Tony Whitten: Tributes to a Cambridge conservationist with an indelible joy for life
The family of the great wildlife biologist and ecologist outline his life and work.
Dr Tony Whitten’s trajectory into the history books – 11 species bear his name – was as unpredictable as it was uplifting.
Born on April 10, 1953 in Dulwich, south London to Jack (a chartered secretary) and Mollie Whitten, early photographs show him with his family at London Zoo. Even at this young age his love of animals was clear to everyone.
His remarkable enthusiasm opened doors. He applied for a Churchill Fellowship – motto “with opportunities comes responsibility” – at just 17. When selected he was the youngest-ever recipient of the honour.
“They give you enough money for three months to further your career and develop your passions,” says his wife, Jane, speaking from the family home in Cambridge last week with two of the couple’s sons, Andy and Pete. “He went to New Zealand and Fiji to study ducks, and published his first academic paper while he was still at school. He even raised ducklings from the egg in his mother’s pristine south London home to research their sense of smell.”
“A Sense of Smell in Ducks,” says Andy, the youngest. “It was published in 1971.”
Andy, 26, is a civil servant. Pete, 33, is a commercial airline pilot with British Airways. Ruth, New Zealand MasterCard country manager, is aged 35, then there’s Jon, a composer aged 28. Two young grandchildren also survive their grandfather, whose life was claimed after a collision as he cycled along Newmarket Road on November 29.
“The Churchill Fellowship got him into Southampton University – they said his grades were poor but his passion was quite something,” says Jane.
The couple met at Southampton University. He was studying environmental science – “always broad, he could never be narrowed down” – and she physiology and biochemistry.
In 1975 – “I checked his Alumni card”, says Andy – Dr Whitten came to Cambridge to do his PhD and Jane also took up a postgraduate course in the city. “He had friends all over the world, he travelled a huge amount, but Cambridge was home,” says Jane. “He loved King’s – he was a singer – and he loved giving tours to visitors.” Andy adds that “he ran sessions at Cambridge Science Festival for the last few years, teaching children about the wonders of animals that evolved in caves”.
The Kloss Gibbon in Siberut Rain Forest was the title of Dr Whitten’s PhD thesis. Siberut is the largest of the Mentawi Islands, 100 miles west of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. Dr Whitten went there thanks to his connection with Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust in Gloucestershire, founded by Sir Peter Scott in 1946. Sir Peter later wrote: “I first met him when he came as a schoolboy to the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge to study the sense of smell in ducks.”
“He took Tony under his wing and mentored him,” says Jane of Sir Peter. In later years, Tony would return this early interest by mentoring dozens of students from all over the world.
From 1975 to 1978 Dr Whitten spent 30 months studying Kloss gibbons. “It is one of the most beautifully vocal gibbons,” notes Andy, “with a gorgeous morning chorus.”
After they married in 1976, Jane accompanied her husband: they spent 10 years in Indonesia in total, and the children went with them. Ruth and Jon speak Indonesian. These field trips suggest a hardiness and tenacity far removed from a static academic role.
“We had a small hut on Siburut with no running water,” recalls Jane. “They were raised houses on stilts, and there was a pig under the floor. There were no toilets.”
“When I travelled with him to Vietnam we stayed in longhouses,” says Pete, “and in Mongolia we stayed in gers. He loved to be in the field.”
The work evolved. When he realised there were no relevant text books in Indonesia, Dr Whitten wrote one – The Ecology of Sumatra. Two others followed: The Ecology of Java and Bali and The Ecology of Sulawesi (Indonesia). The series was continued by other writers in the region. They were groundbreaking because they covered not just the local ecology and animal life, but also the local population: it was a rounded take – nowadays a given, then a first. The books were published in both English and Indonesian. “The significance of these books is hard to overestimate,” says Jane.
It is testament to their bond and the work they did together that two of the 11 Whitten species are named for both Tony and Jane. “The Whitteni are single, and the Whittenorum is both of us. It’s a huge honour to have a species named after you.”
