At Fauna & Flora International we are struggling to come to terms with the devastating news that our friend and colleague, Dr Tony Whitten, died suddenly this week. We knew Tony as a remarkable man, a giant of the conservation world with an irrepressible optimism, a thirst for knowledge and an enthusiasm for cave creatures that bordered on obsession.
It is not surprising that he had 11 new species named for him, and he was particularly pleased that they might be viewed as small and uncharismatic, as it meant he could take up their cause and – as a consummate communicator – change that perception. He had recently helped to establish the IUCN specialist group on karst environments and, as Chair, was stimulating increasing action for this critical and endangered habitat.
Aside from an astute scientific mind, Tony had an ability to connect with people whoever they were and wherever they were working, whether trekking through forests, arguing the case in corporate boardrooms or finding agreement in government offices. I first met Tony and his wife Jane as young field scientists working on the Mentawai islands, where their research was only made possible by the close working relationships they forged with the islanders. It is typical of them that they were absorbed wholeheartedly into the community and remained in contact through subsequent decades, eventually taking their own children back to meet their friends there.
Tony in due course became absorbed into the World Bank as part of a small biodiversity unit and, as a rare ecologist amongst several thousand economists, managed through his credibility and personality to weave ecological principles into major projects around the world.
As he left the Bank and returned to immerse himself in the NGO world, several organisations were eager for his services, and FFI is grateful that he chose to spend the last few years with us, much to the benefit of our partnerships across the Asia-Pacific programme.
In Cambridge, the coming together of university departments and several conservation organisations to work as the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in the David Attenborough Building was a perfect substrate for Tony, and the whole community benefited from his inspiration and enthusiasm.
Amongst the many tributes that have started to flow in as the shock of this news percolates around the world, there is a common thread. It is that time spent with Tony always left one feeling better about the prospects for conservation, and about life in general. That is a rare attribute and one whose absence we are already feeling keenly.
In due course we will be considering how we can recognise Tony’s life and work in a way that befits this phenomenal man and amplify his lasting legacy; for now, we are just missing him.