Conservation from the heart: in Memory of Tony Whitten

Some of the best leave the fastest. Perhaps a sudden passing is a blessing, a sudden farewell before you know it.

Just three days ago, Tony Whitten arrived in Singapore after a 12 day trip out in Eastern Indonesia. He did these guided long trips out there to share his passion for nature, showing people archipelagos and sharing his passion. He showed me some amazing photos from Bjorn Olesen’s of some previously undocumented weird and amazing mating behaviours of some little known Birds of Paradise, seen for the first time. Photos of corals and shared a story of his first time out with the last ‘slow lorris listener’, i.e. a man who listens to them and tracks them in the forest from the low pitched mostly inaudible sound, an art that is slowly being lost in time.

He always showed and described what he saw with the enthusiasm and joy of someone seeing something for the first time. A contagious enthusiasm to see the amazing things in the living world. He would share his passion and convert it to try his best to save it.

An enthusiasm which rubbed off on everyone. The first time I met Tony was in Banda Aceh at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) regional meeting of 2012. He was a keynote speaker. His talk was on advice to young conservation biologists.

As with anything Tony did, it was a passionate talk from the heart. One of the things I remember is that he said that you will always be tied to the place you do your field work in. No matter what you do and where, you will always be drawn back.

But I wasn’t really convinced by his talk. So I asked a question in the open Q and A session. It was quite a negative one based on my feelings at the time. It was that he painted such a positive picture of what can be done. But we were in an era of unprecedented loss. The juggernaut of agriculture was moving. That forests were vanishing left right and centre and species were going with it. The remaining bits pushed to the limits due to climate change. To me, conservation over the last decades seemed to have failed. My question was with all this happening, how could he be so positive about things.

Tony’s answer was amazing. His first response was to ask if any of the other big names there had anything to say in reply. There wasn’t. So he replied openly, honestly and passionately as he always did. His reply was that he cant give up hope. That he had to believe that things will get better. That it wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was what he believed. That we just cant give up.

He came for my talk the next day, it was on conservation planning of limestone hills and peatswamp forests. He could see from my work, why I was upset about what was happening. I was studying the loss of amazing ecosystems which we know have high endemism. It was the beginning of a great friendship. We would meet whenever he was passing through Singapore, see what my research progress was and talk real conservation.

If there was one thing I could say about Tony, is that he was not an Ivory Towers conservation biologist – i.e. one who studies conservation science without understanding the ground realities. That last time we spoke on the phone two days ago, we were discussing one such ivory tower paper that could do more harm to ground action than any publicity the paper and authors might get. To him, what mattered most was conservation action on the ground not publicity. To this end, the area we saw eye to eye was the role of companies in conservation today.

He would literally go to company headquarters and offices and sit there for hours till someone would talk to and listen to him. I wouldn’t say he was a thorn in their sides, because in time each company came to appreciate his efforts. Which were not to stop their work, but to get them to incorporate biodiversity into their plans. He had concrete ways of doing this, they would listen and most of the time do something about it.

One such effort was his efforts with the cement company LaFarge in Peninsular Malaysia. He along with others convinced the company to assess the biodiversity of the limestone hills they were mining. They would in turn fund proper research into the hills. These found numerous new species and got LaFarge to incorporate conservation into their plans.

We were in email touch till yesterday. His interest in my work and helping me get access to hard places. Then at midnight a whatsapp msg, that he passed away in a traffic accident. A bit of a shock with his passing. The last email was yesterday. I have no photograph of or with him. Just this email.

Tony’s passing is a shock to everyone who knew him. He was a colleague, a friend, a visionary but above all a realist. If there is one thing I learned from him, is to be realistic and work on the ground with the actors on the ground.

 

Tony Whitten

Memecylon maxwellii – a new tree species named in memory of JF Maxwell

 

Introducing a new species of tree – Memecylon maxwellii – I named after my late friend JF Maxwell, the best field botanist and one of the most amazing human beings I have had the chance to know.

Max died of a heart attack while doing a botanical survey in a forest in Northeast Thailand in 2015. Max’s story is a is a big one, parts of which we wrote about in an obituary in Biotropica. More remains to be told.

