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Papua New Guinea’s Naomi Longa Wins 2024 Whitley Award to Expand female-led AI Monitoring and Management of Coral Reefs

UK charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) recognises Naomi Longa from Papua New Guinea to expand her work to monitor and manage coral reefs in the biodiversity hotspot of Kimbe Bay and to further extend her female-driven marine conservation model in local waters of the Coral Triangle, home to 76 percent of the world’s coral reef species.

Charity Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, presented the Whitley Award on 1 May at the Royal Geographical Society in a ceremony that marks three decades since the very first Whitley Award was presented and 25 years since the Princess’ involvement as Patron.

“It is important to work with the local communities and women because they possess deep connections and traditional knowledge of the marine ecosystem.”

The biologist and co-director of NGO, Sea Women of Melanesia, will create a network of marine protected areas with local Indigenous women in Kimbe Bay, a globally significant marine ecosystem within the Coral Triangle that is threatened by climate change, overfishing and habitat destruction. The Coral Triangle spans six countries, is home to 6,000 coral reef fish species and provides food and livelihoods for more than 120 million people.

Sir David Attenborough, WFN Ambassador and a long-term supporter of the charity, said the growing network of winners represent some of the best conservation leaders in the world: “Whitley Award winners combine knowing how to respond to crises yet also bring communities and wider audiences with them.”

Kimbe Bay lies in the West New Britain Province of the southwestern Pacific country and is home to reef fish ranging from pygmy seahorses to whale sharks. Internationally recognized as a “hope spot” within the Coral Triangle, it counts 900 species of coral reef fish and some of the world’s most picturesque dive sites, making it a popular tourist destination.

Effective marine conservation has historically been hindered by Papua New Guinea’s socio-political challenges. Naomi plans to address that with her women-led conservation model as she creates a potential blueprint for the region. The Coral Triangle includes Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

Coral reefs, which play a crucial role in safeguarding coastal communities from erosion and storm surges, are one of the most threatened ecosystems on earth. Warmer waters are leading to more bleaching events. Fishing practices involving the use of dynamite and cyanide which destroys the reefs – leaving empty craters – and stuns fish making them easy to capture, have contributed to overfishing. Pollution and coastal development are further degrading ecosystems.

In the most comprehensive data on coral and reef conditions from the Papua New Guinea waters of the Coral Triangle, Naomi’s team of divers and snorkelers has collected more than 15,000 reef survey images and provided 2,500 for analysis to ReefCloud, an open-source platform that uses machine learning and advanced analysis to rapidly extract and share data from images with the world’s coral reef monitoring community.

This allows for swift assessments of coral health and coral community composition, returning results within a few hours of images being uploaded, instead of days or weeks to get similar results from human analysis. Sea Women of Melanesia can then accelerate applications for marine protected area to the Papua New Guinea government on behalf of partner villages. Naomi’s team manages about 20 LMMAs – Locally Managed Marine Areas, for which government approval is required, with plans to add four more with Whitley Award funding to build out a network around Kimbe Bay.

“Winning the Whitley Award is an incredible honour and a validation of my work in protecting the globally significant coral reefs of my country.”

Naomi’s team is also collaborating with ReefCloud developers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science to integrate it into new reef monitoring protocols for Pacific Nations that blend the latest AI technology with traditional cultural and ecological knowledge.

With her Whitley Award funding, Naomi plans to deepen engagement with five coastal communities and combine traditional knowledge with western science to create a network of LMMAs spanning 1,268 hectares. These will promote sustainable fisheries management, habitat restoration, wildlife recovery and climate change resilience. Naomi will engage and train ten women in five local villages to enable them to monitor the reefs primarily through snorkelling and scuba diving.

Naomi says she is rooting her work in understanding and respect for the cultural norm while advocating for gender equality and empowerment of women. Many women in PNG have limited access to decision making processes though are keen to be involved in conservation. Sea Women of Melanesia’s programme is flexible to allow for household responsibilities and duties. The NGO has proven success in marine ecosystem recovery and the sustainable management of marine resources.

The Sea Women of Melanesia currently has 85 members and Naomi, a native of the primary hub of Kimbe, says the active involvement of local women who possess deep connections to the coral reefs and are dedicated to safeguarding their communities’ natural resources sets her organisation apart.

Created in 2021 with a team of 10 women, the NGO has rapidly expanded amid widespread recognition among local women of the changes occurring on the coral reef and a strong desire to protect them. The Sea Women of Melanesia has responded to demand by providing continuous mentorship and skills development to empower women to take leadership roles in their communities.




The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South. Over 30 years it has channelled £23 million to more than 200 conservationists across 80 countries.

An early pioneer in the sector WFN was one of the first charities to channel funding directly to projects led by in-country nationals. Its rigorous application process identifies inspiring individuals who combine the latest science with community-based action.

WFN’s flagship prizes – Whitley Awards – are presented by charity Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, at a prestigious annual ceremony in London at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Winners receive funding, training, and profile boost, including short films narrated by WFN Ambassador Sir David Attenborough.


  • The 2024 Whitley Awards Ceremony is on Wednesday 1 May at the RGS and streamed live to YouTube from 8pm BST. The 2024 Whitley Award winners are:


  • Fernanda Abra  from Brazil who is pioneering the use of low-cost canopy bridges over highway BR-174 in the Amazon rainforest to restore connectivity for tree-dwelling mammals and save them from road collisions
  • Dr Aristide Kamla from Cameroon who is restoring African manatee habitat in Lake Ossa, addressing threats from invasive species and pollution
  • Kuenzang Dorji from Bhutan who is protecting Endangered Gee’s golden langur and implementing solutions for farmers whose crops the primates are targeting
  • Leroy Ignacio from Guyana who is leading an expansion of one of the country’s first indigenous-led conservation movements to protect the Endangered Red siskin finch
  • Raju Acharya from Nepal who is bolstering protection for owls in central Nepal after spearheading a government-backed 10-year plan to safeguard the birds


  • Every year, a past Whitley Award winner is chosen to receive the Whitley Gold Award, worth £100,000, in recognition of their outstanding contribution to conservation. Joining the Judging Panel, the Whitley Gold Award recipient also acts as a mentor to Whitley Award winners and an international ambassador for conservation success. The 2024 Whitley Gold Award winner is India’s Purnima Devi Barman, recognised for catalysing a movement of tens of thousands of women in Assam to save the greater adjutant stork.
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Carol Roussel, Head of Media Relations, Whitley Fund for Nature

E: [email protected]

T: 07379 019 804


Kate Stephenson, Head of Communications, Whitley Fund for Nature

E: [email protected]

T: 07460 136 571