Today the Whitley Awards will recognise six inspiring conservation champions who are striving to protect the natural world. HRH The Princess Royal will present these prestigious international awards at a special ceremony held at the Royal Geographic Society in London.
Often referred to as the ‘Green Oscars’, the Whitley Awards have been supported by the Whitley Fund for Nature’s loyal donors for 24 years, leveraging over £13.5 million to fund innovative conservation leaders and their projects to protect endangered wildlife in developing countries.
Strong science and community engagement are the hallmarks of the winning projects. Along with this, each winner needs the skill and tenacity to highlight and combat challenges such as exploitation of natural resources, bureaucratic inertia, human-wildlife conflict and habitat destruction.
As Sir David Attenborough, a Trustee of the Whitley Fund for Nature explains: “Whitley Award winners are simply exceptional people - passionate individuals who are committed to achieving positive environmental impact and long-term conservation and community benefits.”
This year’s winners of the Whitley Awards have been selected from amongst 166 applications from all over the world. They lead varied projects, including working with prisoners to conserve the Critically Endangered Philippine cockatoo, promoting the coexistence of Spectacled bears and people in Bolivia, reducing deforestation in India’s Bengal tiger corridors and working with farmers to conserve grasslands threatened by fracking in South Africa.
The winners will each receive £35,000 in project funding to scale up their work to conserve some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular places. The 2017 Whitley Award winners are:
Purnima Barman - India
Inspiring women to protect Assam’s greater adjutant and its habitat, India
Greater adjutant storks - or Hargila in the local language - have an image problem as these giant scavenger birds have a reputation as unwelcome neighbours with their noisy, messy and smelly nesting habits. With a global population of less than 1,200, 75% of which are found in Assam in North East India, the greater adjutant needs help to prevent the felling of nesting trees by landowners wishing to rid themselves of the storks and the threat of wetland destruction. To tackle this issue, Purnima Barman, of NGO Aarnyak has developed alternative livelihoods for villagers engaging them with the project and turning bird haters into bird lovers.
Purnima has mobilised followers into the ‘Hargilla Army’ an all-female team of conservationists dedicated to protecting the greater adjutant who through this programme are offered sustainable livelihood, training and education opportunities. Together they are changing local perceptions and numbers of stork nests have risen from 30 seven years ago to over 170 today. With her Whitley Award, Purnima will scale up this work, encouraging householders to take pride in the species and protect the birds and their nesting trees.
Alexander Blanco - Venezuela
Nest protectors: conserving Venezuela’s magnificent harpy eagles as a rainforest flagship
Wildlife scientist and veterinarian Alexander Blanco has been working with harpy eagles since 1996. Some may remember him from the BBC wildlife documentary “The Hunt” where he was filmed climbing 40 metre high trees to tag eagle chicks – a hazardous occupation leaving little room for error. He has helped to conserve these iconic birds in Brazil and Ecuador as well as in his native Venezuela, where he is President of the Esfera Foundation and leads a national programme to protect the species.
Harpy eagles have become rare in many parts of their range where poverty, hunting, the country’s political instability and a resulting lack of law enforcement have led to a sharp increase in illegal deforestation. In Venezuela, an area of forest bigger than central London is lost every week. Alexander wants to work local people to develop ways of protecting the eagle that they deliver, so that conservation is more resilient to economic and political turbulence. His Whitley Award will cement the harpy eagle as a flagship species and he hopes to protect a greater number of nesting sites, recruiting local people as nest guardians and limiting deforestation by supporting livelihoods in shade-coffee and through forest restoration.
Sanjay Gubbi - India
Reducing deforestation in Karnataka’s tiger corridors, India
Sanjay quit his job as an electrical engineer to follow his passion for working with wildlife. Nearly two decades later he is spearheading conservation efforts in Karnataka, southern India, home to the highest number of Bengal tigers in the country where he has secured the largest expansion of protected areas in India since 1970 – increasing the size of protected areas in Karnataka by 37% and enhancing connectivity across 23 sites.
