Seven conservation pioneers that are’saving our world’

May 2, 2024 | News

How much can one person do? Ask these grassroots conservationists who have won awards and funding for saving endangered species

If you have ever doubted the impact that one person can have, especially at a time where environmental challenges seem so overwhelming, then take heart from this year’s Whitley Awards. They were presented last night at the Royal Geographical Society of London.

The Whitley Fund for Nature (a UK charity) organizes the annual do to celebrate grassroots conservationists that are “changing narratives” for endangered species and ecosystems. The winners of this year’s awards have helped to save charismatic songbirds and rehabilitate the reputations for persecuted species. They also helped protect unique ecosystems. They have done this by empowering communities and pioneering, as Princess Royal who presented the awards put it, “locally led solution that have impact”.


Kate Humble, a wildlife presenter and event host, said: “We are in the company of people who are saving the world.” Here are the people whose projects received at least PS50,000 to scale up.


1. Purnima Barman, India


Purnima Barman, a wildlife scientist who has dedicated her life to the protection of the greater adjutant-stork, said: “They were my childhood buddies.” “My grandmother showed me in the rice paddies. I love them. They are truly inspiring. “But some people hate them.”

The greater adjutant, with its gnarled bald head and vulture like pose, is not the prettiest of birds. It also has a grizzly name. Locals in Assam, one of the last strongholds of the species, call it the hargilla or ‘bone-sucker’.


The stork has a reputation as a bad omen, a disease carrier and a bad omen. It’s easy to see why the poor bird was pushed to its limit.

Locally, the birds are called hargilla or ‘bone-suckers’. Image: Whitley Fund for Nature

Barman argued that the birds needed some positive PR. In 2007, she created a hargilla (bird) army, a group of mostly females who were tasked with changing attitudes towards birds. They also incorporated them into local fabric to literally weave them into the local lore. The stork sisters, or hargilla armies, have grown to more than 10,000 members. Members of the hargilla army protect nests and promote birds and their habitats while wearing stork costume.


Has it paid off for you? You bet. Locally, the number of Hargillas has quadrupled to more than 1,800. Even the local government joined in, declaring 7th October as ‘adjutant’ day by 2022.


“They’re a symbol for strength, resilience, and love,” said Barman. She won PS100,000.


2. Kuenzang Dorji, Bhutan


Bhutan’s changing weather patterns and habitat losses have forced many of its 2,500 golden langurs to come into closer contact with power lines, roads and farmers whose crops they eat. Once considered a sign of prosperity, the animals have now become a symbol for poverty.


Kuenzang Doji, a conservationist, has created a set of solutions to keep langurs from farmers and dangerous infrastructure. These include toy tigers which roar when monkeys get close.

Golden langurs are endangered in Bhutan. Whitley Fund for Nature


His sometimes eccentric ideas are working. Data suggests that they have protected 80% of the crops of farmers, allowing women and children to go to school rather than stand guard over the land. Other measures include installing animal repellers near power stations, where langurs may be electrocuted.


Dorji fell in love with a langur when he was a teenager. “I was fascinated by the golden colour and its eyes,” he said. Dorji, who received PS50,000 for scaling his solutions, told the audience that Bhutan is known as the world’s happiest nation. Tonight, I am very happy.”


3. Leroy Ignacio, Guyana


“When I hear this bird, it just touches my heart,” said Leroy Ignacio, a conservationist. The red siskin is a small finch, which has only been ‘discovered’ by science in 2000. Locals have known about it for generations.


Guyana is currently experiencing unprecedented change following a massive oil discovery off the coast of South America. It has gone from being one of South America’s poorest nations to having the fastest-growing economy in the world. This development, as well as the illegal trade in songbirds threatens the red Siskin, a species that has quickly become a flagship for conservation.

Scientists only discovered the red siskin in 2000. Image: Whitley Fund for Nature


Ignacio is a founding member and president of the South Rupununi Conservation Society. This organization has brought communities together to protect the red Siskin and its habitat. This community-led conservation effort has stopped the illegal capture and stabilised the number of red siskins, as well as empowered local Indigenous people.


“It made them feel like they were doing something for the whole world from their backyard,” he said. The PS50,000 prize will help his team to double the size of red siskin’s conservation zone, from 50,000 hectares to 150,000.


4. Naomi Longa, Papua New Guinea


Kimbe Bay, located in the vibrant Coral Triangle of the Pacific Ocean, is a place of astounding marine biodiversity. It contains 76% of all coral reef species found on earth. It also provides food for more than 120,000,000 people. This region is threatened by overfishing, habitat destruction and climate change.


Naomi Longa is a biologist and the founder of Sea Women of Melanesia. She wants to change this narrative. Her female-led conservation team works with communities to create and implement locally managed maritime areas (LMMAs), allowing reefs to recover.


Longa said that despite the resistance of men in high-ranking positions, the Sea Women of Melanesia pioneered sustainable fisheries practices, implemented no take zones to allow reefs recover, and are now set to create four additional LMMAs using the PS50,000 her grant was awarded for scaling up. “This is all about girl power,” said Longa.


5. Aristide Kamla, Cameroon


Lake Ossa in Cameroon is a breeding ground for the African Manatee. This charismatic creature, listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is a popular attraction. In 2016, an invasive species of plant known as giant salvinia quickly spread in the lake and covered more than half its surface in just five years.


Enter conservationist Aristide Kamla. He developed a natural solution by introducing the Salvinia weevil into the lake. The weevil chomped down on the invasive weed and reduced it by over 70%.


Kamla and his team have now begun to address the cause of the outbreak, namely the nutrient runoff that is caused by illegal deforestation. Sensors placed around the lake alert conservationists when chainsaws are heard, so rangers may respond.


“Now, we are seeing more and more manatees – which gives us hope,” said he.


6. Raju Acharya (Nepal)


Nepal has become the center of illegal trade in owls. Raju Acharya is a conservationist whose mission it is to change people’s perceptions about these charismatic birds.


He has done this by organizing the Nepal Owl Festival. This is an annual festival that celebrates birds with traditional games.


He was also instrumental in the development of the Owl Conservation Action Plan (Nepal), a government-backed plan to increase owl populations. It aims to crack down on illegal owl trading and protect their habitats for the benefit of other species. The Whitley Awards prize of PS50,000 will help his team to project more forests, increase enforcement against poaching, and educate more ‘owl ambassadors’ in order to change the perceptions about birds.


7. Fernanda Abra, Brazil


Fernanda Abra, a Brazilian Amazonian Indigenous woman, has worked with Indigenous communities to try to solve an increasing problem in the area: animal deaths caused by collisions with vehicles.


The rapid expansion of the road network in this biodiverse eco-system has led to a loss of canopy connectivity. Animals either risk their lives by crossing the road or they stay put, resulting in a decline in genetic diversity.

Abra, with the help of the Waimiri Atroari Indigenous Community, has installed over 30 bridges across the dangerous BR-174 highway that endangered primates use regularly. Reconecta Project was awarded PS50,000 for the construction of more bridges. Abra said, “We must implement a culture of sustainable infrastructures in the Amazon.”



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