here that Theodor Herzl conceived the Jewish State of Israel; and Ernst Beyeler started 'Art Basel'.

Hoffmann spent his whole life shunning the limelight, dispensing his wealth, and gently avoiding any abuses of power. Here is a person who may have singularly contributed more than anyone during any lifetime to the conservation of nature.

When Hoffmann was born in 1923, Basel was mainly about chemicals. The city straddles France and Germany and lies at the beginning of the Rhine, whose tributaries have been the industrial lungs of Europe. When England boycotted sale of natural products like indigo to color fabrics, and quinine to treat malaria to France and Germany in times of war, a fledgling chemistry business began to take hold.

Most of industry at this juncture was focused on machines and new forms of energy to replace labor. The chemical industry was about replicating substances found in nature, or creating entirely new products like plastics or drugs through unique combinations of chemical substances. This created markets over night and unimaginable fortunes for a new class of scientists and especially their backers.

Roche, a company founded by his grandfather started with cough syrup, only began to get traction when, as the only Basel chemical company, it hired Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi Germany. Leo Sternbach, a Polish-Jew, went on to invent Valium and Tadeus Reichstein synthesised Vitamin 'C', and later won a Nobel Prize.

DDT - the new wonder-chemical to solve the world's problems

But the real hero of the day in Basel was the Swiss scientist, Paul Mueller, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948 when Hoffman was a formative 25 years of age. Gustaf Hellström, of the Royal Academy of Sciences, told the distinguished audience in Stockholm:

"Dr Mueller, DDT kills the mosquito, which spreads malaria; the flea, which spreads the plague; and the sandfly, which spreads tropical diseases. In the mind of the layman you stand out as a benefactor of mankind of such stature that also the humility of a saint is required to escape the danger of falling a victim to the worst of all spiritual diseases - megalomania."

DDT was an elixir for farmers, threw off a fortune of profits for Roche's cross town rival JR Geigy (now Syngenta), and helped vault scientists to the highest echelons of Basel society. It also sent out a beacon of aspiration that problems could now be solved and fortunes made through discovery of new chemical formulae.

So it must have been blasphemous when Hoffmann upon reaching legal age switched his studies from chemistry to zoology, a few years before Mueller's coronation. Tragedy may have persuaded him. Hoffmann's father died in a car crash when he was nine years old and the following year his older brother died of leukemia.

As the only surviving son, he was expected to be groomed to takeover Roche. But these sudden deaths were traumatic and Hoffmann did not like all the attention people were giving him; the mothers who picked up their children at school ingratiating him and trying to win his good graces.

This is when he took up long walks to be alone with nature. There he found joy and authenticity observing small birds going about their bright, oblivious business, treating him as though he were unimportant, and alas, normal.

As a child, he brought home one day an injured duck and convinced his mother to re-outfit the bathroom as a zoo. It was probably through these experiences or on one of these solitary walks that Hoffmann recalibrated his life based on his passions rather than others' expectations: when he realized it was more important for him to preserve nature rather than redefine or mimic it.

He proved to be a shrewd observer and rapid learner, publishing his first academic paper - on the unlikely subject of migrant seabirds in the Basel region - at the age of 18 in 1941. His first long expedition with his friend Dieter Burckhardt, was to Brittany in search of gannets, a bird rarely spotted in France. He began reading for a degree in botany and zoology at the city's university.

But his studies were interrupted two years later when he was conscripted into the Swiss army, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Once the war was over, he returned to academic life, earning a PhD for his studies of the behavior of common tern chicks in the Camargue.

Marching to the beat of a different drummer

But from an early age, it became clear that Hoffmann wanted to march to the beat of a different drummer. Guy Sarasin, of the old Basel banking dynasty family, and whose mother was Luc's godmother, told me: "we were fairly close until we were 20, but then he disappeared from Basel society. There are 20 people in Basel who really matter, and most of them intermarry in one generation of the other."

In Swiss German there is an idiom 'Basel Teig' to describe the interconnectedness of the city's most influential families. Hardly the preconditions for something bold and new.

He married Daria Razumovsky, the daughter of Russian aristocrats, who, having lost their lands in the revolution, had fled to Vienna. Daria had found work in a concert hall where she met Paul Sacher, Hoffman's stepfather. Maja, his mother, had a hand in the matchmaking. When he inherited a bit of money at the age of 31 it was enough to buy a 1,250 hectares tract of land in Camargue, France; a kind of Mecca for environmentalists, where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean.