With his Whitley Award, Sanjay will be working to reduce deforestation in two important wildlife sanctuaries to create corridors for tigers to move between territories. He will also work with over 1,000 families to provide fuel efficient stoves, reducing the need for firewood collection, protecting them from respiratory diseases caused by smoke inhalation as well as the habitat of the tigers. He will also speed up compensation payments to farmers whose livestock has been blighted by tiger attacks boosting support of conservation from those living alongside wildlife.
Indira Lacerna-Widmann - Philippines
Partnering with prisoners to safeguard the Critically Endangered Philippine cockatoo
The Philippine cockatoo has declined by a staggering 80% over the last 40 years. Decimated by the cage bird trade and habitat loss it is now extinct in much of its range.
In the Filipino city of Puerto Princesa, cockatoos nest in the forested grounds of Iwahig prison – a huge open air penal farm - and forage over military and private land. Indira will use her Whitley Award to work with these novel partners to secure the future of this urban population of cockatoos; training prisoners and the army as wildlife wardens to address poaching in breeding sites and working with landowners to secure feeding corridors under threat from development - building a brighter future for both people and parrots.
Ian Little – South Africa
Custodians of South Africa’s threatened grassland biodiversity
Demand for fresh water is expected to outstrip supply in South Africa by 2025. The Eastern Great Escarpment of South Africa provides catchment services for three of the country’s largest rivers, making it a vital source of water for cities in one of the world’s most arid nations. These grasslands support a plethora of plants and animals found nowhere else, including golden moles and the sungazer lizard. Despite their importance, less than 3% of grasslands in South Africa are protected.
Ian Little of the Endangered Wildlife Trust works with farmers to champion conservation of grassland habitat. Working with farmers and tribal leaders, Ian is building capacity for sustainable farming and introducing improved management practices, such as less intensive grazing and burning regimes to decrease pressure on grasslands and boost productivity. He has already secured 60,000 hectares of grassland for conservation purposes; a figure Ian plans to increase with his Whitley Award by creating a corridor of legally protected areas linking with others along the escarpment. In doing so he will safeguard these grasslands and the important source of freshwater they provide.
Ximena Velez-Liendo - Bolivia
An uphill climb: enabling coexistence of Andean bears and farmers in the Bolivian mountains
The Inter Andean Dry Forests represent an important stronghold for South America’s only bear species. Due to intensive human activity dating back to Inca times, this mountainous ecosystem is highly fragmented and is considered the most endangered tropical forest on Earth. In Tarija, Bolivia, up to 90% of people live in poverty and predation of precious livestock by native carnivores can sometimes lead to the killing of Andean bears in retaliation.
Ximena Velez-Liendo is Principal Researcher at the NGO PROMETA. With her Whitley Award, she will generate the first population estimation for bears in the country using camera traps, and quantify human-bear conflict. The results will be used to support a national plan for the Andean bear recovery and develop strategies to enable coexistence with farmers.
The 2017 Whitley Gold Award goes to Zafer Kizilkaya
Turkey – Securing and expanding marine reserves along the Turkish coastline
The Gold Award is WFN’s top profile prize and provides £50,000 in further project funding, donated by the Friends and Scottish Friends of the Whitley Fund for Nature. This year the Gold Award goes to Zafer Kizilkaya, a 2013 Whitley Award winner, engineer, underwater photographer and marine conservationist from Turkey.
The Gold Award is given in recognition of Zafer’s conservation project ‘Guardians of the sea: securing and expanding marine reserves along the Turkish coastline’. Zafer is the President of the Mediterranean Conservation Society, an NGO which aims to conserve and restore degraded coastal ecosystems in Turkey. He leads a series of projects working with local fishing communities, coastguards and government to promote ocean conservation and sustainable fishing practices that boost fisher income and benefit wildlife such as Mediterranean monk seals, sand bar sharks and loggerhead turtles.
Visit www.whitleyaward.org to find out more.