John Burton obituary

John Burton, who has died aged 78, was no ordinary conservationist. Radical, visionary and inspirational, he challenged the usual approaches to saving wild creatures and their habitats through his creation of the World Land Trust (WLT), an organisation he set up with his wife, Viv.

WLT arose from a 1988 campaign in which John became involved in raising funds to save 110,000 acres (45,000 hectares) of tropical forest in Belize that were about to be cleared for agriculture.

He came up with the ingenious idea of asking donors to buy portions of land for £25 an acre, which soon caught the public imagination. Teachers and parents encouraged schoolchildren to organise fundraising events, while many people bought land as presents for family and friends. Later the same approach was adopted by many other conservation organisations around the world.

His next innovation was to hand over the money to a local organisation, Programme for Belize, which pledged to safeguard the habitat. The resulting reserve is now more than twice the size of the original.

Early in 1989, as a result of the scheme’s success, John and Viv (nee Gledhill), whom he married in 1980, launched what would become the WLT from their Suffolk home, with support from David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and the naturalist couple Lee and Gerald Durrell. For the next three decades, with John as chief executive, they used the model to raise more than £50m, safeguarding 770,000 acres (312,000 hectares) of threatened habitat around the globe.

Described by Attenborough as “more altruistic, more energetic, braver and more original than almost anyone I have known”, Burton focused on creating a blueprint to prevent habitat loss, rather than simply championing iconic species, which until then had been the primary goal of conservationists.

His new way of thinking did not always endear him to the conservation establishment, whose outlook he often regarded as ineffective and out-of-touch, but the TV naturalist Chris Packham, whose own conservation career was inspired by John, described him as “a very nice troublemaker”, and because he was so passionate and persuasive, he had the gift of getting influential people on his side.

Among the WLT’s patrons were the cricketer David Gower, the journalist Simon Barnes and the comedian Tony Hawks.

Born in London, John was the son of Edna (nee Ede) and Andrew Burton, a portrait painter; he had two siblings, Nick and Anne. He attended Alleyn’s school in Dulwich, south London, and as a teenager was part of a group of keen young birdwatchers based at the local Beddington sewage farm, ringing large numbers of birds and pioneering new ways of catching tricky species such as swifts.

After leaving school in 1962, he became an assistant information officer at the Natural History Museum in London, but left in 1969 to become a freelance writer, publishing under the name John A Burton, to distinguish himself from another naturalist, John F Burton.

From 1969 to 1971 he was deputy editor (under John Gooders) of a weekly part-work, Birds of the World, published by IPC Magazines. His career as an author began with Extinct Animals (1971), followed by two books on the previously neglected subject of urban wildlife: The Naturalist in London (1975) and Nature in the City (1976).

He soon realised that commenting from the sidelines was not enough, and that to make a real difference he needed to become a hands-on conservationist. During the 1970s and 80s he was executive secretary of Fauna and Flora International, chair of Traffic (an NGO monitoring the wild animal trade), and a consultant to various organisations, including Friends of the Earth and the World Bank.

John also became assistant editor of Animals magazine (the forerunner of BBC Wildlife); appeared with Johnny Morris on the children’s TV series Animal Magic; wrote and edited more than 40 books; and, along with Oddie and others, organised a series of televised “bird races” in which competitors sought to see or hear more species of bird than any of their opponents over a 24-hour period. I first met John through Oddie, who was a mutual friend, when I travelled with both men to a WLT project in Argentina to make a BBC wildlife film.

Despite his affable nature, John was never one to avoid controversy. One of his dislikes was when charities launched schemes encouraging people to buy goats for villagers in Africa. He believed that this ostensibly well-meaning act would cause devastating damage to wildlife habitats through overgrazing.

In 2005 the University of East Anglia appointed him as a visiting fellow in recognition of WLT’s work with its students, and 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 and, in 2019, the Linnaean Society’s John Spedan Lewis Medal for innovation in conservation.

He is survived by Viv, their daughter, Lola, and by his brother Nick. Anne predeceased him.

• John Andrew Burton, conservationist, born 2 April 1944; died 22 April 2022