There is a prestigious environmental award that has been in existence for over 20 years. While under the radar the Whitley Fund for Nature has quietly grown from £15,000 in 1994 to £1.1 million in 2015 in annual awards. Known to insiders as the Green Oscars, it funds the best and brightest working long-term in the field on a scientific and grassroots level.
The winning projects involve communities at the local level with a proven track record of success. These seven mid-career conservationists are chosen from nearly 200 applicants in a rigorous decision process that will award each winner £35,000 to continue and expand their programs.
Bringing together these great minds from eight different countries for a week of meetings, press events and the gala awards ceremony, they get to know each other and share ideas and experiences. This cross-pollination (pun intended) and camaraderie is truly inspiring to witness. At the Royal Geographical Society press conference in London, there was a light-hearted atmosphere among the award winners who’d built a rapport over their week together discussing strategies and planning that can inspire and influence projects across the globe.
This year’s Gold Award Winner is Dr. Dino Martins of Kenya. He is saving the pollinators, working with people and plants to bring about greater yields by letting nature do its work. In other words, ending the use of toxic pesticides in Kenya. His success since winning the Whitley Award in 2009 brought about this Gold Award of continued funding of £50,000. His program has educated thousands of schoolchildren and earned the goodwill of local communities. The proven results in higher crop yields by encouraging cross-pollination over the use of unregulated pesticides is a case study in conservation success.
Some like Rosamira Guillen (Colombia, cotton-top tamarin) and Dr. Pramod Patil (India, great Indian bustard) gave up careers as an architect and medical doctor to follow the calling of saving wildlife and giving back to communities.
Among the winners this year are Inaoyom Imong of Nigeria. Working to save the critically endangered Cross River gorilla, he spends his time in the Mbe Mountains where there this gorilla has no formal protection. He has made incredible progress with the people though as he explains to me that the locals have a fondness and pride for their gorilla. Given the growing human population leading to deforestation and bushmeat trade, he has made a point to involve the communities in their future. By encouraging sustainable alternative livelihoods like bee-keeping and potential eco-tourism plans, the Cross River gorilla has the potential to draw visitors from all over the world. Given the success of tourism in Rwanda and Uganda around gorilla safaris, the prosperous model is already in place to draw visitors to Nigeria.
The awards were presented by HRH Princess Royal and attended by Sir David Attenborough who lent his famous voice in narration of the short nature films for each project for the ceremony. During his acceptance speech, Pramod Patil of India, who is saving the great Indian bustard in the Thar Desert, said ‘Sir David Attenborough is my most favorite human being on this earth… Sir David I love you’. Greeted with laughter and wild clapping from the audience, it was clear he said what was in everyone’s heart.
The HRH Princess Royal gave an inspirational speech in support of the winners futures, how the award can open doors for more funding and shed more light on their projects. She states “The secret of the Whitley Fund for Nature is that they find exceptional grassroots conservation leaders. Whitely 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.”
Using tech to alert villagers of elephants, reducing pesticide use, growing local economies to incorporate wildlife presence, and engendering a love of wildlife in the younger generations, the Whitley Awards go beyond the research aspect and support solid, quantifiable results-driven conservation models. The winners will return to their home countries after this whirlwind week in London with renewed support from heads of state, major donors, global press and an enthusiasm to expand their wildlife conservation projects for decades to come.
Like television presenter Kate Humble repeatedly said at the awards gala, we come out of this evening feeling hopeful, feeling good about the fate of our planet in the hands of these passionate people.
The winners this year are:
Arnoud Desbiez of Brazil who is raising awareness of the little known however large, Great Armadillo as a flagship species for the tropical scrubland in the Brazilian Cerrado.
Rosamira Guillen of Columbia, director of Proyecto Titi who works to save the rare cotton-top tamarin found only in the northern regions of Colombia.
Panut Hadisiswoyo of Sumatra is creating conservation villages to build local capacity for the protection of Sumatran orangutans. His passionate acceptance speech included a challenge to all in the audience to bring about the end of deforestation in Indonesia.
Jayson Ibanez of Philippines who dedicates his life to saving the Philippine eagle on Mindanao Island. Over half the remaining nesting pairs are found in these unprotected forests.
Inaoyom Imong of Nigeria is saving the critically endangered Cross River gorilla and building capacity for bee-keeping and eco-tourism. With participation of the community he is working with locals in the Mbe Mountains near the border of Cameroon where there is no formal protection for Africa’s rarest gorilla.
Ananda Kumar of India is developing clever communication systems to encourage human-elephant co-existence. With the use of SMS texting, mobile lights and other early warning systems, fatal encounters with wild elephants can be greatly reduced and make habitat safe for both humans and elephants alike.
Pramod Patil of India is working with communities to save the great Indian bustard in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Righting the wrongs of previous unsuccessful conservation planning that excluded the local people, he is encouraging better management of grasslands and changing opinions at the grassroots level.
Gold Award Winner Dino Martins of Kenya will expand his work throughout the country to protect the little things that power the planet, the pollinators.
All Whitley Awards winners are eligible to apply for continuation funding to scale up their results on the ground.