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Whitley Award donated by the Arcus Foundation

Bats from the brink – Nigerian conservationist recognised for leading collective action to save the short-tailed roundleaf bat

Bats are some of the world’s most maligned mammals, a perception that’s only worsened since the outbreak of COVID-19. Nigerian conservationist, Iroro Tanshi, has received a prestigious Whitley Award worth £40,000 to save the short-tailed roundleaf bat after discovering the country’s first and only known population.

The Whitley Awards are presented annually to individuals from the Global South by UK-based charity Whitley Fund for Nature. Iroro is one of six conservationists recognised in 2021 for their commitment to leading grassroots action that benefits wildlife, habitats and communities.

Sir David Attenborough, WFN Trustee, said: “Whitley Award winners are local environmental heroes, harnessing the best available science and leading projects with passion. I admire their courage, their commitment, and their ability to affect change. There are few jobs more important.”


The short-tailed roundleaf bat had not been seen in the wild for 45 years. It was thought to occur only in Cameroon and Bioko until Iroro and the Small Mammal Conservation Organisation discovered a group of just 15 individuals in south-eastern Nigeria in 2016. With all previously known roosts destroyed or their statuses unknown, this population is the last confirmed long-term site for the species.


Forest fires, which destroy critical foraging habitat, often originate on farmland and have intensified over the past decade due to reduced rainfall and a drier climate. The species is also at risk from cave disturbance, as COVID-19’s economic fallout forces more people to hunt fruit bats, flushing out the short-tailed roundleaf bats with whom they share their roosts.


Bats are feared by the majority of Nigerians and are often considered witches despite facilitating farming through natural pest control and pollination. Since establishing the project in 2016, Iroro has worked with communities and hunters. She has educated and raised awareness around the importance of bat conservation through training exercises, as well as working towards a local anti-fire law which was introduced in the Buanchor community in 2017 and has resulted in zero wildlife fires in the area over two consecutive years.

Whitley Award winner, Iroro Tanshi said:My earliest memories of being interested in nature are from around the age of six, when I would watch nature documentaries with my father. My interest in bats started during a visit to Uganda in 2010 for a Tropical Biology Association field course and, since then, I have been devoted to protecting these cute little creatures.

“The funding will allow us to expand the scale and scope of our intervention efforts to the other four major communities around Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and Cross River National Park. Receiving a Whitley Award has given me, and my team, hopes of saving this precious creature from extinction and we are very grateful for the support.”

With her Whitley Award, Iroro will now expand her work from Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and Cross River National Park to the Mbe Mountains, locating new caves and tracking bats to better understand their distribution. As well as identifying new roosts for protection, she will address the drivers of their decline.

Iroro aims to reduce the frequency of wildfires in these new sites by 100% by helping farms to find alternatives to agricultural burning, launching an early-warning system and establishing an anti-fire taskforce in each community.

Additionally, she will reduce cave disturbance from fruit bat hunting. Iroro will work with community members, vendors of bat meat, hunters, and Forest Management Committees in each village to establish a hunting ban at high priority caves, while introducing alternative sources of protein.

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “We are thrilled for Iroro to receive the Whitley Award. As well as striving to save this special bat species, her work will build conservation capacity by training young conservationists in Nigeria. Iroro should be extremely proud of the remarkable results that she and her team have achieved already, and we look forward to seeing her replicate her successes across a wider area.”

This year’s Whitley Gold Award, worth £100,000 GBP, honours Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu for her outstanding work securing justice for wildlife and citizens. Paula is pioneering a new approach, that protects the country’s wildlife and habitats while recognising Kenyans’ legitimate aspirations for economic development. CEO of WildlifeDirect, her Whitley Gold Award will enable her to expand her efforts, empowering concerned citizens through the first ever Environmental Justice Desk, educating field rangers in the collection of evidence admissible in court, and defending iconic habitats from unchecked development by powerful interest groups that override environmental concerns with impunity. Paula will foster a culture of public participation in environmental decisions and promote African leadership of wildlife conservation across the continent.

Whitley Gold Award winner, Paula Kahumbu, said: “I want to see a global shift in the narrative where Africans are the storytellers about African wildlife and assume the lead in efforts to protect it”.

