Conservation motivation for 2023: 15 inspiring stories of impact

Highlights of winner results from 2022

With a historic new deal for nature agreed in December 2022 at COP15, we are entering the New Year with renewed optimism, further strengthened by the achievements of our network of Whitley Award winners around the world.

Here, we look back at some of the top results from our winners from the last 12 months, who are already working to bring the goals and targets agreed at COP15 to fruition, turning the tide for our planet:

1. 2012 winner Budiono and his team have successfully established a 42,677 ha protected area for the Critically Endangered Mahakam River dolphin in Indonesia; the first freshwater protected area of its kind under the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries. In 2022, Budi helped protect a total of 220,000 ha, home to 190 species, and by preventing this area from being converted into palm oil plantations, he is keeping over 78 million tonnes of carbon in wetland and peat swamps from emitting into the atmosphere. The team also saw a drop in Mahakam River dolphin mortality thanks to their conservation efforts.

Mahakam River dolphins.

2. 2018 winner Dominique Bikaba and his team secured a series of official titles to create 21 community forests in eastern DRC, together spanning 600,000 ha – two-thirds of it intact rainforest, helping to protect the world’s only population of the eastern lowland gorilla by working with the communities who call these forests home. Together, they are also restoring deforested tracts of land, using tree planting to provide wood for communities living near Kahuzi-Biega National Park, so that local people no longer have to rely on resources from the park. So far, 2.6 million trees have been planted.

Planting around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

3. 2011 Gold Award winner Rachel Graham and her team’s work to monitor species, gather data and advocate for change with organisations such as the IUCN Shark Specialist Group contributed to the largest shark and ray protection measures in CITES history. World governments listed the 19 requiem shark species and their 35 look alike species in the CITES Appendix II, including all small hammerhead sharks. The proposals were put forward by the host country, Panama, where Rachel works to reverse declines in marine wildlife.

4. Threats to the 0.9 million ha landscapes of Dauria World Heritage Site have been substantially reduced thanks to 2013 winner Eugene Simonov and 2010 winner Vadim Kirilyuk, whose scientific evidence and research-based advocacy have led to dam construction on the Ulz River being completely stalled, preserving the Ulz River Valley, an important carbon sink. Together, Eugene and Vadim are raising awareness of the harm caused to climate, biodiversity and coastal communities from largescale damming projects, working with governments, companies, and financial institutions to foster nature-friendly alternatives.

5. Scalloped hammerhead sharks are now better protected thanks to the work of 2019 winner, Ilena Zanella, and her team at Misión Tiburón. Last April, the President of Costa Rica signed a decree to expand the boundaries of the Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary (HSS) threefold, to cover 15,500 ha. The area was first declared a sanctuary after Ilena and her team identified it as an important nursery ground for these Critically Endangered sharks, and preliminary evidence shows that shark numbers in the area are recovering. Ilena continues to gain international recognition for her work, this year winning the Andrew’s Prize for the Environment.

Ilena monitoring a young hammerhead shark.

6. Paula Kahumbu, our 2021 Gold Award winner, became the first National Geographic Explorer to join the National Geographic Society’s Board of Trustees. Paula was also recognised as one of the Financial Times’25 Most Influential Women of 2022, for her pragmatic and solutions-led efforts to protect wildlife, including her Hands Off Our Elephants campaign, which is widely recognized for its success in engaging of the people of Kenya to support the protection of elephants.

7. 2008 winner Marleny Rosales-Meda received legal accreditation and re-certification of her School Cultural Environmental Education Program (PEACE) from the Guatemalan Ministry of Education. Her PEACE programme, which was created with WFN´s support in 2009, is centred on protecting biodiversity and promoting sustainable livelihoods around the Lachua Ecoregion wetland, an important Ramsar site. This latest government endorsement reflects the positive impact that her work has had on youth empowerment and positive engagement as conservation allies.

Marleny Rosales-Meda’s education programme.

8. 2022 winner Micaela Camino spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations about how the Chaco region’s natural ecosystems have been shaped by indigenous peoples, many of who are now being forced to leave their homes due to deforestation for the industrial production of commodities for exportation. She called for the many indigenous and Criollo families of the Chaco region to have central role in developing alternative resources that respect their culture and land rights, as well as the conservation of nature.

9. 2017 winner Purnima Barman was awarded the UN’s highest environmental honour, named UN Environment Programme’s 2022 Champion of the Earth for Entrepreneurial Vision for her work leading the “Hargila Army,” an all-female grassroots conservation movement dedicated to protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork, known locally as hargila, from extinction. Her work is changing local perceptions of the stork species, and empowering more than 10,000 women with economic opportunities while engaging them in conservation.

Purnima and members of the Hargila Army. Photo credit: Dipankar Das

10. 2014 winner Tess Gatan Balbascommunity engagement work in the Philippines led to village officials declaring a 970 ha Wildlife Sanctuary for the Isabela Oriole in Baggao, where the highest population of this Critically Endangered bird remains in the wild. Tess and her team helped to rediscover this endemic species in 2003, and continue to work with communities and local governments to secure its protection.

11. TIME magazine recognised 2016 winner Farwiza Farhan as an ’emerging leader’ for her work to protect the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, featuring her on the 2022 TIME100 Next list. The accolade acknowledges Farwiza’s contribution to ‘shaping the future and defining the next generation of leadership’, noting her climate and eco-action, including her battle to protect Sumatra’s last pristine rainforest from largescale development. She was chosen as the cover star of TIME’s Asia edition of the magazine and received praise from Bill Gates.

12. In October, 2019 winner José Sarasola became the first person outside the USA or Europe to receive the Tom Cade Award from Raptor Research Foundation for his first-of-a-kind research to systematically examine raptor electrocutions in Argentina. The Tom Cade Award recognises an individual who has made significant advances in the conservation of birds of prey. José’s work has identified electrocution as one of the major threats to the Chaco Eagle, and he is mitigating this by working with power companies to make their pylons safe for wildlife.

The Chaco Eagle.

13. 2020 winner Rachel Ikemeh was awarded the National Geographic/Buffett Award For Leadership In Conservation, for her work in protecting the Niger Delta red Colobus monkey — a Critically Endangered species listed as one of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world. Rachel was recognised as an outstanding individual who has demonstrated leadership in protecting the natural resources in her home country, and as an inspirational conservation advocate.

14. 2009 Gold Award winner Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka was awarded the 2022 Edinburgh Medal and the Tällberg-SNF-Eliasson Global Leadership Prize for her work with Conservation Through Public Health to improve the quality of life of people and wildlife, enabling them to coexist in and around protected areas. She also spoke at a COP15 side event about the need to empower local communities as partners to reduce zoonotic disease transmission between people and gorillas, as well as other wildlife.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka spoke at a COP15 side event. Photo credit: Reseau Environnement.

15. Our 2022 Gold Award winner Charudutt Mishra and the Snow Leopard Trust received the BBVA Foundation’s Worldwide Biodiversity Conservation Award in recognition of their role in creating the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program, a first-of-its-kind alliance between governments, conservationists, and other organisations to conserve snow leopards and their mountain ecosystems. Through Charu’s Gold Award, he is working to improve the way conservation is practiced worldwide by providing a strategic framework for community-based conservation.

Header image credit: Rick Miskiv