In 1954 Hoffmann set up there the Tour du Valat biological research station, which became one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world. It was Hoffmann 1st of many campaigns to rescue a threatened species, in this case greater flamingos, that were on the verge of extinction. Tour du Valat, and the Camague, would become his life-long laboratory.

He and Daria lived in a farmhouse and raised their children there. Hoffmann spoke Swiss-German to his four children (and French or English at work) but kept them in the dark about his fortune. Educated at the school Hoffmann built on his estate for his employees, his children looked blank when a cleaner once slyly murmured that she supposed their father owned quite a large pharmacy in Basel.

The level of secrecy around Roche was legendary, even by Basel's tight lipped standards. The joke in town was that "the only number one could find in Roche's 1980 annual report was the year."

Camargue - Hoffmann's life-long laboratory

The Camargue is Europe's largest river delta and in environmentalist-speak, a wetland. Once dismissed as mosquito-infested marshes, they are now recognised as cradles of biological diversity.

For conservationists they are crucial because they are delicate and fragile interfaces between land and sea; with ever shifting landscapes that wield considerable bio-diversity due to the variability of conditions and the need to adapt to saline or salt water. They are natural breeding and feeding grounds for hundreds of species of migrating birds before crossing longer distances over water.

Small changes in temperature due to global warming or reductions in water due to constructions of golf courses, roads, or condominiums can cause considerable damage that vibrates throughout the entire eco-system.

At Tour du Valat his four children were brought up as little camarguais with the children of the estate workers. The family's dwellings were basic, and only the glimpse of a Braque in the drawing room (Braque, Hoffmann' friend, had also fallen for the Camargue), or the glass of Domaine Leflaive Montrachet offered to a visitor, hinted that Mr Hoffmann may have come from less humble origins.

Conception of the World Wildlife Fund - a marriage of sorts

Hoffmann was quietly going about his business as a kind of 'one-man band' when Sir Peter Scott approached him and proposed a merger of sorts.

Scott was working with the IUCN, the World Conservation Union, which had a small team of reputed conservationists who recently concluded the Morges Manifesto, signed by 16 of the world's leading conservationists of the day, including biologist, author, and wildlife enthusiast Sir Julian Huxley, director-general of the British Nature Conservancy E. M. Nicholson and Scott, then vice president of IUCN.

The IUCN's Red List, established in 1954 by Colonel Leofric Boyle, a British army officer, was a globally recognised warning call about endangered species. But it was more a podium than a hammer and there is a big difference between citing a problem and resolving it. Scott pitched Hoffmann the idea to create an institution to 'walk the talk'; or fund the programs IUCN was beating its drum about.

This was 1961 and governments were more interested to go to the moon than to fuss about preserving nature. Scott felt more was needed. Hoffmann was a recognized scientist with a deep pocket book, so his qualifications as a prospective ally were ideal.

Both realized hard facts and analysis were necessary to convince opinion leaders. "They need to know, before they start to care", Hoffmann would say in his quiet, firm and unassuming manner. Hoffmann also was among the first to stress that it was loss of habitat that caused loss of species; so one had to combat causes not effects.

Scott, Hoffmann and the other Morges Manifesto members saw eye to eye, and paved the way for the founding of the WWF. Hoffmann was appointed vice-president, after rejecting, with characteristic modesty, Scott's proposal that he become president.

Slowly Hoffmann's decision to study nature instead of chemicals was vindicating itself. Increasingly people were beginning to know, understand and care. A year after WWF's founding in 1962, Silent Spring, a book by Rachel Carson about the impact on bird populations of DDT, the widely used pest-killer, helped foster a sense that maybe society had got things upside down.

Overnight DDT's place in history as a panacea for farmers and the saintly achievement of chemistry became the poster child of shame. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Water Quality Act in 1965 shortly after calling the Potomac a "national disgrace" because it was so filthy.

Hard facts, analysis and even a Nobel Prize

In 1971 the Nobel committee stunned the scientific community by awarding what many consider its most coveted and relevant Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen for their discoveries in the field of Ethology, or the scientific study of animal behavior.

