Obituary: Tony Whitten

Published: 13 Dec 2017

Author: Anthony Whitten
Obituary: Tony Whitten

We are extremely sad to hear of the death in November 2017 of world-renowned conservationist and ecologist Tony Whitten. Tony was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 1971, aged just 18, to research methods of conserving endemic birds in New Zealand, and became a global champion of conservation for many lesser-known species.

An obituary for Tony has been published in The Guardian.

Tony studied environmental science at Southampton University, before spending two years on Siberut, a small island off the west coast of Sumatra, where he studied Kloss’s gibbon for his doctorate. This period sparked a lifelong passion for Asia, and Tony and his wife later lived for ten years in Indonesia, where he was employed variously for the Centre of Environmental Studies at the University of North Sumatra and the Dalhousie University of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He also worked as a consultant on infrastructure projects in China and Mongolia, joining the World Bank as a biodiversity specialist in 1995.

Colleagues and friends described Tony as an inspiring optimist, who spent time mentoring the next generation and was constantly willing to explore new approaches to wildlife conservation. He worked with leaders from several faiths to help found the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a meeting point of secular ecology and theology. One of his proudest achievements was helping to persuade Muslim clerics to declare a fatwa against the illegal wildlife trade in 2014.

He also raised the profile of less fashionable ecological causes, writing a book on snails, publishing 111 field guides in local languages, and having Wolf Totem – a Chinese bestseller about wolves on the steppes – translated into Mongolian. He also wrote what he called 'popular' books on gibbons and the ecology of Java, Bali and Siberut.

After leaving the World Bank in 2010, Tony moved to Flora & Fauna International, an organisation dedicated to protecting threatened wildlife and habitats. In 2016, he was part of a team that discovered 15 new species of gecko in Burma.

Species named after him include a dung beetle, a soil mite, a transluscent snail, a Bali river fish and, most recently, a gecko found in Myanmar.