A Tribute to Tony Whitten
Conservationist Tony Whitten, who was the Founding Chair of the IUCN SSC Specialist Group on cave invertebrates, was tragically killed in a cycling accident on November 29 2017. Friend and colleague, and member of the IUCN Species Survival Commision (SSC) Steering Committee, Elizabeth Bennett reflects on Tony's colourful life and extraordinary contributions to global conservation.
Photo: Elizabeth Bennett
The conservation world has just lost a unique enthusiast and champion, and so many people have lost a deeply loved family member or friend. Tony Whitten was one of the most admired and respected people in the whole global conservation community, with the combination of his warm personality, deep integrity, ability to connect with people in all realms and spheres, his wonderful sense of humour, and also his unbridled enthusiasm and fascination for nature, especially for the less “warm and fuzzy” creatures that are so often overlooked by others.
I first met Tony in Cambridge when we were students. He and his wife Jane had just returned to write up their theses after they had been living in Siberut studying, in his case, Kloss gibbons and, in Jane’s, small mammals, and I was about to head out to Malaysia for my own research. Right from the start, they made their home a warm welcoming place for me, as well as for so many others. They have continued to do so up to this day with, in more recent times, those visits often including donning wellies to join both of them in helping to pick salad from the end of the garden for dinner, having, of course, to check out the garden ponds for newts on the way.
Tony, as a graduate student, had written the conservation master plan for Siberut, and opened the world’s eyes to the importance of the Mentawai Islands and their four endemic primates, so I wondered where he would go next, since that would already be a career high for so many people. The answer was, he and Jane, with their newly growing family, moved back to their cherished Indonesia. Amongst other things, he led a small team to produce the ground-breaking “Ecology of….” series of books in English and Bahasa, inspiring a whole generation of Indonesians and others in the region to learn and care about their natural environment. It was through the first of these, “The Ecology of Sumatra”, that I fully realized the breath of Tony’s interest in nature, and the level of both his fascination as well as detailed knowledge around such a wide range of species and ecosystems. How thoroughly I used the information in the book on the values of mangroves! And it was from him that I learned that the distribution of fish in Borneo’s rivers followed ancient Sundaic river systems, with those in the north having species in common with mainland Asia, and those in the south with Java. Who knew?! Tony did.
Tony then went on to become Senior Biodiversity Specialist at the World Bank – perhaps an unusual choice for an ardent field conservationist. But through his role there, he facilitated major conservation progress across Asia by his innovative use of major funding streams, including channeling millions of dollars into conservation in Mongolia, another country which he rapidly grew to love. This was in spite of his falling off a horse there giving him a couple of broken ribs; when we met at the IUCN Congress in Jordan just after that, we joked about his Napoleon impression with his arm strapped across his chest. Playing hooky for half a day from that Congress with Tony and a couple of other friends to visit the ancient city of Jerash, while we were being awed at the Roman remains, Tony was seeking tiny snails in the ancient walls and showing them to us with vast enthusiasm.
Recognizing that the key to inspiring people to care about wildlife is knowing what they are looking at, Tony also worked in the World Bank, this time with Kathy MacKinnon, to initiate the Bank’s programme to produce local-language field guides – the final list stands at about 111 beautiful guides, on mammals, birds trees, freshwater fish and more.
On one field trip during his time with the Bank, Tony was passing through Singapore and took a day out to visit me in Sarawak where I was then living. He was clearly suffering from a heavy cold and feeling distinctly under the weather, but that never deterred his passion for nature. Part way through our conversation he suddenly leapt to his feet with enthusiasm, looking at one of the house geckos pottering up the wall…. “You have a Gekko monarchus!” as he rushed to find his camera.
Tony then moved to head the Asia-Pacific Programme for FFI -- in many ways taking him closer to his roots and passions, as well as allowing him to be closer to his family. The new David Attenborough Building as home to the Cambridge Conservation Initiative was a perfect base for Tony, with its combination of academic as well as global conservation institutions. From the start, he was hugely optimistic about the synergies that would come about by having so many organizations all in one place. In addition to the stimulating work environment there, he also relished the social one, noting that if you hang around the coffee room for long enough, you’ll eventually meet all of your conservation friends from your entire career.
In addition to his work overseeing FFI’s programmes across Asia, Tony was also the founder Chair of the IUCN SSC Specialist Group on cave invertebrates, aiming to raise their conservation profile. Tony’s passion for often-overlooked species means that 11 new species have been named after him, mainly the herps and invertebrates that so fascinated him.
Tony’s warmth and enthusiasm for life, and commitment to individual people, means that he has friends in countries all over the world. He has always also been a totally committed family man. He and Jane have four absolutely terrific kids, now adults with their own varied enthusiasms and passions and also, just recently, their own children. Their enthusiasms in turn have infected Tony; when he and Jane visited me in New York a couple of years ago, we went to a jazz club and, to my total amazement, at the end of the set Tony remarked how the 12/8 jazz beat can be a bit of a challenge! Knowledge he had presumably gleaned from his world music-performing son.
Tony’s personal and professional legacy is immense. He was a true gentleman and someone who always made you smile. His life was cut tragically short while it was still at its peak, with his two new grandchildren, and his planning to dedicate more time to promoting conservation of karst systems and cave invertebrates amongst others. He is already deeply missed, and will be long remembered and treasured.