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Whitley Award donated by The Frank Brake Charitable Trust

It takes two to tango: conservationist awarded for work with dancing Hooded Grebe on the Patagonian Steppe

Even the world’s most inhospitable environments are now reached by the ripple of humankind, and Patagonia’s recently discovered Hooded Grebe is struggling to survive the impact of invasive species and industry. Patagonian conservationist, Kini Roesler, has received a prestigious Whitley Award worth £40,000 for protecting the Critically Endangered water bird from extinction.

Discovered in 1974, the Hooded Grebe has quickly become a symbol of Patagonia. Their striking feathers and mesmerising courting dance have become an internet sensation but behind the fame they also serve as a stark reminder of the devastating results of climate change.

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 Patagonian Steppe, characterised by epic scenery and extreme weather, is a vast and seemingly empty space. Often regarded as “wilderness” or “wasteland” with few human inhabitants, governments too frequently favour it for unsustainable extractive industries such as mining and petrochemical exploration. In reality, many lakes scattered across this steppe are home to an abundance of bird species during their summer migration.


The area has also fallen victim to the drastic changes in climate, resulting in more frequent wind storms of more than 100 km/h, less snowfall year-on-year and unstable temperature patterns. Consequently, the number of suitable breeding lakes has depleted significantly while other stable lakes have been stocked with rainbow trout for recreational fishing. Coupled with the thriving population of the invasive American Mink – the grebe’s main predator – the species is extremely vulnerable. With low breeding rates – raising just one chick per year – they are fragile to change.


Kini, Science Director at Aves Argentinas (Latin America’s oldest conservation organisation), put his life plans on hold in 2010 when he learnt that the Hooded Grebe’s population had suffered an 80% decline in only 20 years.

Hooded Grebes appear as “white dots” on plateaus, detectable by only the most experienced of observers. Unsurprisingly, the species went unnoticed until 1974. Since then, they have become an emblematic bird for these Austral lands yet remain Critically Endangered.

Kini and his team at Aves Argentinas and the Argentinean Scientific Council have worked relentlessly to bring the Hooded Grebe back from the brink, controlling invasive species, improving breeding success and creating Patagonia National Park which protects 50% of the Hooded Grebe summer population.

However, the Hooded Grebe’s fight for survival continues. Their winter habitat is now under threat as work to create two hydroelectric mega dams on the Santa Cruz River is underway. The winter habitat is vitally important as they migrate, moult and breed using only the energy they gather during winter.

The Santa Cruz Province authority consider wildlife and agriculture within the same department therefore conservation is undermined and underfunded. There are almost no clear public actions in place to protect wildlife or preserve habitats which often leads to political decisions in favour of unsustainable industries.

Whitley Award winner, Kini Roesler, said: “The Hooded Grebe is proof that even wildlife in the most remote parts of the world is being impacted by the acts of humans. Their future is reliant on our actions so world leaders must step up to ensure that their lives and habitats are considered. Economic growth and trading can no longer be the top priority.

“I am incredibly proud that the animal I have dedicated my career to protecting is having an opportunity to shine on the international stage. The support from the Whitley Fund for Nature will allow the Hooded Grebe to take its rightful place as a flagship species and allow us to expand our efforts by broadening our project site and educating future conservationists.”

The funding from the Whitley Award will allow Kini and his team to answer critical questions about the Hooded Grebe’s lifecycle and develop effective strategies to protect its habitat from development. The grant will also help train 20 conservationists at the Juan Mazar Barnett Biological Station, building local capacity for conservation.

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “Kini sets an example of what can be achieved through dedicated research and communication. He recognised from an early age that he was able to make a positive difference to the Hooded Grebe and its habitat. His ambition to build greater capacity for conservation makes him a very worthy winner of the Whitley Award. We look forward to following his journey and seeing his conservation efforts scale-up.

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 Kini’s project are available here.
  • A tailor-made short film featuring Kini 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.