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. 

Tony Whitten

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.

It was with immense sadness and shock that I heard the news of Tony’s passing. He was truly one of the nicest people you could wish to meet – so generous with his kindness, optimism and lovely nature. Tony's passion for conservation came straight from his heart. He was totally captivating when he talked of the little critters in the cave world (that he was so devoted to), and I know that there are many people (including me) who have learnt so much from him. I feel so blessed to have known Tony, and know he will be missed terribly.

Dear Tony, many thanks for your great contribution to conservation in China and friendship with me. We always had very pleasant time when we were together. Very warm regards to your families and your loved ones. Love you, Yan

I have not met him. But, his lost affected me deeply because of leaving some needy creaturs helpless behind him. I am sure some other people will keep try to help save nature but his place will stay empty.

Dear Tony:
Every time we talk about the organism in Sumatra, we open your "Ecosystem Ecology of Sumatra" book.
Sumatra is a unique island with its biodiversity. You wrote all about our mountains, rivers, lakes, caves, forests etc...etc...
Bon voyage Sir, Rest in peace.......

Best Regards,
Dewi Imelda Roesma

Tony Whitten's work will remain known as a great asset to CSG and a valuable legacy globally. His passing away is a sad loss to us all aligned with his objectives. Please allow us to extend to his family our deepest condolences and prayers .

It is indeed a great shock for the global conservation society and for the whole world. It might take a lot of time and effort to build a new Tony, eventually, it may not be possible. My warm heartily submission for your contribution, Tony. We must remember you.

Dear All: Every human loss on this earth is tragic, and if it is a loss of a devoted and highly ranked individual that is very serious. Tony, has left us but he has left a beautiful legacy to follow and i do hope that such a nature loving person will never be forgotten and so do he will find a best place in heaven. All the best wishes for his family, who has suffered the most.

No doubt that nobody forget you and your efforts for conservation during these years, you will remain in our mind.
Be in peace.

Tony, You have lived an exemplary life worthy of emulation. You are indeed a role model for upcoming conservationists. Rest in Peace.
Adieu Tony

sad demise of Tony Whitten is huge loss to IUCN specialist group specially Cave invertebrate.
I share my condolences to his family,friends, and co-worker on Cave invertebrates.
I prey almighty for his soul to rest in peace.
Primate specialist Group

Tony will always be remembered for his warm smile, charm, and his total dedication to cave conservation. He really brought cave biodiversity into the spotlight. He will always be remembered as an insightful and engaging conservationist, and we will miss him greatly at our Invertebrate Conservation Sub-Committee meetings.

I first met Tony during a meeting on karst cave biodiverity conservation in China in 2012, then we stayed in touch for several initiatives on cave protection, but we did not meet again. I was immediately struck by his enthusiastic smile and professionalism. To seriously protect and to make the environments of our planet naturally evolve, so much strength and enthusiasm , but above all a great scientific knowledge are needed. I think Tony had all of these and for this he managed to do important things. His idea that in order to properly protect an environment is necessary to know it thoroughly is extremely correct, especially with regard to cave environments. Ciao Tony, caves and us will miss you.

Leonardo Latella

It was a great pleasure to get to know Tony during my last years on FFI council. In December 2016, I was at a SEABCRU workshop on Langkawi island, Malaysia where Holcim Lafarge were destroying three adjacent limestone caves to feed its nearby cement works. Several bat species had taken refuge in the last cave and local conservationists had secured a verbal agreement that this would remain untouched. I wanted a written agreement and contacted Tony who immediately engaged with the issue and given his vast network of contacts, knew the Langkawi quarry manager!
Also in that year Tony joined Neil Furey and I in a paper on the conservation status of Cambodian cave bats.
I appreciated his boundless enthusiasm and feel his loss deeply.

There is no doubt that the late Tony was one of the outstanding in the love of nature and gave his life in the service of his lofty goal to identify forgotten animals. Therefore, we can only say that Toni's legacy of great heritage in the field of knowledge of nature will keep his memory immortal.

