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Tony Whitten: A legacy celebrated in art and conservation research

A celebration of the life of Tony Whitten, the inspirational conservationist whose life was taken while cycling along the Newmarket Road on November 29, 2017, has taken place in the city he loved.

Dr Whitten was instrumental in the publication of over 100 field guides to birds and mammals in national languages and also collected many tiny snails and insects for the first time. Taxonomists honoured him for this work by naming a number of species for him, including three snails, four beetles, a fish, and two geckos. His last role was as regional director for Asia-Pacific at Fauna & Flora International, the UK’s oldest conservation charity, which is based at the David Attenborough Building.

“The event included the opening of an exhibition, the unveiling of a portrait, and the announcement of the first round of winners of the Tony Whitten Conservation Prize,” said Professor Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at the University of Cambridge’s Dept of Zoology, who attended.

The inaugural Tony Whitten Conservation Prize was hosted by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative for early-career conservationists and biodiversity researchers from east and south-east Asia. The prize is open to under-35s and nationals involved in any area of conservation or field biology in Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste or Vietnam.

The process is overseen by a panel selected by Tony’s family, with a special emphasis on hearing about work on the overlooked species and habitats that Dr Whitten was most passionate about – such as caves and karst ecosystems, with their under-studied invertebrates and fishes.

Prof Balmford is based at the David Attenborough Building on Pembroke Street, which is also the home of Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

“He was an old friend,” Prof Balmford told the Cambridge Independent. “I first worked with him at a forerunner of the Cambridge Conservation Institute in 1999/2000, and went with him to Raja Ampat in Indonesia in 2017.”

Dr Tony Whitten at the time he was regional director, Asia-Pacific for Flora & Fauna International. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Tony Whitten at the time he was regional director, Asia-Pacific for Flora & Fauna International. Picture: Keith Heppell

Raja Ampat is an Indonesian archipelago full of marine life on corals and beaches. Was it good to be out in the field with Dr Whitten?

“Absolutely,” replies Prof Balmford. “He was the real deal, he was an extraordinarily good naturalist and conservationist, and he had the people skills to engage with everyone from local communities to people in boardrooms, at the World Bank, right across the board.

“The evening was a celebration essentially, which included the unveiling of a picture that celebrates the life of many of the species he discovered. In parallel with the planning for that we’d been working on awarding the Tony Whitten Conservation Prize for the first time, we knew it had been a success a couple of months back.”

There were 38 entries for the prize, which was whittled down to six winners.

“Six winners and six highly commended as well,” Prof Balmford said. “I don’t want to come over all Turner Prize about it but we were utterly overwhelmed with the quality we got. The six winners all received a £1,000 cash prize and a certificate of international significance for their work.”

Much of the work reflected Dr Whitten’s conservation interests - throughout his extraordinarily productive career he felt that it was critical for conservation that communities get to know and value the animals native to their localities. Hence the field guides.

Tony and Jane Whitten
Tony and Jane Whitten

“They are all east or south-east Asian fieldworkers making remarkable discoveries about poorly known creatures and using these to safeguard critically endangered habitats, so they really epitomise Tony’s extraordinary legacy,” said Prof Balmford of the six winners.

“We’re interested in any work that’s being done in terms of conservation in any area area that Tony was interested in, especially the unexplored and overlooked small things in limestone systems and under great threat in South-East Asia, and it turned out that there’s an extraordinary wealth of those people, that they connected to him, so that’s a fantastic legacy.

“They’re replicating and developing ideas he was very interested in and doing their own things as well, in particular lots of work on the invertebrates of limestone systems - the snails and little crustaceans that are patchily distributed in the karst mountains.”

Karst mountains consist of limestone, dolomite and gypsum - all soluble rocks. The work in Myanmar and Malaysia, where Dr Whitten’s later work was carried out, was sometimes hampered by the difficulties of getting on to sites managed by corporations extracting mineral assets from the mountainsides.

“The high threat is due to the value of the limestone and the building is accelerating,” explains Prof Balmford. “What Tony was brilliant at was extracting that information and taking it to the boardrooms and, as a result, getting some of those things to change.”

Establishing the first Tony Whitten Conservation Prize has revealed not just the depth of the respect that Dr Whitten was held in, but also that his love for his work was so infectious to those around him, and that’s something that can be carried forward.

“We’re certainly going to run it next year. We’ll be running a call over the summer. There might be a further context after that, and we’re starting to have conversations, but it’s early days. We need to ensure it’s viable, but it was intended to be a short-term recognition.”

What makes this conservation prize so exceptional is the quality of entrants.

“They’re often researchers so they’re publishing anyway,” Prof Balmford notes. “One even wrote to say thanks for the prize and added that he’d found some new species to add which would be announced in a new paper. Some of them are connected to the David Attenborough Building but it’s very important we connect with new people, so some of them are outside our existing contacts and this is excellent recognition for them. ”

Dr Whitten’s last interview was for the Cambridge Independent in October, 2017. Speaking of the species named after him, he said: “If I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be the blind cave beetle Pilosaphaenops whitteni from a cave in Guangxi province, southern China, because it is so hugely adapted to life in caves being blind with no colouration or marks, with hugely elongated legs and antennae.”

Speaking for the family, Peter Whitten said: “The family has worked closely with the Cambridge Conservation Institute to put together the temporary exhibition in the David Attenborough Building, and consulted with their artist in residence, Beatrice Forshall, as she worked to create a beautiful piece of art. We feel that these and the Conservation Prize are a wonderful tribute to Tony’s working life.”

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