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Celebrating nature's 'Green Oscars'

One of the joys of travel is being able to experience the sight of wildlife in its natural habitat as well as ancient monuments. However, many species are endangered, and the Whitley Fund marks the work of conservationists around the world who are striving to reverse the damage

photo of penguins with one standing out
Over half of the world’s 18 species of penguin are threatened with extinction

There was a hushed sense of goodwill and respect at the Royal Geographic Society, London last month awaiting the 25th Whitley Awards ceremony - the “Green Oscars” of the conservation world. Each year, the outstanding efforts of seven or eight inspirational grassroots conservationists from around the globe are celebrated by these Awards - and this year was ultra-special as it also celebrated the silver anniversary of the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN).

“Twenty five years ago the need for wildlife conservation was only just becoming apparent. The world was less concerned about habitat destruction, species extinction, and global warming... In that time the world’s population has grown, from two to more than seven billion people, and shows no sign of slowing. Sadly, the exploitation of natural resources grows in line with population...”

So said Sir David Attenborough, Trustee of the Whitley Fund for Nature, in his introduction to a film made for the WFN’s 25th Anniversary. The natural history broadcaster’s words underlined the extraordinary insight of the charity’s founder Edward Whitley who back in 1993 saw that conservation success depended on dynamic and visionary local leaders and work rooted in local communities.

Since WFN’s launch, almost £15 million has been awarded to over 190 project leaders in 80 countries working to protect some of the world’s most endangered animals and their habitats. Endangered populations of cranes, gorillas, leopards, manta rays, tortoises, and vultures will be the beneficiaries of this year’s Awards (£40,000 per project) - won by long-term projects in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sri Lanka, Peru, Bangladesh, and Kenya, respectively.

Photo of Pablo Borboroglu
The Whitley Gold Award went to marine biologist, Pablo Borboroglu, for his work with penguins

Endangered penguins across the Southern Hemisphere will also benefit, for this year’s Whitley Gold Award (worth £60,000) honoured the remarkable achievements of Argentinian marine biologist Pablo (Popi) Borboroglu who has worked for the past 29 years on what he calls “the mission of my life” - penguin conservation. Combining science, management, education, and advocacy in his approach, in 2009, Pablo founded the Global Penguin Society (GPS) - the world’s first coalition for the protection of penguins.

Over half of the world’s 18 species of penguin are threatened with extinction - listed as either Vulnerable or Endangered. They are threatened by poor fisheries management, pollution, and climate change in the oceans, but by degrees Pablo is turning things around - both safeguarding penguins and using the birds as a flagship for wider marine conservation.

“Our oceans are under threat now more than ever before in the planet’s history,” Pablo informed the audience. The devastating impact of these factors - often in combination - together with the plastics that are building up in our oceans was brilliantly shown last year on the BBC series Blue Planet II. Pablo then pleaded that, at the very least, we all consider avoiding single use plastics.

Among a string of dramatic conservation success stories, was Pablo’s discovery of a Magellanic penguin colony in El Pedral, Patagonia that had dwindled to six pairs in 2008. However, Pablo helped to introduce a new ecotourism plan to provide jobs for local people and create a wildlife reserve. Subsequently, in less than a decade the penguin colony rose to nearly 2,000 pairs.

Each and every one of the winners can tell similar tales of dedication and perseverance, often working against the odds. They show courage, some working in a climate of political intimidation, others in war-torn countries, but each leader emphasises the importance of educating and involving local communities.

HRH The Princess Royal, the charity’s patron, who has presented the Whitley Awards every year since its foundation, said: “Whitley Award winners hail from all over the world and come from a range of backgrounds, but they all have in common a fierce commitment and determination to make a real difference to local people and wildlife in their home countries.”

Another Whitley award recognised work with vultures in the Serengeti-Mara

On to the “Ugly Betty” of the conservation world - not my words but those of Kenya’s Munir Virani - who won his Award for his work with vultures in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. “Vultures are not sexy”, he says with a smile. But these scavengers - referred to locally as “Serengeti soap” - are vital to the health and hygiene of the plains, swiftly consuming rotting carcasses, and preventing the spread of disease. Yet vultures are under threat, collateral damage in the war between livestock herders and predators.

It is “a game of poisons,” said Munir who first began his project in 2003 following the Asian Vulture Crisis that saw 40 million vultures poisoned across South Asia, the result of a now banned painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug used in cattle. With the help of the Whitley Award, Munir intends to expand his successful anti-poisoning programme.

Edward Whitley praised Munir, one of three Africans to win this year, saying, “He truly is a voice for these overlooked scavenger birds. His work with communities will allow vultures to thrive in this dynamic ecosystem and counter human-wildlife conflict.”

Reflecting on the Awards, Edward Whitley said: “Over the last 25 years it has been wonderful to celebrate and help to magnify the success of our winners. Their work is rooted in local communities, but the ramifications of their success spread far and wide. It is so inspiring for us and our donors to be involved with these leaders who are dynamic and visionary.”


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