The news of Tony’s tragic passing has shaken the conservation world to its roots; one cannot even begin to imagine how this loss has been felt at home. We talk of unique, one-of-a-kind individuals, but Tony truly was just that – a man of great integrity, unshakeable conviction to the cause, dogged in the face of adversity, and a champion of the forgettable and unmemorable life on earth. To anyone who knew him, Tony was always approachable, the kind of person you would want to talk to not just because you knew he’d impart some excellent words of advice, but because you always knew you would leave with a smile on your face, enriched, and knowing just a little something more about our world that one didn’t know before. It’s a privilege to have known this inspiring, kind man with his infectious enthusiasm for all the little things that dwell in dark places. While we all mourn his loss greatly, a little piece of him lives on in all of us.

The news of Tony's passing was such a shock after I had just spent 4 continuous days with Tony in Jakarta and Singapore. I met Tony 2 years ago via the RER project in Sumatra where he served as Advisor and technical expert. His passion, sincerity, expertise and commitment to conservation was unbridled. With each meeting I would learn more about his varied career, developing interests, and enjoyed seeing his energy in all that he did. This past July, my family and I made a surprise visit to Cambridge to see Tony and he enthusiastically led us on a tour of King's College and other highlights unique to the campus. My 8-year old son was forever inspired by Tony's flamboyant and passionate description of the Corpus Clock and where to find the best ice cream parlor in town! Tony, you are missed, but will forever inspire me and our work. Thank you for the opportunity to know you. /Brad Sanders

You will always remain a motivation and leader for all of us involved in conservation efforts!

Such a lovely tribute, Liz. He will be missed. What an extraordinary person he was.

Thank you Tony for your unwavering commitment to all of the world's species, however seemingly insignificant, and their right to share this planet with us. Thank you Tony for the way you treated everyone with respect, no matter whether or not they were important in the world's eyes, and no matter whether or not you agreed with them. Thank you Tony for the way in which you listened so well to people, and encouraged them, probably more than you ever realised. Thank you Tony for your genuine cheerfulness and infectious enthusiasm. And thank you especially for walking alongside me on that sometimes lonely and confusing path of trying to be a faithful Christian in the secular conservation world. Thank you Tony; you left us, and especially your family, too early, but our lives have been immeasurably enriched by you.

Dear Tony, I have never met you in person, but frequently by e-mail. We discussed a lot on several key-questions of the wonderful subterranean life. I found in you an extraordinary scientist, a world of passion, and a unique interest on the subterranean fauna. I am so sad for this so bad news, and for having so tragically left us in a deep loneliness.
Un bacio dall'Italia, wherever you are.

It was my privilege that I have spent my great intellectual time with Pak Tony during the writing of Ecology of Indonesia series. He is so humble and very persistent in supporting (and sometimes pushing) young conservationist to work in the field, but also writing their observation.

Selamat jalan Pak Tony, terima kasih atas bimbingan dan dukungannya.

I knew Tony through my work on fishes. I had read his papers with much enjoyment before I met him, and had a deep respect for his work. Hence, I first met him with a sense of awe and nervousness; and when we met he immediately disarmed that nervousness. He chatted to me as though we had known each other for years! And he spoke to me with great animation, and treated me as a professional equal, despite his much deeper knowledge than mine. I know he was like that with everyone. Tony was unfailingly helpful and informative to any question I had, and he was simply a delight to listen to. If I knew Tony was going to be at a meeting that I was attending, then that always made me look forward to the meeting so much more than usual. His good spirits and boundless enthusiasm were infectious and wonderful to receive. He was a truly lovely man – a gentleman to all he met. I feel immensely lucky to have had the opportunity to know him.

Tony, your inspiration, your love of nature, your energy in nature conservation will lives on. What is lost makes our remembrance dearest.

I could always count on Whitten et al. (1987) and later (2012) to have the information I needed for my grant proposals, and later my publications. What an amazing series of books, a resource so many of us have counted on now for 30 years. Who will fill the gap you have left?

Selamat jalan.

Dear Tony, we've only met in person once, but for quite some time you have been an inspiration and a constant source of support in our endeavour to safeguard the primates of Siberut Island off the coast of Sumatra. Your work was a fantastic foundation for our own research and the hearts of all of us who have worked on Siberut Island are with you. Not having you among us anymore is a tragic loss for the global conservation community. You truly have made this world a better place (...and I'm sure that equally applies to the next one...)!! Fare thee well...

So terribly sorry to come home to such sad news. Tony was a wonderful inspiration and a paragon of integrity in the ecological world. The planet was privileged to know him, and his work will live on.

Go to top