Celebrating conservation – the ‘Green Oscars’

The Whitley Fund for Nature is a small charity that claims to punch well above its weight in terms of conservation outcomes. Last night I found out why.
Swanky award ceremonies are not my natural habitat. The mere act of digging out a frock and footwear I can’t run, climb, or ford puddles in is alien. But the Whitley Awards have more than a little red (should that be green) carpet cachet about them and wellies, I sensed, might not be de rigeur. The proceedings were hosted by Kate Humble, presented by HRH The Princess Royal, in the presence of Sir David Attenborough. The eight conservationists from around the world being presented with their awards had certainly scrubbed up, swapping their usual khaki shirts, caps and bush hats for formal attire in their national style, and they looked wonderful.
I’m not accustomed to commenting on fashion – but there is a first time for everything and this event was very much about people. There was talk of wildlife, of course, in particular the species being helped by the diverse projects the prize money will benefit – Philippine eagles, Asian elephants, cotton-top tamarins, Cross River gorillas, great Indian bustards, giant armadillos, Sumatran orangutans and the pollinating insects of Kenya – but for this one night the spotlight shifted from the animals to individual Homo sapiens who devote their lives to saving them. The grant recipients are already used to cajoling, persuading, educating, and campaigning on behalf of wildlife in their own countries and their own tongues – and as part of their week in London they’ve also received further media training. It showed – without exception they were engaging, inspiring and passionate. There is sometimes a gulf between scientists and conservation practitioners and the public they need to engage. Not so here. Language barriers seemed non-existent, which made for great communication but did make me wonder how WFN deal with applications from non-English speakers.
Kate Humble repeatedly referred to the event’s ability to dispel gloom – and undoubtedly the £1.1 million dished out by WFN this year will make a difference. It was nice to enter this bubble of goodwill. But award winner Panut Hadisiswoyo also reminded us that it was a bubble, when he appealed to the entire audience to act to halt the devastation of Indonesia’s remaining forests – which continues at a rate few of us can truly comprehend to meet the insatiable global demand for palm oil. Behind the accolades and the smiles, there is grim desperation. The fate of species and ecosystems depends on our lifestyle choices, our votes, our and our willingness to understand the provenance of the consumables we take for granted. WFN money is helping on the ground, but turning the tide takes more than cash. Here’s hoping that the gift of publicity will be equally well used.
The winners…
Ananda Kumar  – using modern communications including text alerts and mobile operated warning lights as part of an innovative Elephant Information Network in the tea growing regions of India’s Western Ghats. Human-elephant conflict in India costs hundreds of lives (human and elephant) every year in India. Early warning can make a critical difference in the outcome of encounters.
Jayson Ibanez lost his heart to the huge and flamboyant endemic Philippine eagle as a boy. 19 years later he is still striving to save the remaining 400 pairs that remain in the wild, establishing Local Conservation Areas and engaging local people as forest guards and bringing tangible economic and social benefits to communities in which eagle conservation takes place.
Former architect Rosamira Guillen’s career to an abrupt new turn when she met her first cotton-top tamarin – a tiny, endemic, and critically endangered Columbian primate.  Her organisation has already protected 1700ha of habitat and offered local communities education and alternative incomes that reduce pressure on the remaining forest. The cotton-top population is stabilising.
In Nigeria, Inaoyom Imong was once a hunter. Now he is Director of the Cross River Gorilla Landscape Project, working directly with local communities to ensure that the forests of Mbe Mountains are shared sustainably with our great ape cousins.
Medic turned bird conservationist Pramod Patil struck a chord when he addressed Sir David Attenborough ‘Sir David is my favourite human being on this Earth… I love you’. There is also no doubt which is his favourite bird – the great Indian bustard. Pramod is also inspiration in his own right – taking a landscape level approach to the conservation of this critically endangered species in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.
The enigmatic giant armadillo is now recognised as a flagship species for the tropical scrublands of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil – thanks to the passion of Paris-born Arnaud Desbiez. He’ll be using the WFN grant money to conduct vital outreach and education and create more protected areas in the threatened Cerrado landscape.
Panut Hadisiswoyo leads on the development of conservation villages in part of Sumatra known as the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on earth where orang-utan, elephant, tiger and rhino still coexist.
The big prize of the night went to Dino Martins – a previous award winner, who was presented with a Gold Award worth £50,000 to support his ongoing work for pollinators. With it, he’ll tackle the import and use of unregistered pesticides in Africa, training  thousands of farmers in sustainable practice, and educating over 200,000 schoolchildren and university students in the importance of pollinators and sustainable agriculture.

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