We've rounded up reasons to remain positive in the new year, with highlights from Whitley Award winners' work over the past 12 months.
Whitley Award winners are wildlife conservationists leading impactful, holistic, and equitable solutions to the environmental emergencies.
In a world learning to live with COVID-19, WFN alumni have been able to continue working where safe to do so – hand in hand with communities on locally-embedded projects benefitting people and planet.
1. Vital habitat has been restored for one of the top ten species at risk of imminent extinction – the Critically Endangered hirola antelope. 2020 winner Abdullahi Ali led efforts to successfully reinstate the 500km2 Arawale National Reserve and was recognised with a 2021 National Geographic/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation for his work to save hirola.
2. 2017 winner Sanjay Gubbi has provided 2,000 Indian families with forest-friendly cooking stoves. This simple solution means economically constrained communities living alongside tiger habitat in Karnataka can reduce logging for firewood, improve air quality in their homes, and prevent human-wildlife conflict with less need to venture into the forest.
3. Field work in Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea basin led by 2011 winner Elena Bykova has revealed two new locations of the globally threatened saiga antelope. These significant discoveries will bolster Elena’s efforts to secure protected status for the area, working with governments and industry to develop safeguards to restore this unique species and its degraded habitat.
4. 2005 Gold Award winner and snow leopard conservationist Charu Mishra’s ‘PARTNERS Principles’ were recognised as one of 22 outstanding global conservation practices by the COP15 Biodiversity summit. The principles set out a replicable ‘conservation for development’ model which puts communities at the heart of biodiversity conservation.
5. It was an exciting year for 2013 winner John Kahekwa who became an Earthshot Prize finalist for his community-led conservation model that protects DRC’s Endangered Eastern lowland gorillas while benefitting local families. As the gorillas share precious natural resources with millions of people, John works with communities to develop alternative, nonexploitative livelihoods in food production and ecotourism.
6. Thanks to 2004 Gold Award winner Randall Arauz’s lobbying, threatened shark species such as hammerheads and thresher sharks are now listed under Costa Rica’s National Endangered Species List. This reclassification will strengthen Randall’s mission to halt commercial shark fishing industries as the law forbids catching, retaining and trading threatened species.
7. Orangutan habitat is better protected thanks to 2014 winner Melvin Gumal, whose proposal to connect the Ulu Sebauyau and the Sedilu National Parks has been approved by the Government of Sarawak. They will buy back the oil palm plantations dividing these protected areas and allow a biodiverse corridor to recover, helping to sustain the area’s remaining orangutans.
8. Thanks to years of work by 2010 winner Vadim Kirilyuk, Russia’s Daursky Strict Scientific Nature Reserve has nearly doubled in size, expanding to 84,000 ha. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this landmark expansion will better protect steppe and wetland ecosystems home to species including the mass migrating Mongolian gazelle.
9. The Danube River is now home to four Dalmatian Pelican breeding colonies thanks to 2009 winner Emil Todorov’s work installing artificial nesting platforms. Pelicans have returned to one of the sites after more than 60 years of absence, while two more colonies saw record-breaking numbers in 2021, with 88 pairs present during breeding season.
10. 2002 Gold Award winner Laury Cullen is restoring Brazil’s Atlantic Forest as a nature-based solution to climate change. In 2021 this work generated over £350,000 in income for local families who are trained in seedling production, restoration, and biodiversity monitoring. So far Laury and his team have planted over 1.4 million native trees to complete Brazil’s first and largest wildlife corridor, sustaining endemic species such as the black lion tamarin.
11. Thanks to continuous lobbying by 2001 winner Vivek Menon and his team, the Srivilliputhur Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, India, was upgraded to a Tiger Reserve. This will enhance protection and management of the 480 km2 landscape – crucial connective habitat which supports safe passage of around 200 Asian elephants.
12. Grey Crowned Crane populations are on the rise in Rwanda thanks in part to 2018 winner Olivier Nsengimana. The 2021 census recorded 997 birds, up from just 459 when Olivier’s Whitley Award project began in 2018. As the pandemic causes the rural population of people to increase too, this achievement points to the possibility of communities and wildlife successfully sharing precious freshwater resources.
13. Through a largescale awareness campaign led by 2001 winner Vu Thi Quyen, 3,524 new wildlife crime cases were reported to her NGO Education for Nature – double the goal for 2021. The first step in bringing criminals to justice, Quyen’s campaign is changing attitudes and accelerating an end to Vietnam’s rife illegal wildlife trade, which poses a serious threat to species such as pangolins, tigers and elephants.
14. 2007 Whitley Gold Award winner Fernando Trujillo facilitated greater protection and management of an important wetland site in Colombia covering more than 200,000ha. New conservation agreements developed with communities will stop forest degradation, restrict agrochemical use, prevent hunting, and enable biodiversity monitoring in habitat home to river dolphins, otters, tapirs, jaguars, turtles and fish.
15. 2016 winner Farwiza Farhan has been awarded the 2021 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award for her work with communities and courts to protect the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on Earth home to rhino, elephant, tiger and orangutan. Also a 2021 TED fellow, Farwiza’s TED talk highlights the added challenges that women – like her all-female ranger conservation team – face on the frontlines of climate action.
16. 2020 winner Rachel Ikemeh and 2019 winner Caleb Ofori Boateng were both nominated for a Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa. Rachel is fearlessly defending a distinct subgroup of Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzees from a myriad of threats in Nigeria, while Caleb also received a 2021 Conservation Leadership Award for protecting the Critically Endangered Togo slippery frog.
17. Years of lobbying led by 2019 winner José Sarasola paid off when the government of Argentina’s Mendoza province made ‘recue ramps’ mandatory for water reservoirs. Simply allowing safe escape from sheer-sided water tanks has a large-scale impact on the survival of species from the Chaco Eagle to the Andean Cat, who rely on access to drinking water as agriculture expands into South America’s semi-arid biomes.
18. 2014 Whitley Gold Award winner Jean Wiener helped Haiti establish its first Marine Protected Areas and his recent efforts have increased marine patrols tenfold, from covering 1,000 to 10,000ha. The completion of his latest Continuation Funding project is remarkable given that last year Haitians faced kidnapping for ransom becoming the norm, a presidential assassination, a state of emergency declared with martial law, an earthquake, tropical storm and a hurricane, as well as COVID-19.