The 2021 Whitley Award winners are:

  • Lucy Kemp | A community-based approach to conserve the Southern Ground-hornbill | South Africa | Winner of the Whitley Award donated by Anne Reece
  • Nuklu Phom | Establishing a biodiversity peace corridor in Nagaland | India | Winner of the Whitley Award donated by the MAVA Foundation
  • Iroro Tanshi | Bats from the brink: Participatory action to save the short-tailed roundleaf bat | Nigeria | Winner of the Whitley Award donated by the Arcus Foundation
  • Kini Roesler | Hooded Grebe: Guardian of the Patagonian Steppe | Argentina | Winner of the Whitley Award donated by The Frank Brake Charitable Trust
  • Sammy Safari | Transforming the future of sea turtles through coastal stewardship | Kenya | Winner of the Whitley Award donated by The Corcoran Foundation
  • Pedro Fruet | Building bridges to encourage coexistence with the Lahille’s bottlenose dolphin | Brazil | Winner of the Whitley Award donated by The William Brake Foundation

The 2021 Whitley Gold Award winner is:

  • Paula Kahumbu | Justice for people and wildlife | Kenya | Winner of the Whitley Gold Award donated by the Friends of Whitley Fund for Nature


Press materials available:

  • Copyright-cleared photographs of Iroro’s project are available here.
  • A tailor-made short film featuring Iroro narrated by WFN Trustee, Sir David Attenborough, is available here.

Notes to Editors:

  • Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK registered charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders across the Global South.
  • The Whitley Awards are prestigious international prizes presented to mid-career conservationists leading successful projects in their home countries. Each winner receives training, media profile and £40,000 in project funding over one year.
  • Whitley Awards are normally presented to winners by charity Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, at an annual ceremony in London. This year, the winners were celebrated on a virtual stage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The Whitley Gold Award is worth £100,000 and recognises a past Whitley Award winner who has gone on to make an outstanding impact. Joining the Judging Panel, the Gold recipient also acts as a mentor to Whitley Award winners and an international ambassador for conservation success.
  • Since its formation 28 years ago, the Whitley Fund for Nature has given £18million to more than 200 conservation leaders in over 80 countries.
  • WFN operates a rigorous application process involving expert panel representation from international NGOs including WWF-UK, Fauna and Flora International (FFI), the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). This year, WFN received 107 applications that passed through four stages of assessment, reviewed at every step by expert screeners and panellists who kindly offer their expertise voluntarily.
  • The Whitley Awards are open to individuals working on wildlife conservation in countries that are poor in capital for conservation but rich in biodiversity.
  • Whitley Award winners receive professional media and communications training, network with leading conservation organisations, meet WFN donors and are interviewed by the media. The associated publicity of winning a Whitley Award puts a spotlight on their important work, boosting profile both in the UK and winners’ home countries.
  • The 2021 Whitley Awards week has been generously sponsored by Earlymarket LLP, Whitley Awards Partner.
  • Whitley Award winners join an international network of alumni eligible to apply for Continuation Funding. Awarded competitively, these grants allow winners to scale up effective conservation solutions over multiple years. Half of WFN’s annual Continuation Funding is directed to nature-based solutions that benefit the climate, wildlife and human wellbeing.
  • WFN is generously supported by: Anne Reece; Arcus Foundation; The Frank Brake Charitable Trust; The William Brake Foundation; The Badenoch Fund; The Benindi Fund; The Corcoran Foundation; Earlymarket LLP; The Evolution Education Trust; Thomas Gibson; Global Wildlife Conservation; The Britta & Jeremy Lloyd Family Charitable Trust; Lund Trust, a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing; MAVA Foundation; Charles and Ruth Plowden; The Foundation for the Promotion of Wellbeing; The Rabelais Trust; The Rufford Foundation; Fondation Segré; The Shears Foundation; Maurice and Vivien Thompson; The Constance Travis Charitable Trust; The Waterloo Foundation; Garfield Weston Foundation; Whitley Animal Protection Trust; the Friends of Whitley Fund for Nature; all our partners and supporters and those donors who have chosen to give anonymously.