- The six winners of 2018 Whitley Award are Munir Virani of Kenya; Shahriar Caesar Rahman of Bangladesh; Kerstin Forsberg of Peru; Dominique Bikaba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Anjali Chandraraj Watson of Sri Lanka; and Olivier Nsengimana of Rwanda.
- Each recipient was awarded £40,000 ($56,000) in project funding over one year at an awards ceremony held at the Royal Geographic Society in London, U.K., on April 25.
- A seventh conservationist, Pablo “Popi” Garcia Borboroglu from Argentina, who won the Whitley Award in 2010, received the Whitley Gold Award for his commitment to safeguarding the world’s penguin species.
Six conservationists received the conservation world’s “Green Oscars” at an awards ceremony at the Royal Geographic Society in London, U.K., on April 25.
The Whitley Award, granted by the U.K.-based charity Whitley Fund for Nature, honors local environmental heroes who work in grassroots nature conservation, often facing “humanitarian, environmental and political challenges in the projects they undertake.” This year marks 25 years of the prestigious award.
The six winners were chosen from a pool of over 136 applicants from 48 countries. Each recipient was awarded £40,000, or about $56,000, in project funding over one year, according to a press release from the Whitley Fund for Nature.
A seventh conservationist, Pablo “Popi” Garcia Borboroglu from Argentina, recipient of the 2010 Whitley Award, won the Whitley Gold Award for his commitment to safeguarding the world’s penguin species. The Whitley Gold Award is given to an “exceptional Whitley Award alumnus for outstanding contribution,” and includes a £60,000 ($84,000) project prize.
Shahriar Caesar Rahman, who won the 2018 Whitley Award for his work in Bangladesh, said at the award ceremony: “Tonight, I would like to share this award with the local communities who have shared with me their homes, their wisdom, and their trust. And to them I say, I will not let them down.”
Meet the 2018 Whitley Award winners:
Munir Virani, Kenya
A former cricketer, Munir Virani is now vice president of The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit group that works to conserve birds of prey around the world. Virani focuses on saving endangered vultures in Africa’s Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
Virani’s team works to eradicate poisoning of vultures, a major cause of their decline across Africa. When big cats like lions kill livestock, pastoralists sometimes lace carcasses with poison in retaliation, hoping to reduce predator numbers. Vultures, which scavenge on carcasses, often become collateral damage. In just the Maasai Mara, vultures have declined by 50 percent over 30 years, in large part due to poisoned bait, according to BirdLife International. Virani’s work helps ensure that these birds remain an integral part of the African savanna.
Shahriar Caesar Rahman, Bangladesh
Shahriar Caesar Rahman, co-founder of the non-profit Creative Conservation Alliance, is working to preserve Asia’s largest tortoise in the remote Chittagong Hill tracts (CHT), on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Rahman’s team not only rediscovered the Asian giant tortoise (Manouria emys), previously thought to be extinct, but also found a new species of forest turtle in the CHT. His team has also trained members of indigenous tribes living in the region, many of them former hunters, as biologists. These trained “parabiologists” now help in documenting and protecting the CHT’s wildlife. Rahman’s team has also created a market for the sale of indigenous crafts, reviving cultures that are on the verge of being lost.
Read Mongabay’s 2016 interview with Rahman here.
Kerstin Forsberg, Peru
Kerstin Forsberg, a marine biologist and founder of the NGO Planeta Océano, is working to conserve giant manta rays (Manta birostris) in Peru.
Kerstin’s NGO has lobbied to get manta rays legal protection in Peru. She also works with local fishermen to reduce accidental bycatch of the species as well as take leadership roles in conserving giant manta rays, especially through ecotourism. Her team also engages with youths and other citizen scientists to monitor giant manta ray populations.
Dominique Bikaba, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Dominique Bikaba, founder of the NGO Strong Roots, is working to protect and conserve the extremely rare Grauer’s gorilla, also known as the eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), found only in the mountain forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mining, poaching and civil unrest pose severe threats to the species. Bikaba’s team hopes to reduce the rapid decline of the gorillas by working with local people to secure a forest corridor that will connect gorilla populations in the Kahuzi-Biega and Itombwe nature reserves. Through his efforts, Bikaba has succeeded in getting communities to agree to commit 3,000 square kilometers (1,160 square miles) of forest for gorilla conservation. At the same time, the team is working to improve local food security to reduce the communities’ dependence on forest resources.
Anjali Chandraraj Watson, Sri Lanka
Anjali Watson, co-founder of the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust in Sri Lanka, is an ecologist working to foster coexistence between humans and leopards (Panthera pardus kotiya) in the country’s Central Highlands, a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Watson’s team trains local communities as “leopard watchers” to help respond to leopards entering villages, and to reduce snaring of the big cats. Her team also engages with tea estate workers and owners in the landscape to participate in conservation via environmental certification schemes. Watson hopes to establish a protected corridor that will connect two reserves in the region and help reduce human-leopard conflict incidents.
Olivier Nsengimana, Rwanda
Veterinarian Olivier Nsengimana is working to save the endangered grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) in Rwanda. The birds are threatened not just by the destruction of their wetland habitats, but also by a booming illegal pet trade, with fewer than 500 grey crowned cranes now surviving in the country.
To protect the species, Nsengimana, set up the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA). With his team, he has registered all captive cranes in Rwanda to ensure that more individuals are not brought into captivity. He also employs his veterinary skills to help rehabilitate these birds to the wild. Nsengimana’s team hopes to train a network of volunteers who will help combat poaching and monitor crane populations. His team will also continue to raise awareness about the bird’s status, and help conserve four wetlands and restore roost sites across the country.
Pablo ‘Popi’ Garcia Borboroglu, Argentina (Whitley Gold Award winner)
Pablo “Popi” Garcia Borboroglu, winner of the 2010 Whitley Award, founded the Global Penguin Society to conserve penguins across their range in the Southern Hemisphere.
Borboroglu has a number of achievements to his credit, including the designation of the Blue Patagonia Biosphere Reserve, Argentina’s largest; the protection of more than 31,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles) of marine and coastal habitat, benefiting 20 penguin colonies; and the creation of a wildlife reserve and an ecotourism plan that helped increase the population of a Magellanic penguin colony in El Pedral, Patagonia, from six pairs in 2008 to more than 2,000 pairs in less than a decade.