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We at ARC are all so sad that Tony Whitten, our friend for many years, has died

December 5, 2017:

By Victoria Finlay

Dr Tony Whitten died on the 29th November in the dark of the evening as a result of a traffic incident. He was on his bicycle, cycling home, the environmentalist to the end.

I was introduced to Tony first in a café in Jakarta in 2001 and he was talking about the particular wildlife of the Indonesian islands. And we were in an outdoor café in a busy built-up area with plenty of traffic noise but as he talked the view of the concrete and the sound of horns beeping all fell away and we were in the jungle examining tiny things on leaves and it seemed as if the world was both small and very large.

Tony was a great friend to ARC, professionally, and to Martin and me personally. While he was at the World Bank he, almost singly it seemed at first, helped link the Bank’s conservation ethos with religions for the first time. Through the support that came from his department ARC sponsored programmes in, at first, Indonesia working with Muslim clerics and then Mongolia, working with the Buddhist leadership.

The funding finished some time ago but the impact of those programmes lives on. With Tony’s World Bank funding ARC assisted a programme for monks from Gandan monastery to go out to the far provinces of the country and ask people, for their memories and their religious texts about the sacred elements of their local landscape. Many of the texts had been hidden in walls and floors for generation to protect them from the enforced atheism of communism. The monks found sutras and saying which suggested that, for example, the goddess would flood your land if you hurt her mountain. And that mountain, World Bank scientists discovered, was ecologically sensitive, and logging of trees there would indeed be disastrous to the village.

That study and other programmes Tony initiated tended towards finding that the most sacred wild places were often the most biodiverse. As if there are some places where there is a door between heaven and earth through which the animals and plants could arrive. Or at least – Tony would be so strict with me, reading this over my shoulder -- there are places where the environment is rich with the perfect nutritional requirements for a wide number of fauna and flora (that’s the order Tony preferred) to thrive. And those are places where humans feel overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all.

Personally Tony was a friend. We met him often in Washington DC and indeed in all sorts of places (because he was always on planes and said he did his best emails in airports). Most recently he and Jane came and stayed the night with us for a weekend I treasured even before I heard this awful news. We talked about the adventures of the Whitten family. And we talked a lot about bats.

And I’m glad that the same magical thing happened the last time we saw him as the first. Because we were transported from our candlelit dining table far away to Eastern Indonesia on a wooden ship (important to Tony it was wooden) where every year he was the guest lecturer on an environmental cruise. And he described the bat cave so clearly, the moist smells, the darkness, the dry humidity, the sense of life quivering unseen in the air and whole worlds opened up. That, I said to Martin afterwards, is the only cruise I’ve ever found myself really really wanting to take.

But we can’t of course. We’re all so very sorry to hear this awful news. He was a man we loved and admired. And he was such a strong Christian, and believed that death was finding oneself embraced by a loving God. So be embraced, Tony. You had a wonderful life that made a great difference.


Guardian obituary

Fauna & Flora website obituary

Our Faith in Conservation book, a World Bank "best-seller" which has done so much good explaining to thousands of people why the religions approach to conservation worked: and it was Tony's idea.

And another of Tony's ideas. A Handbook to working with Buddhists about the environment in Mongolia. Which might sound a little dry, but which in reality is full of the most inspiring stories, ideas for engagement, an original and rather unusual thangka of the Old Man of Longevity, the Mongolian Lord of Nature... It has already been used to inspire similar work in Bhutan and Ladakh, protecting snow leopards. It was a co-project between The World Bank, ARC, and the monks of Gandan monastery.

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