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Exploring the Legacy of Leopold’s Students: Antoon de Vos

Antoon de Vos, Leopold’s only student from outside North America

Antoon de VosThis is the third in my ongoing series of essays about Aldo Leopold’s 26 graduate students and their careers in conservation. The time Antoon de Vos spent as Leopold’s student was significant for at least two reasons: He was the only student to come from outside North America, in his case from the Netherlands, and his thesis on threatened species was the only thesis project under Leopold’s supervision that focused on a conspicuously global conservation issue.

Antoon (Tony) de Vos was from the Netherlands and grew up there. After finishing school, from 1939-1943 he was the Curator of the Museum of Zoology for the Netherlands Indies Government in Indonesia. During WWII Tony served as an officer in the Royal Netherlands Air Force and traveled widely through Southeast Asia and Australia. It was during his military service that he briefly visited the US for training. While stationed in New York he happened to meet Joe Hickey, who had earned his Masters degree with Leopold in 1942 and would eventually join Leopold’s department as a faculty member in 1948. The two shared a passion for birds and wildlife and became friends. Joe encouraged Tony to return to the US after the war for graduate study in wildlife ecology, a field of study that was not at the time available at Dutch universities.

Tony followed Joe’s suggestion and obtained a fellowship to work with Karl Schmidt at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and take classes at the University of Chicago. After two semesters Tony expressed frustration that there were no courses that emphasized studying animals in the wild. Karl Schmidt’s brother, Franklin Schmidt, had been one of Aldo Leopold’s earliest students at the University of Wisconsin, so Karl encouraged Tony to approach Leopold. Tony took the bus to Madison in 1946, and he recalled his meeting with Leopold and decision to study with him as “the most important steps I have taken in my life.”

Tony’s interests in endangered wildlife clearly piqued Leopold’s interest, and it was quickly agreed that Tony would undertake a broad survey of endangered species. The work resulted in Tony’s 1947 Master’s thesis, “A Survey of the Vanishing Mammals and Birds of the Old World and North America.” At a 1988 gathering of Leopold’s students, Tony recalled “Nowadays, there is widespread interest in vanishing species, but at that time it was restricted to relatively few people. In retrospect, therefore, I consider [Aldo Leopold’s] decision to accept this subject for a graduate thesis as having been farsighted and perceptive.” After Leopold’s death in 1948, Tony finished his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1951, majoring in Zoology. His thesis work was on the ecology of the fisher and marten in Ontario.

Antoon de Vos

Credit ©FAO/Photo

From 1947 to 1967 he worked as a wildlife biologist for the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, and in 1952 he joined the faculty of the Department of Entomology and Zoology at the University of Guelph where he was the founder and head of the Wildlife Management Program in the Agricultural College. He was also the Director of the Planning and Resources Institute in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Waterloo. During his time in Canada he studied a wide range of wildlife species from woodchucks to barren ground caribou. And, following in his mentor’s footsteps, Tony bought a 100-acre worn-out farm on which built his own “shack” and carried out wildlife studies with his students.

In 1967, Tony left Canada to become the head of the Wildlife Research Division of the East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organization in Kenya. He organized an important symposium on wildlife management and land use in East Africa, a topic that has gained even greater significance over time as pressures on land and wildlife have increased. In 1968 he moved on to become the Chief Wildlife Officer in the new Wildlife Management Section of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome. It was during his distinguished FAO career that he established an international reputation as an authority on wildlife farming and the use of wildlife species as “microlivestock.” He wrote important papers, including his 1975 classic  “Africa, the devastated continent? Man’s impact on the ecology of Africa” and his 1982 standard reference “Deer farming: guidelines on practical aspects.” His interest in wildlife farming also led him to become a pioneer in efforts to farm crocodilian species, including captive breeding programs for the endangered gharial in India and Nepal. His FAO work allowed him to travel widely and be connected to wildlife management activities all over the world. In 1978, he authored an important FAO review of a wide range of wildlife species with potential to become sources of human food: “Game as food. A report on its significance in Africa and Latin America.”

Antoon de Vos

Image ©FAO/Photo

After retiring from the FAO in 1982 Tony moved to Auckland, New Zealand and continued consulting on deer farming and other wildlife issues.  In 1987 he moved to Pullenvale, Queensland, Australia, but remained active as an independent wildlife management consultant and continued to publish papers on a diverse range of wildlife-related topics until his death in 2011.

Reflecting his distinguished career, Tony de Vos was a Fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Academy of Zoology of India. He served on the boards of The Wildlife Society, the American Society of Mammalogists and the Ontario Conservation Council.

The diversity of Tony de Vos’s wildlife work and its global scope fulfilled the potential Aldo Leopold must have recognized when they first met. Tony summed up the challenge ahead this way: “My worldwide travel and work with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations certainly convinced me that, at least in the developing world, we are still fighting a losing battle with regard to environmental protection. Let us hope that, with Herculean effort and Leopoldian insight, the tide will turn while there is still time.”

Editor’s note: Since Antoon’s research was one of the first studies in the field of endangered species, we wanted to note that today, May 20, is Endangered Species Day. Visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website to learn more about how to become involved.