In 1995, Dr Whitten joined the World Bank as a biodiversity specialist. The family moved to Washington DC for five years. It was a productive but challenging time for an ecologist set in a habitat of economists. During this time Dr Whitten’s unique working methods came to the fore. In Malaysia he found that entire limestone hills were being carved out by cement companies, with no cataloguing of the animals that had made these isolated hills their home. Thus began the most fertile period of discovering the weevils, blind fish, bugs, dung beetles, mites, snails and geckos most closely associated with him.
“The unloved,” as Pete describes these previously unknown creatures.
“But the remarkable thing – and a testament to the sort of man he was – was that he persuaded people to care about these snails and other tiny animals,” says Andy.
By naming one of the snails found in the Malaysian limestone after the cement firm that was doing the excavations, Dr Whitten obliged the company to take seriously their responsibilities to the habitat they were destroying.
Altogether he found funding for 111 field guides in regional languages including in Lao, Vietnam and Mongolia. He organised hundreds of thousands of pounds of grants for colleagues, and began mentoring on a scale that seems to have veered towards the industrial. Incredibly, he was instrumental in encouraging Muslim clerics in Indonesia to declare a fatwa against the illegal wildlife trade. His World Bank blogs convey an amusing, self-deprecating man who describes himself as “an odd bird” in the environment he worked in. Jane describes his methodology in delightful terms.
“Tony never really worked for any organisation,” she says. “He got the organisation to do the things he wanted them to do, and on occasion some were infuriated but then they realised he was getting results…”
“Reading through the hundreds of emails coming in from all over the world,” adds Pete, “what comes through was that he never did too well when he was told what to do but when given a free rein he got amazing results.”
Pete also relates a wonderful story of his father turning up for his wedding in traditional Mongolian dress, wearing the Soviet-era medals he had been awarded. Pete was in the RAF at the time, and the contrast in uniforms still raises a chuckle, even in what must be an unimaginably difficult time.
In 2010 Dr Whitten left the World Bank. “They had a policy of rotating senior advisors and they wanted him to go to Africa to work and he said no,” says Andy. He returned to Cambridge and joined Fauna & Flora International (FFI) as director, Asia-Pacific, in 2011. FFI is based in the David Attenborough Building.
“The FFI is grateful that he chose to spend the last few years with us,” the organisation’s deputy chief executive Rosalind Aveling says in an online tribute. “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.”
“He was a member of FFI since he was a teenager,” notes Jane. “It’s the oldest English international conservation society in the world.”
In 2016 Dr Whitten went to Myanmar as part of a team which found 15 new species of gecko, one of which was named after him. When the new species, Hemiphyllodactylus tonywhitteni, was confirmed earlier this year, Dr Whitten agreed to be interviewed by the Cambridge Independent and it was an honour to have had conversations with him about his incredible work and travels.
“Tony’s Christian faith was a very important part of his care for creation,” says Jane. “He saw each of us as having a God-given task to take care of the world.
“What’s important to us, having had this tragedy visited upon us, is that Tony would have approved that the message goes out – if you’re struggling in school you can still do amazing things. Don’t ever feel one person can’t make a difference because they can. Everyone can do something to care about the world we live in, for us it’s growing food on our allotment, making sure that we don’t waste resources… He was very rounded in that sense, it all fitted together.
“No one could say he didn’t use his time well, it’s just a pity there wasn’t more of it…”
“One of the consolations is so many people are talking about his work, and writing about him,” says Pete.
:: Dr Whitten’s obituary was published in The Times, The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. He was on Last Word on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, December 22, at 4pm. A memorial is being set up in his name with the aim of furthering conservation in areas Dr Whitten was passionate about. FFI has kindly offered to receive and hold donations until the family can make arrangements to manage the fund. To donate, visit the Tony Whitten Memorial Fund page.