A parting word. I am a botanist. I love plants and everything about them. I have been privileged to meet, learn from and work with some of the most amazing ‘botanical’ human beings this world has ever seen. Their kindness was something else. Max was one of those people. He did not have much, but gave away whatever he had to people who needed it. While botanical politics prevented me from accessing herbarium specimens, he just gave me his own specimens collected over decades and told me to do what I could. Unfortunately, I have also had the sad privilege of meeting some botanists who will do all it takes to ruin the careers of other botanists.

Botany is a dying art. We read endless articles on why there is no funding and why it is important. But honestly, botanists should bare quite a lot of the blame for creating such a situation. While funding was unlimited in the early years of scientific discovery, not many botanists made the effort to communicate their science to the wider public. Add to this centuries of botanical rivalry and some botanists spending most of their careers killing the careers of other botanists. Maybe botany deserves to die?
But botany will not die. Genuine botanists like Max and others out there make up for all the shortcomings of botany. I dedicate this new species – Memecylon maxwellii – not just to Max, but to all those botanists out there who have kept and still do keep on doing botany and helping others no matter what the odds.

Hanguana thailandica – a new peatswamp endemic plant

Hanguana thailandica is described as a new peatswamp forest endemic species from southern Thailand. The species was discovered during a field trip with the Bangkok Forestry department in 2013. Despite the widespread attention peatlands receive due to haze and carbon emissions, they remain poorly explored with many species yet to be described.
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Denial of long-term issues with agriculture on tropical peatlands will have devastating consequences

–Press release: For immediate distribution–

Following the 16th International Peat Congress (IPC) in Kuching (Sarawak), Malaysia, widely read media reported that the congress supported the view that current agricultural practices in peatland areas, such as oil palm plantations, do not have a negative impact on the environment. However, this view is not shared by many of the participants, and does not reflect the broad message conveyed by the research presented at the congress.

 

In an effort to correct these statements, a number of the world’s leading researchers researchers and practitioners from around the world have come together to publish a letter in Global Change Biology, one of the world’s leading environmental science journals. The 139 authors represent 115 government, academic, industry and non-governmental organizations from 20 countries. Forty of these organizations are based in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore; the countries most directly impacted by the adverse consequences of unsustainable management of tropical peatlands.

The consensus achieved in this paper is unprecedented. The letter confirms that the weight evidence presented at the congress, backed by many decades of scientific research, is unequivocal: business-as-usual management is not sustainable for tropical peatland agriculture and can no longer be justified.

While truly sustainable peatland agriculture methods do not yet exist, the scientific community and industry are already collaborating in the search for solutions, including interim measures to mitigate ongoing rates of peat loss under existing plantations. Not only is this of global importance in the fight against climate change, it is also key to ensure future economic wealth in tropical peatland rich regions. Indeed, failing to recognize the devastating far-reaching consequences of the way in which peatlands are being managed and failing to work together to address them could mean that the next generations will in fact have to deal with an irreversibly altered, dysfunctional landscape.

 

For further information contact:

Lahiru Wijedasa

National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Email: lahirux@gmail.com Phone: +65-90667160

 

Dr Roxane Andersen

Environmental Research Institute, University of Highlands and Islands, United Kingdom.

Email: roxane.andersen@uhi.ac.uk Phone: +44(0)1847889572

 

Article details:

Wijedasa LS, Jauhiainen J, Könönen M et al. (2016) Denial of long-term issues with agriculture on tropical peatlands will have devastating consequences. Global Change Biology. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13516/abstract

I feel sad, I feel blue.

I go outside and rub my fingers on the sleek shell of the night.

I see that lights of contact are blocked, All lights of contact are blocked.

Nobody will introduce me to the sun,

Nobody will take me to the gathering of doves.

Keep the flight in mind,

The bird may die.

Forugh Farrokhzad

‘There were giving away silken robes for free and he sought One for himself and another for his dead grandpa also’

‘There is a dead rat in their plate but they try to pick a fly in the neighbours plate.’