Von Frisch, for example, devoted a lifetime to decoding the information that animals pass to each other. He elucidated what has been called 'the language of bees'. When a bee has found flowers containing nectar, it performs a special dance when returning to the hive. The dance informs the bees in the hive of the existence of food, often also about the direction where the flowers will be found and about the distance to them.

The scientific community was also 'buzzing'. Few understood the importance of observing the behavior of insects, fishes and birds would have on medicine, with people like Hoffmann regarded condescendingly as 'mere animal watchers'. Grants and other forms of funding were off limits due to the unrecognized status of the field.

Never mind. The Nobel Committee validated the scientific value of their work so suddenly money could be found to fund evidence based science to study nature from sources other than aristocrats and wealthy heirs to fortunes.

Dissenters in Basel, who rolled their eyes over Hoffmann's decision to turn his back to chemistry and Basel, and were counting the days of the return of its prodigal son, suddenly found that the world was beginning to march towards him.

Scandals put wind into the conservation movement's sails

Even the Chinese were waking up to man's orgy of destruction. In 1958 the Chinese government announced that sparrows were to be targeted as part of the 'Four Pests' campaign because they ate grain, offering rewards for killing them. People obediently tore down the birds' nests, caught them in nets and banged saucepans to stop them landing anywhere. Sparrow numbers collapsed.

But the birds, it turned out, ate insects that ate crops, and their slaughter thus contributed to the great famine of 1960 that killed 20m people. During the same period, China was also stepping up its timber production and the area covered by forest shrank by more than a third. The resulting soil erosion gummed up the Yangzi River. In 1998 it flooded, killing 3,600 people and doing around $30 billion-worth of damage.

It was fact based analyses like these that helped convince people that sacrifices paid off, and costs and benefits justified preservation.

Scandals also helped. Hardly a year went by when there wasn't a major environmental disaster to remind us that reckless economic growth was destroying the things in life that were most precious. Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Exon Valdez stained the conscience of a generation.

The most embarrassing of all was closest to Hoffmann. In July of 1976, an explosion at one of Roche's chemical plants in Seveso, near Milan, leaked a toxic gas into the river. 3,300 animals died and many more were put down in order to prevent the spread of contamination into the food chain. 500 people were found to have skin lesions.

While Hoffmann had no direct involvement, as a member of Roche's board of directors and representative of the family's controlling interest, the impact must have been devastating. One of Hoffmann's children recounted to me vivid remembrance as a child when "rumours among our childhood friends circulated that the Hoffmann's had stored toxic chemicals underground in the Camargue."

These, and other incidents, ushered in a wave of protective regulations and emboldened Hoffmann to double down on his effort and spending.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 to regulate pesticides, among other things. The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 by Richard Nixon. Trade in endangered species has been limited through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which came into force in 1975 and covers some 35,000 species, the best-known being elephant and rhino.

WWF as agents of improvement, rather than merely peddlers of complaints

This was all fertilizer stimulating WWF's flowering as agents of improvement, rather than merely peddlers of complaints. For two decades Hoffmann chaired WWF's sought-after 'Conservation Program Committee' - the organ that decides where environmental problems were; how they could best be resolved; and how much money could be invested.

In 1971, at Ramsar in Iran, he oversaw the signing of the first global treaty protecting wetlands. Coming into force in 1975, the convention now covers 170 countries, making it one of the most effective measures to protect habitats across the globe.

In addition to the Camargue, Hoffmann helped save the wetlands at Coto Doñana in Andalucia, home to imperial eagles; the Banc d'Arguin in Mauritania, the stopover point for millions of migrating waders; the Faia Brava in Portugal, haunt of griffon vultures; and many others.

Charles de Haes, who served as head of the WWF International from 1975-1993, and worked closely with Hoffmann, told me: "he was a charming, empathetic, and gentle man who spoke very little, but underneath there was a quiet, yet relentless determination."

Claude Martin, who succeeded de Haes as head of WWF International from 1993-2005 said: "I would prepare 100 questions for Luc to discuss during a train ride, because I knew that his usual answer was less than a handful of words; and the rest of the time would be spent gazing out the train window." Jean Jalbert, who heads Tour du Valat, said: "We once drove six hours to Spain and did not exchange a single word."

Hoffmann was better at listening, and this he did as vigilantly as he observed birds. With his deep penetrating eyes, surrounded by his hallmark bushy, unkempt eyebrows, as though genetically designed to cushion binoculars, he would listen patiently and carefully to any case.

