Anthony Lamb, British expat who became a world authority on the orchids of Borneo – obituary

Lamb described life in the tropics: 'Gibbons would come and have a cup of tea with me, and I'd find barking deer eating my hydrangeas in the morning'
Lamb described life in the tropics: 'Gibbons would come and have a cup of tea with me, and I'd find barking deer eating my hydrangeas in the morning'

Anthony Lamb, who has died aged 86, spent more than 40 years studying the flora of Borneo, becoming an expert in orchids, of which Borneo has an estimated 2,500-3,000 species; he claimed to be the last Briton to be recruited into service in Malaysia before independence.

Lamb joined the agricultural department in the jungle-covered state of Sabah, then part of the Crown Colony of North Borneo, in 1962, and was involved in developing agricultural settlement schemes around Tawau on the south coast. “After independence [in 1963], most of my colleagues went to Africa and elsewhere,” he recalled, “but they asked me to continue.”

During his early years in Sabah, Lamb indulged an interest in animals, rescuing orangutans and gibbons chained up as pets and releasing them into the wild. “The gibbons would come and have a cup of tea with me,” he told The Daily Telegraph’s Nicki Grihault in 2004. “And I’d find barking deer eating my hydrangeas in the morning.” As only a few earthen roads existed, Lamb mostly travelled by steamship.

By the end of the 1960s he was running an agricultural station on the edge of the forest near Sandakan, on the north-east coast. “I received my first visit [from] David Attenborough in 1970,” he said.

Then Professor Willem Meijer, a forest botanist, took Lamb into the jungle and suggested he study the plants there. At the time no one was studying the orchids of Borneo, so in 1976 he went on an expedition to the isolated and dramatic Maliau basin, “Sabah’s Lost World”, and home to hundreds of species of orchid.

Orchid, Grammatophyllum sp., in bloom, Mount Kinabalu in the background, Sabah, Borneo, East Malaysia
Orchid, Grammatophyllum sp., in bloom, Mount Kinabalu in the background, Sabah, Borneo, East Malaysia - Alamy

In 1978 he moved to Tenom in the west of Sabah, where he met Anthea Phillips, a botanist and ecologist working at Kinabalu National Park, the habitat for more than half of the orchid species found in Borneo.

In 1981 he set up the Tenom Orchid Centre as a Sabah Government conservation project and, with Anthea, collaborated on Rhododendrons of Sabah (1988). When they married in 1985 they had three weddings – one in London Zoo, one at Tanjung Aru, a Sabah coastal resort, and one in Tenom attended by local people.

Under his leadership the Tenom Orchid Centre grew into a leading centre for taxonomic research, attracting specialists from around the world.

Lamb’s other publications include Pitcher Plants of Borneo (1996, with Anthea Phillipps and Chien Lee), and he was a co-ordinator and co-author of the beautifully illustrated Orchids of Borneo series, of which four volumes have been published so far.

He was co-author
He was a co-author

He was a co-author of the two-volume Orchids of Mount Kinabalu (2011), author of A Guide to the Gingers of Borneo (2013); co-author, with Michele Rodda, of A Guide to Hoyas of Borneo (2016) and author of A Guide to Wild Fruits of Borneo (2019). His last book, A Guide to Market Fruits of Borneo,  was published in 2022.

Two orchids, Dendrobium lambii (2016) and Dipodium lambii (2017), were named in his honour.

Lamb formally retired in 1992 but never stopped working. He became an adviser to the Botanic Garden in Kuala Lumpur, worked as a volunteer with the Forest Research Centre at Sepilok, identifying orchid specimens in its herbarium, and developed a forest interpretation trail at Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.

In 2001 the 400-acre Horticultural Gardens, a collection of 30 gardens he had created at Tenom, was opened by Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and is now one of Sabah’s top tourist attractions.

His last book, published in 2022
His last book, published in 2022

Lamb was active member of the Sabah Society, an NGO set up to record and preserve the history, culture and natural history of Sabah. With a collection of 15,000 slides, he lectured all over the world – from Hawaii to Scotland, and (in 2010) at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Anthony Lamb was born on July 15 1937 in British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He developed an early passion for wildlife at school near the tea plantations near Nuwara Eliya, where his father was director of a research institute. His mother was the daughter of a civil engineer who had built most of the roads on the island.

Tony was educated at Blundells School in Tiverton, Devon, and went on to read agriculture at St John’s College, Cambridge. He then took a diploma in tropical agriculture at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

In 2015 Lamb was appointed Commander of the Order of Kinabalu by the Governor of Sabah, where he continued to live until his death. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing. You couldn’t be in a better country if you’re into natural history,” he told the Telegraph. “There is a lifetime of work here, in fact, several lifetimes.”

Tony Lamb is survived by his wife Anthea and by their son and daughter.

Anthony Lamb, born July 15 1937, died January 31 2024