Conservation biologist and wildtech journalist Sue Palminteri, 1965-2019

Sue Palminteri — Mongabay’s wildtech editor, conservation biologist, professional tennis player, and long-time exercise enthusiast — lost her battle with cancer on November 30th. She was 54.

Whether it was radio-collaring elephants across the savannas of South Africa, competing internationally alongside the Israeli national team in tennis, tracking saki monkeys through the rainforest in the sweltering mid-day heat of the Peruvian Amazon, or evaluating the practicalities of implementing technological solutions to conservation challenges, Sue fully embraced all she pursued with rare tenaciousness, passion, and grace.

Her persistence and intelligence enabled her to excel as an athlete, a conservation biologist, and a journalist, while her authenticity, upbeat nature, and companionship made her a good colleague, friend, and partner.

Date published: 2019/12/13

Whether it was radio-collaring elephants across the savannas of South Africa, competing internationally alongside the Israeli national team in tennis, tracking saki monkeys through the rainforest in the sweltering mid-day heat of the Peruvian Amazon, or evaluating the practicalities of implementing technological solutions to conservation challenges, Sue Palminteri fully embraced all she pursued with rare tenaciousness, passion, and grace. Her persistence and intelligence enabled her to excel as an athlete, a conservation biologist, and a journalist, while her authenticity, upbeat nature, and companionship made her a good colleague, friend, and partner. That rare combination of qualities means that Sue’s passing on November 30th at the age of 54 is an especially devastating loss both to the people who knew her and the plants and animals she diligently sought to protect.

“Sue epitomized life. She had boundless, positive energy. She was tenacious in promoting conservation from her doctoral research in Peru to her conservation technology editing and writing for Mongabay,” said Leah Karrer, a close friend who met Sue at Duke University. “She embraced and promoted new ideas and was a mentor to numerous emerging scientists and communicators. She lived her life as she believed. She was a genuine, loving and supportive friend—always. She was kind, smart, fun and funny. Her passing is a tremendous, tragic loss for her friends, family and the world.”

(Image below: Sue in Abu Camp, Botswana. Courtesy of George Powell) 

Sue with friends after a race in Bangkok, Thailand. Courtesy of George Powell.

Suzanne Palminteri was born on September 24th, 1965 in New Jersey and grew up on a small farm with sheep, goats, dogs, cats, and Guinea hens. In those early years Sue’s worldview on the environment was colored by her mother Lucille, who years before the first Earth day was already composting and recycling, and her father, Tony, a veterinarian. But Sue’s earliest love was sports. She especially excelled at tennis, playing varsity throughout her college career and then professionally in Europe.

While Sue loved competing in tennis, she felt something was missing from her life. This desire to do something positive for the world brought her back to the United States and led her to join WWF as a program manager. However, she eventually found that particular role was too removed from conservation on the ground, so she left the certainty of working for a big international NGO and took a leap of faith, joining a small turtle conservation group in the Yucatan. That experience—working with local people to save little appreciated ecosystems and animals—solidified her love for nature and her commitment to conservation. It also equipped her with new skills, including fluency in Spanish and scuba diving.

Volunteering in Mexico laid the groundwork for the next phase of Sue’s life: formalizing her conservation credentials by pursuing a master’s degree in environmental policy at Duke University. Sue formed many important friendships during that formative time at Duke. Among the most lasting, was the relationship she struck up with conservation biologist George Powell, who later became her partner in conservation and in life. Sue and George married in 2006.

Sue worked with George as a field assistant on a number of conservation projects in Costa Rica, including an initiative dedicated to the conservation of the endangered great green macaw. That effort eventually resulted in the creation of Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge in north central Costa Rica. Were it not for this declaration, this otherwise unprotected habitat type would now be pineapple farms.

Sue returned to WWF before earning her Ph.D in ecology from the University of East Anglia (UK) working under Carlos Peres. Her focus of study was ecology and the behavior of the bald-faced saki monkey. Never shying away from adventure, she lived at the Los Amigos field station in the Peruvian Amazon, seven hours up the Madre de Dios river from the closest town.

Sue with George Powell in Botswana

(Image Above: George Powell with Sue Palminteri in Botswana. Photo courtesy of Mark Johnson)

Post-Ph.D, Sue ramped up her field-based conservation work as a scientist and program manager for Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions at RESOLVE, a non-profit centered on innovative environmental solutions. Her particular focus at RESOLVE was on how to apply technology to conservation challenges. She developed a keen eye for what actually works in the field—in short, what is promised in the lab doesn’t always deliver in practice.

At RESOLVE, Sue helped found WildTech, a collaborative initiative between RESOLVE, World Resources Institute (WRI), and Mongabay that sought to help conservationists better leverage technology. On the side, Sue also wrote extensively, from chapters in a book on the impacts of forest loss on apes to posts on her blog “All-species Fitness“, which she saw as an integration of fitness in both evolutionary and personal fitness.

Sue’s wealth of knowledge and experience as a field biologist suited her perfectly for her role as Wildtech editor at Mongabay, which she joined full time in 2017. Treasured by colleagues for her inquisitiveness, nose for a good story, and diligence in her reporting, Sue was a prolific editor, producing over a hundred stories for Mongabay on topics ranging from eDNA to remote sensing to AI. Sue also mentored aspiring conservation journalists and her expertise served as a valuable resource to Mongabay’s writers and editors, to whom she always lent a helping hand as they covered tech issues in the conservation sector.