Those presenting knew that he likely understood more about the facts upon which a decision would hang. Hoffmann had over 60 scientific papers and books published, and kept careful notebooks listing species in three languages.

"He would never wield his authority, but it was nevertheless palpable", said Martin. "His way was to ring up and ask me whether I thought it would be a good idea to do something in Madagascar." As WWF's co-founder, single largest donor, and scientific conscience this was tantamount to instructions.

Inheriting a fortune is not easy

Inheriting a fortune is not easy. Most succumb to the comforts of rents and work on improving cosmetic appearances. Those who have a go at it are usually damned if you do in the case of success (handed to you on a silver platter), and if you don't in the case of failure (spoiled).

Most wealthy people take up a token involvement in a charity or have their names inscribed in a university lecture hall or new wing to a museum. These sort of donations are often driven by vanity or tax deductions. Few of them in any event really make the commitment and sacrifices to 'walk the talk'.

Hoffmann was different. Jim Leape, who headed WWF from 2005-2014, told me that Hoffmann travelled more than he did and sat next to him at the table for important meetings. He would invite people to join him for a 5am birdwatch followed by a meeting to discuss project goals, and milestones achieved. Martin recalls sitting at a fire place with tribal and government heads in Mauritania over camel meat discussing how the depletion of its fish stocks would create havoc for future generations.

Though few really knew Hoffmann, as his life was so tightly fitted around his children and work, he seemed to have a natural joie de vivre and well cultivated, albeit dry, sense of humor. The rite of passage was getting invited to his modest home in the Camague. Conservationists, artists, scientists and other well wishers paid pilgrimage over the years.

The need to convince people's hearts as well as their minds

Professor Charles Weissmann, the family's scientific advisor for Roche, cofounder of Biogen, and a distinguished scientist was once invited there. Weissman recounts humorously his stay. "Luc anointed me as godfather for one of his flamingos. Unfortunately the bird disappeared very soon, leading to a total loss of our investment."

Everything about flamingos fascinated Hoffmann. He first saw them when he was still a student, chasing the nibble chicks through stones and shrubs, knee deep in water, in an effort to ring them so they could be tracked. Some 30,000 flamingos were ringed since 1977, and the rings read some 500,000 times in 18 countries.

It may have been their wondrous pink and scarlet plumage, their strange tongues, spined and hooked to filter food from water, or the surging flights in flocks of thousands, majestically flying from one lagoon to the next.

Hoffmann and the founders knew that WWF needed to convince people's hearts as well as their minds - and that needed an animal even more charismatic than the flamingo. One of WWF's marketing coups was when it selected the Panda as its mascot and logo.

Peter Scott came up with the idea after Chi-Chi arrived in the London Zoo in 1961. Here was an animal that was endangered, and exuded empathy instantaneously around the world. When Hoffmann saw the 1st sketches by Gerald Watterson, he quipped that "the black and white resolution will also save us on printing costs."

Endangered, endearing, inexpensive

Hoffmann was remarkably frugal given his enormous wealth. Leape says he would stay in 2 star hotels or Bed + Breakfasts, or even hostels rather than the posh resorts. 'He drove a Fiat Panda, and would never fly '1st class' because he couldn't stomach the sort of people sitting there' commented Martin.

He didn't have much time for the World Economic Forum, located a few kilometers from WWF's office in Gland because he felt it was all about vanity and show. "For me all that matters are outcomes", was Hoffmann's ethos.

His frugality was not because he ran short of money. On the contrary, through a stroke of good fortune his family's controlling stake in Roche was increasing massively in value during his tenure at the WWF. Family members control just over half of a company that is currently valued at $220 billion. Dividends alone for family members last year amounted to c $650 million; and $6.3 billion cumulatively since 1990.(*)

Not bad for a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 70's when valium, its gravy train drug, was coming off patent. The company was languishing until in 1990 it acquired 60% of Genentech, a San Francisco research company specialized in biotechnology.

Roche's board rejected the proposal of Fritz Gerber, then CEO, to acquire the fledgling company, but the Hoffman family overruled the board, and backed Gerber's controversial decision. It turned out to be possibly the most important decision made in the company's 120 year history. The vast majority of Roche's profits today trace back to this fortuitous decision.

