A series of stormy days in Sri Lanka has caused many fatal tree falls throughout the country, with many in the capital Colombo. Here is a piece I helped with on how this can be reduced with proper planning.


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.

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’