Kate on Conservation

Whitley Awards: the ‘Green Oscars’

Conservation champions; the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN), kicked off the month of May with their annual Whitley Awards ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Appropriately known as the “Green Oscars”, the ceremony recognised seven inspiring conservation leaders for their outstanding work in protecting some of the world’s most endangered wildlife and their habitats, with the support of local communities.

HRH The Princess Royal has been Patron of the Whitley Fund for Nature for 20 years

Charity Patron HRH The Princess Royal presented winners with the prestigious Whitley Awards – worth £40,000 in project funding over the course of year – in front of 450 guests and 500 livestream viewers, alongside films narrated by charity Trustee and national treasure, Sir David Attenborough.

The Awards are the culmination of an international search to identify some of the world’s most effective conservation leaders and the prize is accompanied by a significant boost in profile (media training and interviews are included in the prize package), helping winners to leverage new connections and further funding.  

Whitley Award winners 2019

This year’s winning projects range from sustainable livelihood schemes to prevent deforestation and protect orangutan habitat in Indonesian Borneo, to saving a rare Ghanaian amphibian that was once thought to be extinct.

Edward Whitley, Founder of WFN, said: “We are thrilled to welcome six new inspiring leaders to our growing network of winners – their commitment to working with local communities to protect wildlife and habitats in their home countries is truly admirable, and gives us reason to be optimistic about our shared future.”

“Once they have joined WFN’s Winner Network, we look forward to staying in touch with them, supporting their work in future years with further Continuation Funding and to seeing them collectively help each other to conserve wildlife with local communities.”

Hope Gala celebrating 25 Years of the Whitley Awards, held at the Natural History Museum in London last November

Since its launch in 1993, the Whitley Fund for Nature has given nearly £16 million to support the work of more than 200 conservation leaders benefiting wildlife and local communities in more than 80 countries.

Whitley Awards alumni form a global network of winners who are able to continue supporting one another in future projects and have the opportunity to apply for continued funding.

I recently spoke to two previous winners on behalf of National Geographic Kids magazine; Dr Aparajita Datta and Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.

Hornbill conservation supported by Whitley Awards

Dr Aparajita Datta leads a programme to conserve hornbills in the Indian Eastern Himalaya at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), runs the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme and established The Hornbill Nyishi Festival.

Wreathed hornbill at a nest

Kate: Why is the hornbill’s role so important to the forest? 

Dr Aparajita: Hornbills are like the farmers of the forest, because they eat over a hundred species of fruit and they’re responsible for the seed dispersal of many, many important tree species.  

When they eat the fruits, the processes in their bodies mean they don’t harm the seeds – they actually regurgitate them without damage, rather than releasing them in their poo! The only seeds they actually pass through their bodies are fig seeds, which are really tiny. Because they are large birds, they move a lot – meaning they spread the seeds far and wide. 

Dr Aparajita Datta

Do you have any memorable moments of encountering hornbills? 

I got to see Helmeted hornbill in Thailand, which are known for the solid casques they have on their heads. The casques are like an elephant’s ivory – in fact they sell for five times the price of ivory! The species has become threatened over the last few years as the demand for its casque in Chinese jewellery and ornaments has grown. 

Are there any other risks to the hornbills? 

They can be affected by habitat loss, but hunting is the primary risk to the species. 

Many of the hornbills can adapt to a certain amount of habitat modification – there are areas in India where there is no hunting, such as in the southern part of the country, where even the larger species of hornbill are able to live in man-modified areas, such as plantations. But hunting has a huge impact on the population. 

In the area where I work, there are lots of tribes that hunt the hornbill. Even though the habitat is perfect, you have to walk for days before you come across a hornbill. 

Hornbill beaks are used in traditional costumes by the tribal communities of Arunachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Rohit Naniwadekar

Why do tribespeople hunt the birds? 

Some of the tribal communities use the hornbills’ feathers for their ceremonial head-gear, while other communities use the casques. When tribes are unable to hunt the birds themselves, they will pay £60 for an upper beak of a species such as the Great hornbill. 

They are also hunted for their meat, and their fat, which is believed to help with joint pains. 

What is being done to help these birds? 

There has been work to make artificial beaks for tribespeople to use on their headgear, instead of the real things – which is gradually being accepted. We also noticed that in some areas were people were living alongside the birds, hornbill habitats were being cut down or disturbed, which was affecting their nesting sites. 

Dr Aparajita searches for hornbills

One of the programmes we started was a ‘Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme’, where people can adopt a hornbill nest, and their money is used to pay local people a salary to become a nest guardian.  

Read the full article by clicking here on the image above.

Gorilla protection backed by Whitley Fund for Nature

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is the Founder of Conservation Through Public Health. She works tirelessly to protect gorillas in Uganda from catching human diseases spread through tourism and the use of gorilla ‘scarecrows’ by local communities.

Gladys receives the Whitley Gold Award from Princess Ann in 2009

Kate: What is it that you do in your daily job with mountain gorillas?

Gladys: I started the organisation ‘Conservation Through Public Health’, which helps gorillas and the local community to live side-by-side successfully.

The big problem is that gorillas share approximately 98% of their DNA with humans, which makes them at risk from the same diseases that we are, and it’s easy for them to catch them from us.

When tourists come in, they can bring a fatal flu, which is terrible, as it can wipe out the gorillas!

Gorrila Karungyi and baby Rushegur

Also, the local community has to live with gorillas in their neighbourhood. The gorillas keep coming into their gardens to eat the banana plants or eucalyptus trees that they’ve planted – so they’re destroying the person’s livelihoods. People then put out dirty clothing and scarecrows to scare away gorillas and other wildlife, such as baboons.

The trouble with this is that gorillas are curious, so they touched the scarecrows and the dirty clothing. In the past, this lead to the first scabies outbreak among the gorillas, caused by mites, caught from the dirty clothes and scarecrows, burrowing under the skin of the gorillas.

How do you check the gorillas’ health, and whether they have any diseases?

We built a Gorilla health centre in Bwindi National Park, where we analyse gorilla poo regularly, especially when they’re sick. We also analyse samples from people and livestock, to see what they could be picking up from each other.

We train the park staff to monitor the health of the gorillas, and if there are any problems we advise or intervene if we need to.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

We don’t always intervene though, because they’re wild animals. If they can recover on their own, we try to avoid human intervention so they don’t get weaker and end up depending on us. But if the problem is human-related, such as a suspected human disease, like the scabies, we have to intervene.

It’s a delicate balance of letting them get on with it, and helping them to survive as best they can.

How do you help the local communities stop the spread of the diseases?

We help with education and setting up wash programmes. In Uganda there are a lot of infectious diseases due to poor hygiene, so we started up a ‘planned washing facility’ for people to be able to use proper washing facilities and hygienic toilets – as many people didn’t have access to proper toilets.

Community Health signposts in Uganda

We also provide drying racks, so when people wash their dishes they don’t just put them on the ground to dry, where animals can go to the toilet on them, or where flies can get on them.

Providing clean drinking water from a protected water source and using clean water containers can make a huge difference, as well as teaching people to boil water before drinking it, to kill off any germs – so they don’t drink water that gives them diarrhea.

Read the full article by clicking here, or on the image above. To read more about gorillas and how they communicate with one another, grab a copy of this month’s National Geographic Kids magazine.

To leave you with a few words from the world’s most famous naturalist,WFN Trustee Sir David Attenborough said of the Whitley Awards: “Threatened species need not sympathetic words but practical help. It is wonderfully encouraging – and inspiring – to see the Whitley Awards recognise this and support people who provide it with such distinction and dedication.”

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