Without it, Hoffmann would have been one of many well trained, good natured, passionate conservationists. With it, he had an unsurpassed arsenal of means. Wherever and whenever he thought good, he gave money. It was done either overtly, as grants or loans with his name attached, or covertly, through donations from organisations whose finances he controlled. Martin pointed out there were times when WWF decided not to support a project and if Hoffmann was still convinced it made sense, he would write out a check and fund it himself.

It was this steadfast and consequent engagement that produced desirable outcomes. For seven decades he tapped a private fortune to make large and consistent donations to environmental causes. When the WWF ran into financial difficulty shortly after its foundation, because the number of its projects outstripped its funding, Hoffmann discreetly met the shortfall.

In 1959 he was tipped off by scientific contacts about General Franco's plans to modernise Spain through developing tourism along the coast, and transforming wild country, including the estuarial wetlands of Coto Doñana south of Seville, into agricultural farmland. On behalf of the World Wildlife Fund, he negotiated the area's transformation into a park, easing the sale with a loan from Roche's Spanish subsidiary.

Why progress is so difficult

Hoffmann had his share of frustrations. As human beings we are wired to deal with urgent problems, not those that unfold at glacial speed; regardless of their magnitude. So progress was always slower then expected.

Nature knows no borders, something gazing up at migrating birds also taught him. This means that problem solving needs to be coordinated, a matter which is difficult under the best of circumstances, and especially difficult when dealing with disparately poor countries lacking institutions to check abuses.

Rhino horns, for example, can fetch up to $70,000 a kilo-almost twice the price of gold. Poaching takes place in Africa, production in Laos, and marketing in places like China, Vietnam, and Thailand where it is prized as an aphrodisiac. Violators are sometimes caught, but those higher up the chain rarely are, and usually in one jurisdiction, but not others.

WWF has a federalistic structure, similar to other Swiss NGO's like the IOC, Red Cross and FIFA. But with similar problems. WWF International is the hub, but its national satellites are autonomous and self-funding operations, so getting everyone to sing from the same page is not always easy, especially for the substantial organisations in the US, the UK and Holland.

Hoffmann warned that personalities with élan were necessary to make it work, but the larger the organization, the more bureaucratic they become and charisma counts for less. The WWF International board still constitutes itself and unlike the IOC and the Red Cross there is no mandatory representation of national organisations; so some suggest cohesion suffers.

Cynics will argue that Hoffmann's efforts have been too little too late. Hoffmann, in his self-effacing manner would have agreed. When asked to recount his main regret in life, he said: "If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would do the same thing, only with twice as much effort and persistence."

Progress is pervasive

But he was being too hard on himself. When Hoffmann and other like-minded conservationists started WWF in 1961 people were more interested to go to the moon than to fuss about preserving nature. Roll the clock forward two generations and the number of birds and mammals known to have gone extinct are one fifth the levels and deforestation in the Amazon is said to be a tenth of the level 20 years ago.

ISO standards now require companies to certify that their factories are up to environmental scratch.  And what Annual Report displayed at company receptions doesn't include a section boasting about its sustainable practices? Universities are loaded with professors and aspiring students thinking about how to distinguish themselves in the field of ecology.

The whole world's memory of conservation tracking is, or soon will be, available to anyone digitally. GPS, drones and other technologies are rapidly improving our ability to warn of environmental danger, and act before it's too late.

Today, more than half a century after it was founded, WWF is the largest conservation organisation in the world with 5 million supporters funding 1,000 projects across 100 countries. Some 1% of the world's surface, including many of our most delicate habitats, are now under its supervision.

This is a far cry from when Hoffmann decided to study zoology and shun chemistry. At that time there was the Audubon Society in the US and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK - but they were local in nature; focused on birds, rather than habitats, and usually characterized by polite, well to do, hobbyists wearing cacky-coloured shorts, with not much more than a pair of binoculars. For example the RSPB was founded by a group of upper class ladies upset that feathers from rare birds were used in their hats!

Hoffmann knew that conservation is a permanent up-hill battle and that, despite his remarkable achievements, mankind is losing. The Living Planet Index (LPI), put together by the Zoological Society of London and WWF, shows a 52% decline in biodiversity since 1970 and conditions are set to deteriorate. 40% of the world's land is used for farming and experts project that by 2050 the world's population will require double the amount of food (**). Throw in the climate change joker, and the future consequences to our environment may be calamitous.

