Discover what happened at WFN's inaugural summit, celebrating 30 years of the charity.
On 6th and 7th November, 11 of the world’s top conservationists from across the Global South joined world-class journalists, filmmakers, business experts and pioneering climate and sustainability advocates for an inspiring 2-day programme at our People For Planet biodiversity Summit.
Events took place at London’s Royal Institution with Whitley Gold Award winners from Africa, Asia and South America coming together in-person for the first time, to speak about the successes and challenges of their on-the-ground work to develop local and community-led solutions to saving biodiversity.
The summit saw 600 guests attend across the 2 days, serving as a forum to celebrate the significant impact of Whitley Gold Award winning conservationists across the world and to give space to the underrepresented voices affected by the biodiversity and climate crises.
Excitingly, discussion led to action, with the event serving as a platform for the official launch of the Ethical Conservation Alliance.
Timed ahead of COP28, the event underlined the critical role that biodiversity plays in achieving net zero, bringing together people from different backgrounds and sectors to discuss how to scale grassroots solutions in nature to address the urgent challenges facing our planet.
The scope of work covered by the Gold Award winners includes giving free dentistry in exchange for not cutting tropical rainforests in Indonesia; persuading tequila brands in Mexico to allow agave crops to flower so that the “tequila bat” can feed and engaging Samburu warriors as protectors of lions in northern Kenya.
The summit also marked the 30th anniversary of the Whitley Fund for Nature, coinciding with the launch of our latest Impact Report outlining a qualitative assessment of winner success, an organisational Theory of Change, a quantitative assessment of winner impact, winner case studies and a counterfactual analysis.
Since its founding 30 years ago by Edward Whitley OBE, WFN has raised £30 million (our own 30 by 30 success) with 89% of income spent on charitable activity to support 214 winners in over 80 countries.
The two days concluded with showstopper events in the form of a TED-talk style storytelling evening reflecting on some of the ‘Big wins and breakthroughs’ in the Gold Award winners’ careers, and a look behind the scenes of the BBC series, Wild Isles, with WFN and NextGen ambassadors Alastair Fothergill and Nick Gates who produced the series. They were joined on stage for a Q&A with Whitley Gold Award winners Paula Kahumbu and Çağan Şekercioğlu, who both produce and present wildlife films in their own respective home countries of Kenya and Turkey.
People for Planet Summit Day 1
Welcomed by compère Dino Martins, guests to Day 1 of the summit were introduced to the charity’s history through a short film whereby WFN Ambassador Sir David Attenborough turned the tables on his usual interview requests by this time himself asking the questions of Founder Edward Whitley.
See a full gallery of photos from Day 1.
Talk 1: Adapting To A Hotter Planet saw guest panellist Forum for the Future’s Jonathon Porritt join Whitley Gold Award winners: Shivani Bhalla, Zafer Kizilkaya and Paula Kahumbu discuss how conservationists and species responding to climate change in a session moderated by BBC News’ Luxmy Gopal.
Talk 2: Building An Inclusive Movement saw wildlife filmmaker and presenter Dan O’Neill moderate a panel discussion exploring the ways that conservationists are ensuring equity, inclusion and climate justice are at the forefront of their work.
Panellists Professor Rodrigo Medellin, known as “The Bat Man of Mexico”; Charu Mishra, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust; youth climate activist Dominique Palmer and shark scientist Hollie Booth used stories from their own experiences to demonstrate how conservation success depends upon an inclusive, intersectional approach that advocates for the protection of both people and planet, while centring the stories and voices of marginalised communities.
Dr Charu Mishra spoke of his approach to engaging local people effectively and ethically as partners in conservation, announcing the next stage in of his work (previously described as an “outstanding conservation practice” by COP15) in the form of an Ethical Conservation Alliance. He urged for the topic of morality to hold a place within conservation, reminding practitioners to think about what is the right and just thing to do.
The programme of events included an afternoon networking session and coffee break, where conversation could spill out into the impressive, historical rooms of the Royal Institution, allowing ideas and collaboration to flow.
Talk 3: Redefining carbon offsetting: Does it work? saw a robust flow of ideas and discussion expertly moderated by WFN Ambassador and BBC Presenter Tom Heap. Whitley Gold Award winners: Jean Wiener, Hotlin Ompusunggu and Çağan Şekercioğlu were joined by Professor Glyn Davies of Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. Glyn has been a leader in forest conservation and sustainable development policy and practice for 40 years, and was able to bring a strong knowledge of how protecting biodiversity is integral to addressing the climate crisis, while challenging some of the conceptions (and misconceptions) around Nature-Based Solutions and measuring their impact.
