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Nepal’s Raju Acharya Wins 2024 Whitley Award to Bolster 10-Year Plan to Safeguard Owls

UK charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) recognises Raju Acharya from Nepal with a Whitley Award to bolster protection for owls in central Nepal after spearheading a government-backed ten-year plan to safeguard the birds which had been overlooked from conservation efforts.

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.

Photo credit: Roshan Giri

“This bird has a special role to maintain ecological balance and they are also related with the society and culture.”

Founder and Executive Director of Friends of Nature, a Kathmandu-based environmental NGO, Raju was instrumental in driving The Owl Conservation Action Plan in 2020 which addresses the threats to owls from hunting, illegal trade, and habitat loss. The Whitley Award funding will help boost initiatives
in central Nepal, home to the greatest density of the birds and 19 of the country’s 23 owl species.

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.”

Raju has spent decades shoring up support for Nepal’s owls which include the jungle owlet, rock eagle owl and Eurasian eagle owl – all of which are currently listed as Least Concern or Data Deficient under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Raju’s work is addressing a danger of focusing conservation efforts solely on highly threatened flagship species.

Threats to the owls are significant: the birds are the subject of an illicit trade in central Nepal, with 1,500 owls hunted or traded each year in Nepal. The region, which borders China and India, is home to 2.4 million people from ten ethnic groups which co-exist harmoniously but which hold contrasting views on whether the owls represent good or bad omens. Some people associate them with death, while in other areas, owl feathers are regarded as sacred objects that can ward off evil.

Hunting by teenagers using catapults and habitat loss are other threats to the owls amid the felling of old trees whose cavities are crucial nesting sites for the birds. Forest makes up one-third of this region; older trees also act as roosting, den or hibernation sites for owls which struggle to find nesting locations in semi-urban areas.

Raju’s project aims to build on Nepal’s success in conservation which has harnessed the proactive participation of communities. He aims to foster collaboration between the ethnic groups to foster broader understanding of owls to reduce the use of catapults, discourage the consumption of owl meat and advocate for the adherence to the government regulations which protect the birds.

His Whitley Award project will conduct training events to increase the capacity of law enforcement agencies, policy makers and “owl envoys” – local ambassadors for the owls – with a goal of reducing hunting and trade by 25 percent.

Raju will address the use of catapults by students who hunt the owls by creating five catapult-free zones. He aims to raise awareness among students and the public by creating 100 conservation camps. The abundance of birds significantly increases in those areas with larger numbers of old trees and Raju’s team will restore and rehabilitate 1,200 hectares of owl habitat by protecting 500 old trees and installing 100 artificial nests in semi-urban areas.

Photo credit: Bikash Ghimire

“The appreciation from local people and colleagues serves as constant inspiration for me to continue my work.”

At the forefront of owl research in Nepal and known locally as “Owl Sir” for his efforts to draw attention to the plight of owls, Raju hopes to engage early career scientists to join him on his mission. Editor of a digital owl newsletter called Hapsilo, Raju set up the Nepal Owl Festival eleven years ago. The festival has boosted eco-tourism to the region and become one of the country’s biggest conservation events despite owls being lower priority species than tigers and snow leopards.



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
  • Naomi Longa from Papua New Guinea who is safeguarding coral reefs in Kimbe Bay and creating a network of marine protected areas led by local indigenous women
  • 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


  • 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