‘Some people are like shit stuck on a blanket. Can neither use it or wash it. So keep it aside.’

‘They wove a scarf even before the child was born.’

‘Because it was cheap, they bought horse shit.’

‘Don’t throw a stone on cow dung.’

‘Indian Proverbs’

COP-timism-21: Beginning of climate action

(first published in the Sunday Times on 20 December 2015)

The recently concluded United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris (known as COP21) has ended with optimism of the potential that mankind might restrict global temperature increase to below 2°C and even an aspiration of a more ambitious target of 1.5°C.

Parts of the agreement are said to be ‘legally binding’ and has been hailed as a success of diplomacy.

Getting nearly 200 countries to agree to anything is an achievement in itself, and can be attributed to pragmatism on the part of UN, the French organisers and the spirit of compromise of the countries involved.

While this agreement is not the solution, it is the beginning of a potential solution.

Firstly, the world is already almost 1°C warmer than pre-industrial times and the potential effects of this on the climate is visible.

Ten of the last twelve years have been the warmest years since records began 135 years ago. While in March this year, we passed the milestone of 400 parts per million CO2, which is 50 ppm above what is believed to be a safe level.

The last time the earth had this much CO2 in the atmosphere was between 2.6 and 5.3 million years ago. Even if the world was to stop all greenhouse gas emissions today, the effect of warming due to what is already in the atmosphere can’t be reversed.

So in reality, under the current state of affairs, there will be no real reduction in global emissions, CO2 and temperature till after 2050 or most likely later.

Secondly, under the current agreement, countries make their own commitments to reduce carbon emissions (known as Intended Nationally Declared Commitments – INDCs) and these national commitments are outside of the actual agreement.

This means they are non-legally binding and there is no mechanism to ensure a country meets these commitments or to penalise them if they don’t.

Finally, countries act in their own national interests. All nations feel that cutting emissions will affect their economies and development. So naturally all countries have not even committed the bare minimum reductions. Based on the reductions proposed by all countries, the world is looking at a 2.7°C or even 3°C world.

The agreement is far from perfect and a discussion of its flaws could be endless. It makes you wonder, if the current scenario is a 2.7-3°C world, why is it being hailed a success?

A look back at 2009, the COP15 summit in Copenhagen which was to result in countries agreeing to a binding agreement to cut emissions by a specific number similar to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 ended in failure.

These talks fell apart at the end due to actions of a few nations acting in their own self-interest. They believed binding emissions cuts would hurt their economies.

What the leaders of the world learned from this is that the time when the world could unanimously agree on anything for the greater good has passed.

The preparations for the current agreement started immediately after the failure of Copenhagen with the intention of getting an agreement no matter what. It is clearly a success in that it is an agreement which is the beginning of change. This can be seen in three main points:

First, it got countries of the world to agree to a 1.5°C and 2°C world. This alone was a big achievement with countries initially even proposing higher limits. Locking these numbers in with strong wording alone was a worthy achievement.

Secondly, the move to renewable energy has started and this can’t be stopped. This is driven partly by investment by the EU and the US to take it away from dependence on fossil fuels and China in order to deal with their catastrophic levels of pollution driven by a dependence on coal.

The cost of renewables has gone down and the rise in its use has been rapid and is more than likely to increase. Under the current agreement rich nations have agreed to a transfer of technology to poorer nations.

If poorer nations do leapfrog the fossil fuel stage of development and move straight to renewables, the results would be significant.

Thirdly, though the current INDCs are insufficient, they will be reviewed every five years. Some countries had attempted to have these reviewed every 10, 15 or even 20 years which would clearly have been too late to make any effective changes.

The key point here is that the attitudes of society change with time. As the climate changes so will the demand by society for change.

Having five years INDC review periods could be the most important element of the agreement as it allows flexibility for societies to push countries to change in the face of effects of climate change they experience or observe.

In reality, the shift in energy from fossil fuels to renewables and the flexibility that INDCs provide could mean that a keeping temperature below 1.5°C or even reversing temperature increases might not be just a pipe dream.

This agreement is not the end but clearly the beginning of climate action.