The Gold Award winners offered their own experience of how carbon offsetting and the Global North’s commitment to net-zero is impacting their own field work across forest, coastal and wetland environments, speaking to the extra capacity needed to collect meaningful carbon capture data and the need to look beyond how many trees are being planted and instead focus on how many trees are still growing 5 years down the line.
The thought-provoking session was the perfect lead in to an hour’s long networking reception with drinks and canapés, marking the beginning of our first showcase evening event.
Big wins and breakthroughs: Live storytelling from the people protecting our planet began with an opening speech from WFN Ambassador and BBC presenter Tom Heap, followed by an introduction to speakers from WFN Director Danni Parks.
The event saw world-renowned nature conservationists Pablo (Popi) Borboroglu from Argentina; Kenya’s Dino Martins, Rachel Graham whose work takes place in Belize, India’s Charu Mishra, and Shivani Bhalla from Northern Kenya give TED-Talk style presentations about their work on the frontline of conservation across the Global South.
Popi — a world-leading expert on penguins — opened the evening with a focus on footprints, literal and metaphorical, and asked the audience what they would like theirs to be?
As speakers came together on-stage, the power of storytelling as a crucial tool for conservationists was evident. Dino Martins noted the significance of representation in published works, noting that ‘traditionally, books we see are not written by people from rural communities’, with discussion leading back to one of the earlier point’s raised by Dr Paula Kahumbu, that ‘Storytelling is a new means of regenerating economics’; a theme that became evident across the two days, threading together the two evening showstopper events.
A packed few hours of discussion and high energy brought Day 1 of our People For Planet Summit to close. A full list of the speakers across the programme can be seen here.
People for Planet Summit Day 2
The second day of celebrating the #PeopleForPlanet who are dedicated to finding solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises began with a Sir David Attenborough narrated short film looking at how Whitley Awards are making conservation possible.
See a full gallery of photos from Day 2.
Compèred by 2023 Gold Award Whitley winner Shivani Bhalla, Day 2’s events began with the session Safeguarding seas in peril, where conversation spanned topics such as overfishing, deep-sea mining, plastic pollution and working with communities to overcome issues around establishing and enforcing marine protected areas.
Moderator Hanli Prinsloo — herself a multiple South African freediving record holder — lead the conversation, with Gold Award Winners Jean Wiener, Pablo (Popi) Borboroglu and Zafer Kizilkaya sharing their incredible breadth of work, the challenges they’ve faced, and the similarities in the experiences they’ve had in working with governments and local stakeholders to establish protected areas. Wildlife filmmaker Inka Cresswell spoke of her experience of working to make ocean conservation more accessible through storytelling using film to educate and inspire a new generation of ocean conservationists, while the panel reminded audiences that every second breath they take comes from the ocean.
Talk 2: Business, biodiversity and the financialisation of natural capital moderated by John Fraher, Senior Executive Editor for Business, Finance and Climate at Bloomberg News saw sustainable business investor and host of the Big Green Money Show podcast, Deborah Meaden and Samuel Sinclair, co-founder and director of Biodiversify — a consultancy specialising in supporting the private sector in developing nature-positive strategies — join shark specialist Dr Rachel Graham from Central America and large carnivore researcher, Çağan Şekercioğlu – responsible for securing Turkey’s first wildlife corridor, for a frank discussion about how businesses can better support the conservation sector through backing landscape-level plans for biodiversity, and whether the private sector is evolving towards this goal quickly enough.
Deborah Meaden spoke of the need for an honest conversation between sectors, to eliminate the fear that businesses may have in ‘getting it wrong’, leading to a lively audience Q&A involving Summit guests and fellow Whitley Gold Award winners.
A coffee break and the first of the day’s networking sessions allowed space for reflections on the topics discussed and enabled new connections to establish.
Wildlife filmmaker and panellist Inka Cresswell caught up with Gold Award winner, Paula Kahumbu during the networking session. Paula is producer and presenter of Wildlife Warriors — Africa’s first wildlife documentary series made by Africans — and recently starred in the four-part National Geographic series, Secrets of the Elephants.
Talk 3: Pollinators and the economy: humanity’s £135 billion food debt to bees, bats and butterflies examined the role of pollinators in global food security at a time where more than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered.
