2023 Whitley Award Winners celebrated for innovative solutions to biodiversity loss
On 26 April 2023 The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) recognised six outstanding conservationists with 2023 Whitley Awards for their work to protect wildlife and ecosystems in partnership with local communities, spearheading solutions to the key drivers of biodiversity loss around the world.
Kenya’s Dr Shivani Bhalla, a former Whitley Award winner, was separately honoured with the £100,000 Whitley Gold Award for her work with her team of Samburu warriors, elders and women to secure a future for lions in northern Kenya amid the worst drought in living memory.
WFN Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, presented the awards to Shivani and the six new winners on 26 April at the Royal Geographical Society in a ceremony that also marked the 30th anniversary of the Whitley Fund for Nature, livestreamed to YouTube.
WFN Trustee Sir David Attenborough said that the work of conservationists has never been more urgent: “We need the work of Whitley Award winners to succeed, and we need to help them to whatever extent is possible.” – Sir David Attenborough
The work of this year’s biodiversity champions illustrates the extensive roles conservationists now play in local communities as they take a lead in climate change mitigation by restoring forests and protecting globally important carbon stores. As part of their work to protect wildlife in their home countries, they are boosting livelihoods by creating green jobs and including women in these new opportunities.
With one million species at risk of extinction, this year’s cohort is moving with speed and scale to address key pressures on biodiversity including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict as well as invasive species. Shivani’s work will drive that forward by pioneering a framework for community-led conservation worldwide.
Meet the 2023 Whitley Award winners
Shivani Bhalla, 2023 Whitley Gold Award winner | Securing a future for lions in northern Kenya through community-led work
The all-Kenyan team at Ewaso Lions where Dr Shivani Bhalla is Founder and Executive Director is sustaining wildlife, livestock and people by incorporating drought management into day-to-day efforts by digging for water – the lifeblood for a region which consists of an arid panorama of grasslands, acacia trees and scrubland. A community-led approach has been key to the success of the team which has seen the local lion population rise to a record high even as lions remain more endangered than elephants or rhinos in Africa. Shivani’s team at Ewaso Lions also took on a humanitarian role when the drought struck, providing food relief to more than 1,700 households and schools.
Albert Salemgareyev | Finding sustainable solutions to emerging conflict between saiga antelope and local pastoralists over water resources in Kazakhstan’s newest protected area
The vast steppe landscapes of Kazakhstan are a globally important carbon store and home to 95 percent of the world’s population of the Critically Endangered saiga antelope. Albert Salemgareyev will conduct research to better understand and resolve rising conflict between saiga and local herders over dwindling water resources, in a country at risk of water scarcity within a decade. The saiga is a keystone species of the Central Asian steppe whose population has rebounded to a record high, but this new conflict over water puts this global conservation success story at risk.
Tulshi Laxmi Suwal | Conducting Nepal’s first forest fire impact assessment on pangolins
In Nepal, where more than 3,000 fire incidences are reported every year, the country’s top pangolin expert Dr Tulshi Laxmi Suwal will use her Whitley Award funding to lead the country’s first fire impact assessment on the forest habitat of the Critically Endangered Chinese pangolin, one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. Tulshi’s work aims to address the growing prevalence of forest fires in one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change.
Mamy Razafitsalama | Improving livelihoods and reducing forest fires in Madagascar
In Madagascar, rapidly disappearing forest cover has left one-third of lemur species Critically Endangered. Mamy Razafitsalama will accelerate his community-based fire management programme to protect lemur habitat in a country that the UN said experienced the world’s first climate change-induced famine.
Leonard Akwany | Creating community managed protected areas to allow fish populations to recover in Lake Victoria, Kenya
The work of Kenya’s Leonard Akwany to bolster grassroots fisheries management at Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake, seeks to help native fish species recover after they more than halved due to unsustainable fishing and habitat degradation, which is tipping vulnerable waterside communities into food insecurity. Leonard’s plans include the creation of a community-managed fishery reserve, improving the capacity of five local Beach Management Units and will also address the poor involvement of women in fisheries management. Its success has the potential to have a much wider impact across Lake Victoria.
Yuliana Bedolla | Protecting marine bird life from invasive species in Mexico
In Mexico, Yuliana Bedolla Guzmán is also working with fishing cooperatives and boosting the role of local women as she addresses the threat of invasive species — one of the top drivers of biodiversity loss. Mexican islands provide important breeding grounds for nocturnal seabirds, and are crucial habitats for onethird of the world’s seabird species. Yuliana will use her funding to boost the role of local women and fishing coops to strengthen seabird monitoring and protocols to prevent accidental introduction of invasive mammals, which can decimate seabird colonies. An accidental introduction of a mouse on San Benito Oeste in 2006 was only eradicated after seven years and at a cost of $654,000.
Serge Alexis Kamgang | Expanding the only lion-focussed project in the Bénoué ecosystem, Cameroon
Dr Serge Alexis Kamgang will use his Whitley Award funding to protect the last remaining stronghold of 250 lions in Cameroon’s Bénoué ecosystem. Dwindling habitat and a decline in prey along with a rise in human and livestock populations in protected areas have set the lions on course for conflict with local herders. Serge plans to enlist local youth to become lion guards and train park guards to monitor lion and cattle movement and mitigate human-wildlife conflict, one of the key drivers in the decline in African lions along with habitat loss.
The winners will take part in a series of events in London to celebrate their remarkable achievements for people, wildlife and climate, and to help them leverage the success of their Whitley Award win. In addition to the £40,000 they are individually awarded in project funding, the Whitley Fund for Nature will provide each winner with networking opportunities, communications and speech training, and introduce them to a dedicated network of over 200 fellow award-winning conservation leaders across more than 80 countries.
Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature said: “Recently, we have seen increased recognition that it is local people who are instrumental to long-term conservation success; the understanding of which informed our approach all those years ago, when we began supporting local conservation leaders to provide their effective, sustainable, and equitable solutions in their home countries. As many of the challenges we face as a planet have grown, so has our ambition and determination to support the extraordinary tenacity of our winners.”
Learn more about the Whitley Awards
Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South. Over 30 years it has channelled £20 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, to benefit biodiversity, climate and people.
Author Profile | Kate Stephenson
Kate Stephenson leads the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN)’s communications strategy, using the charity’s platform to spread awareness about Whitley Award winners across WFN’s website, social media and printed publications. She leads on campaigns and supports across the charity’s PR and events to raise the profile of winners. Kate joined WFN in July 2022, after spending over a decade running the award-winning wildlife blog, Kate on Conservation. She holds a First Class Honours degree in BA English Language and Communications With Journalism, and has previously worked as Education Editor at National Geographic Kids, and for organisations such as Discovery Education (part of the Discovery Channel network), Channel 4 Learning, Channel 4 Talent and BBC Blast. Kate is a Trustee of Born Free Foundation, and founded The Wildlife Blogger Crowd; a virtual network of over 250 bloggers, social media influencers, podcasters, and filmmakers. In 2021 she published a book of their collective works, ‘Connections With Nature’. Kate is also an alumni of the Conservation Careers Kick-Starter and ‘Communications for Conservation Projects’ career booster course.
Main image: Albert Salemgareyev conducting fieldwork in Kazakhstan.