“Sue loved her work so much, I was always in awe of how enthusiastic, knowledgeable, kind, and attentive she was to every detail of her work and her interactions with people,” said Genevieve Belmaker, a Mongabay editor who worked with Sue on several forest-related stories. “I’ve rarely met anyone who cared so much.”

Beyond Mongabay, Sue worked as a science editor and 360 VR filming assistant for Wildlife Protection Solutions, a small conservation organization that uses virtual reality as a medium to build empathy for endangered species

Sue Palminteri with penguins on Saunders Island in the Falkland Islands. Courtesy of George Powell.

Sue collaring a jaguar. Courtesy of George Powell.

As adaptable as Sue was across geographies, organizations, and roles, there were some constants that defined her: Sue was widely admired as a selfless, authentic, and warm-hearted person who worked tirelessly for the benefit of other people and other species. She mentored people at every stage of her life—from tennis pro to field biologist to conservation technology journalist.

“Sue had this way of describing her life as ‘delayed development,’ as if she’d grown up late,” said Amy Rosenthal of the Field Museum in Chicago, “I remember her saying this more than once. But I always thought it was as if she’d lived many lives, could adapt to any changing circumstances, and had myriad hidden talents. Young tennis pro? Check. Athlete and trainer? Check. Field biologist? Check. Tech expert? Check. Fitness and health wiz? Check, check.”

Sue’s diversity of passions and interests produced some curious contradictions: she was a fitness enthusiast and distance runner who was addicted to chocolate chip cookies, a technologist who loved to work in the most basic conditions in some of the world’s most remote landscapes, and someone who laughed so hysterically it brought her and others to tears. But those contradictions gave Sue a special ability to bring people together.

“When I arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at WWF’s Conservation Science Program in 2010, George welcomed me and helped me bridge the gap in those days between what sometimes felt like the biodiversity camp and the ecosystem services one,” said Rosenthal. “When Sue arrived, she helped solidify that it was all a conservation camp to her and that we were all in it together.”

“She epitomized ‘solution-oriented’ and ‘positivity’”, said Sue’s friend Leah Karrer. “When others bickered, she brought us together. She was a loving and supportive friend—always. Most of all she was an amazing, kind person who should be with us still.”

Sue Palminteri in Australia. Courtesy of George Powell.

Sue Palminteri at Microsoft’s AI for Earth summit in April 2018. Photo by Erik Hoffner.

Sue was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in February 2019, and even through a grueling treatment regimen, she selflessly chose not disclose her condition to most friends and colleagues. Not wanting to worry those close to her, Sue continued her practice of embracing life fully on a daily basis. Though sapped of her charismatic energy and navigating the pain of her illness, Sue maintained her normal radiance so that most friends did not even realize she was sick. Indeed, she continued to work on behalf of conservation through her stories at Mongabay and her work with Wildlife Protection Solutions.

“Sue was still standing tall, embracing family and friends, telling jokes, and treasuring life only weeks before her passing,” said Elaine Ardizzone, Sue’s sister.

While she concealed her pain, Sue worked to build empathy for other species—big and small, common and rare, known and unknown – and fight for conservation until the very end. She was an advocate for preserving wildlife habitats—whether they be forests, coral reefs, wind-swept steppes, savannas, or the open ocean. She was a unique gift to all of us, and the world is better off because of her.

“The earth lost a bit of its voice this past week. More than anyone I’ve known, Dr. Sue Palminteri spoke for global ecosystems and the species—large and small—that fostered a living planet,” wrote Chelsea Specht in a memorial page celebrating Sue’s life. “I had the pleasure of working with her and her partner in life and conservation strategy, George Powell, when I was part of the Southwest Amazon team at World Wildlife Fund. Travel throughout Costa Rica, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Bolivia with Sue and George gave me constant insights into the amount of passion and courage it takes to continually fight for something as critical—and as tenuous—as the well-being of our biomes.”

“Sue was in constant motion; her mind and body forever moving toward larger goals and higher aims despite the road blocks that governments, bureaucracy, and human behavior place before conservation efforts—whether pro- or retroactive. It’s impossible for me to believe she’s gone, so instead I’m going to assume she is out there somewhere. If a wildfire suddenly stops, a species is miraculously saved, a community rises to save its forest, or an ecosystem thrives despite massive loss—I’m going to assume that was Sue Palminteri at work. She may be at peace, but I know she’s not resting!”

Sue Palminteri

(Photo above: Sue Palminteri. Photo courtesy of Germano Freitas)

Sue Palminteri’s Celebration of Life

Mongabay and Conservation X-Labs are developing a fellowship in Sue’s name that would honor her interest in conservation, technology, and journalism by providing opportunities for students to gain experience in conservation technology and writing. If you are interested in contributing to this effort, we’ve set up a fund at DonorBox. Conservation X-Labs is matching up to $15,000 in donations for this fund. Alternatively you can reach out to us via this form with other thoughts or ideas.

This memorial was first published on Mongabay and shared here with our community with permission.