Moderator Alice Thomson, columnist and interviewer at The Times, spoke to Whitley Gold Award winners Dino Martins and Rodrigo Medellin about the future of farming techniques and the need to work together with food producers to lay out a pesticide-free roadmap that protects bees, insects and creatures such as bats, which rely them.
Bringing a light-heated touch to the discussion, Dino and Rodrigo both made passionate pitches as to which is most important to humans; bats or bugs, with Rodrigo bringing along bat-friendly mezcal to help his case. It seemed that by the end of debate, both came out as fair equals!
With the sobering statistic in mind that one in every three bites we eat is connected to pollinators, yet their populations are still crashing, Dino eloquently expressed the importance of creating meaningful relationships between conservationists and food producers, stating; “The way I approach farmers is with humility.” While Rodrigo spoke of his work to establish the ‘Bat-Friendly’ certification for which mezcal and tequila productions must allow at least 5% of the agave crop to bloom in order to qualify, encouraging bats to visit and pollinate the plants. The seeds from these agaves are then used by producers to establish greater genetic diversity within their plantations.
Concluding the daytime programme of events, compère Shivani invited Gold Award winners to the stage to officially launch the Ethical Conservation Alliance, representing conservation leaders from 28 countries who are spearheading a movement in ethical conservation by offering training, resources and mentorship to conservation practitioners that will enable them to respectfully engage with local communities. You can read more about the Ethical Conservation Alliance here.
The launch created an excited buzz and talking point as guests filed out of the theatre to a second evening reception of networking drinks.
Bringing the People For Summit to a close, our showstopper event; The Making of BBC Wild Isles with producers Alastair Fothergill & Nick Gates saw a packed out theatre re-live awe-inspiring moments from the ground-breaking television series.
Series Producer and WFN Ambassador Alastair Fothergill, and Producer / Director Nick Gates took turns in revealing behind-the-scenes stories from their work on the programme, including finding the stories, seeking funding in new and innovative ways by partnering with charities, and battles with the typically British challenge of working around unscheduled weather-related delays.
Bringing with them their own experience of environmental storytelling and filmmaking, Turkey’s Çağan Şekercioğlu and Kenya’s Paula Kahumbu joined Alastair and Nick on stage to discuss the importance of local storytelling to local audiences, with WFN NextGen Committee member Nick Gates leaving audiences with the thought-provoking sentiment that “Natural history filmmaking began with the age of information with series such as Life of Earth. It moved into the age of awareness, with series such as Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, and now we must look ahead to the age of agency, where viewers feel empowered to be able to do something about the issues we are all facing.”
The WFN team would like to thank all those who came to the summit, engaging so meaningfully with the topics discussed, enabling lively discussions, the forming of exciting new collaborations and creating a truly authentic cross-sector forum for discussing and supporting solutions for protecting our shared planet. As WFN Patron Sir David Attenborough so eloquently stated; “Saving our planet is now a communications challenge. We know what to do, we just need the will.”
The #PeopleForPlanet Summit left us more invigorated and inspired to fulfil that mission than ever.
Other events during the summit week
Our Summit week didn’t end with the public programme, behind-the-scenes the following day, Whitley Award Winners joined National Geographic Society Explorers for an afternoon tea get together to meet, greet and discuss potential connections and collaborations.
Following afternoon tea, Gold Award winners headed to Old Sessions House to join the WFN NextGen network in celebrating the charity’s anniversary over a taste of certified bat-friendly mezcal.
WFN NextGen members and friends heard from Gold Award winner Rodrigo Medellin, — who established the ‘Bat-Friendly’ project, a certification process that ensures production of mezcal and tequila includes measures that benefit bats and the flowers they feed on.
NextGen committee member and wildlife filmmaker, Nick Gates compèred the evening, representing the next generation of conservationists in Britain. It was a fascinating evening brought to a close with a toast to the bats and the people working to save them. Find out more about the evening and see a gallery of photos from the event here.
The 30th anniversary celebrations concluded with a dinner graciously hosted by Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, who has acted as Patron for the Whitley Fund for Nature for 25 years. Whitley Gold Award winners and the charity’s champion supporters, both long term friends and new advocates, joined the celebration at St James’s Palace, of which you read more about here.
What an incredible week, and an amazing opportunity to celebrate the planet-changing work of the WFN winners, representing three decades of impact.