Less Life

Thanks to efforts from those like Hoffmann, conservation, once the preoccupation of scientists and Greens, has become a mainstream concern and some of this threat has been arrested. Jean Jalbert, again of Tour du Valat, said "Hoffmann's most important legacy is the community of disciples stationed around the world following his footsteps, and sharing his vision, and values."

Jim Leape, now a fellow at Stanford University, feels that "Hoffmann's most enduring achievement was that he built institutions that will survive and exceed him."

He is said to have rescued IUCN twice by his own generosity. When he started the research center 'Station biologique de la Tour du Valat' in Camargue, his life work, it was a farm-house without water or power. He left it with 100 researchers and a world class reputation for conservation.

He established the MAVA foundation, among the world's richest grant-making environmental foundation, dispensing annually c. $50 million. It is named after his four children, Maja, André, Vera and Daschenka, who survive him and is designed to provide funding for conservationist initiatives after his death.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute was established in 2012 as a 'think tank' to deal with complex environmental issues. And then there is the WWF, now with offices in over 80 countries, it is professionally managed with a total annual budget of c. $700 million, overseeing and investing in 13,000 projects.

Lessons on how to give money away

The other lesson Hoffman has left us is how to give money away. Sir John Templeton, who started the Templeton Prize, once told me: "it is much easier to make money than to give it way." There are annals of NGOs who waste money; or charities that syphon off donations on costly administration.

Hoffmann, turned it on its head. He put 'skin in the game' and then convinced others to join him; leveraging the impact of his own investment. He then kept a very close eye on the shop - approving projects; inspecting progress on site, and so on.

Hoffmann may have been too late. Global warming is considered by most experts as the weightiest problem facing future generations anywhere in the world. It would be nice to put off worrying about it for a few decades. But the truth is we have no choice but to act more forcefully and sooner.

As I glance through the newspapers and my twitter feed I am struck by the inordinate attention the media pays to those with unquenchable ambition for power, recognition and wealth; to those with exaggerated feelings of self-importance, and excessive preoccupation with admiration of themselves.

Hoffmann was very much the opposite. He spent his whole life shunning the limelight, dispensing his wealth, and gently avoiding any abuses of power. Here is a person who may have singularly contributed more than anyone during any lifetime to the conservation of nature. Who taught many that knowing is a pre-condition to caring; and caring is a pre-condition to preserving. A person who died with little notice, let alone tribute.

In hindsight, maybe the Nobel Committee chose the wrong saint; in hindsight Hoffmann may have been right to have passed on studying chemistry and venturing afar from the privileged confines of Basel.

There is a birdwatcher expression that 'birds are heaven's eyes'. Hoffmann never craved sainthood. He probably felt it was enough if the birds noticed his work.

Each morning when they belted out their melodious symphony of song to celebrate the sunrise, this was enough to fuel him for another day's work: a perennial proof of the importance of humility; and sufficient to remind him that all he had done had been worthwhile.

Hoffmann died peacefully in his bed in Camargue the morning of July 21st, with his binoculars at his side.



James Breiding is the Founder of Naissance Capital Ltd, a Swiss investment firm, and former Managing Director of Templeton Investments, Director at Rothschilds, and Senior Manager of Price Waterhouse Coopers. Author of Swiss Made - the Untold Story of Switzerland's success, James writes occasionally for the Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Swiss publications.


(*) Hoffmann's immediate family's share is thought to collect half of this. Dividends paid to Roche shareholders have risen for 28 straight years at a rate of 16.4%. Roche pays a 3.3% dividend yield compared to Swiss treasury bills which currently carry a negative yield.

(**) The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050; or 32%. But the majority of the increase in caloric requirements stems from shifting preference to eat meat and ability to afford it. Producing 1kg of beef requires 15 times as much land as producing 1kg of cereals, and 70 times as much land as 1kg of vegetables. The world's most populous countries (China, India and Indonesia would need to consume 200-1000% more meat to reach consumption levels experienced in the US and Europe.

Meat production also requires a much higher amount of water than vegetables or grains. The IME estimates that to produce 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water while 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres of water.

Gerbens-Leenes, W. and Nonhebel S., 2005. Food and land use. The influence of consumption patterns on the use of agricultural resources. Appetite 45:24-31. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2005.01.011