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Estrela Matilde wins Whitley Award

Stemming the tide of plastic pollution: an inspiring island-wide effort to save sea turtles in São Tomé and Príncipe

Estrela Matilde has received a Whitley Award worth £40,000 from UK wildlife conservation charity, the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN). She is working with local people on the island of Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea to reduce plastic pollution that threatens five of planet’s seven sea turtle species.

“I want to change the world, one island at a time”

Videos recorded by tagged turtles now contain more plastic debris than fellow turtles. With her Whitley Award Estrela Matilde will fit plastic bottles with innovative GPS transmitters to capture data on distribution and catalyse a government commitment to reducing plastic imports, as well as starting waste-based businesses with female entrepreneurs, recycling washed-up flipflops and beer bottles into jewellery.

Whitley Awards are world-leading prizes for wildlife conservation. On Wednesday 27 April they were presented by WFN Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, to six grassroots conservationists pioneering solutions to the biodiversity crisis, live streamed to YouTube. With one million species at risk of extinction and warnings of inextricable links between biodiversity loss and climate change, Whitley Award winners will use the funding to accelerate their breakthrough work to reverse declines in species from Sumatran rhinos to red pandas in Nepal.

Príncipe – the smaller of the two islands in São Tomé and Príncipe – is situated in the Gulf of Guinea. With a 31-million-year-old rainforest surrounded by turquoise waters, the island is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and has the highest rate of endemic species by square km on the planet.

Sea turtles belong to the most ancient line of living reptiles and 5 of the 7 species are found around Príncipe: the Olive Ridley, leatherback and loggerhead (Vulnerable), the green (Endangered), and the hawksbill (Critically Endangered). Through her NGO, Fundaçāo Príncipe, Matilde and her team have turned turtle poachers into protectors: nearing a zero poaching rate, increasing the number of nests from 1,750 in the 2015/16 breeding season to 2,500 in 2021/22, and doubling the number of hatchlings released to 130,000.

However, videos recorded by tagged turtles now contain more plastic debris than other turtles – with plastic appearing in nearly a third of all footage. Through ingestion, entanglement, and degradation of the marine environment on which wildlife and local people rely, plastic waste is an urgent threat to over 700 species as well as the fisheries that provide protein for coastal communities.

“It is impossible to be next to a nesting turtle and not be deeply touched by this gentle giant. But we, as consumers, have driven them to the edge of extinction. The items found on our beaches come from the USA, Singapore, Senegal… it’s scary. Every single item you consume can end up being eaten by a turtle.”

With her Whitley Award, Matilde will use innovative GPS tracking technology to determine the movement and aggregation of surface plastics around Príncipe. She will use the data to prompt a political response, aiming to halve the amount of single use plastic imported to the island.

She will also create female-led enterprises to recycle over 20% of washed-ashore plastics into jewellery, improving income and gender equality. This builds on the success of the Cooperativa de Valorização de Resíduos, a cooperative of local women producing beaded jewellery from washed-up bottles and flipflops.

“Africa is the only place in the world where more women than men choose to become entrepreneurs and expanding opportunities will have a tremendous impact on growth. When investing in women, we invest in future generations who learn enterprise and independence from empowered mothers.”

Danni Parks, WFN Director, said: “Estrela is an inspirational leader, empowering the people of Príncipe to enact environmental and social change. Her two-pronged approach to addressing this wave of plastic pollution will ensure improvements are made at every level, with equitable, grassroots recycling enterprises supported by political reform. Her work stands to benefit both society and struggling sea turtles, themselves an indicator of this ancient archipelago’s rapidly deteriorating health.”


  • Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK registered charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South. Over 29 years it has channelled £19 million to more than 200 conservationists in 80 countries.
  • A pioneer in the sector, WFN was one of the first charities to direct funding to locally-led projects. Its rigorous application process identifies inspiring individuals who combine the latest science with community-based action, to benefit wildlife, landscapes, and people.
  • WFN’s flagship prizes – Whitley Awards – are presented by Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, at a prestigious annual ceremony in London. Winners receive £40,000 funding over one year, training and media profile including short films narrated by Trustee, Sir David Attenborough.
  • The 2022 Whitley Awards Ceremony took place on Wednesday 27 April at the Royal Geographical Society, live streamed to YouTube. The 2022 Whitley Award winners are:
  1. Emmanuel Amoah, Ghana
    Tales from the riverbank: safeguarding the last stronghold of West African slender-snouted crocodile
  2. Micaela Camino, Argentina
    Empowering communities to defend their human rights and conserve Argentina’s Dry Chaco
  3. Pablo Hoffmann, Brazil
    Rooting for the future: nurturing wild plant diversity in the Araucaria Forest region
  4. Sonam Lama, Nepal
    People and red pandas: mutually beneficial conservation in the Himalayas
  5. Estrela Matilde, São Tomé and Príncipe
    Stemming the tide of plastic pollution: an island-wide effort to save sea turtles
  6. Dedy Yansyah, Indonesia
    Last stand for the Sumatran rhino: looking out for Leuser’s ecosystem engineers
  • Continuation Funding, allowing successful conservation solutions to be scaled up. Projects receive up to £100,000 over two years and include nature-based solutions that jointly address the climate and biodiversity crises.
  • Every year a Whitley Award alumnus is chosen to receive the Whitley Gold Award, worth £100,000, in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the conservation sector. Joining the Judging Panel, the Whitley Gold Award recipient also acts as a mentor to Whitley Award winners. The 2022 Whitley Gold Award winner is world-leading snow leopard conservationist, Charudutt Mishra.


Amy Forshaw, Head of Communications at Whitley Fund for Nature

E: [email protected]
T: +44 (0)7746 412189

Images: Estrela Matilde © Fundação Príncipe and Yves Rocher Award / Sea turtle hatchling © Fundação Príncipe and Vasco Pissarra / Flipflop waste © Fundação Príncipe and Vasco Pissarra