Kate on Conservation

National Geographic Kids meets shark hero Ilena Zanella


This weekend marks the start of National Marine Week, a chance to celebrate the wonderful wildlife found in the seas and our relationship with this incredible habitat that surrounds us.

It seems fitting then, that I share with you some of my conversation with marine biologist and shark science hero, Ilena Zanella. Ilena Zanella won a prestigious Whitley Award in 2019 for her work with scalloped hammerhead sharks, and my interview with her has been published in this month’s National Geographic Kids Ocean Special issue, available in shops now.


Meet Marine Biologist Ilena

Ilena Zanella is a marine biologist from Costa Rica, Central America. She promotes the research, management and conservation of sharks and marine life in Costa Rica. She works with local fisherman and nearby schools to save hammerhead sharks.

Ilena is known for identifying and protecting hammerhead shark nursery grounds, where young sharks are born and live before they reach adulthood.


Meet the scalloped hammerhead shark

Ilena researches the scalloped hammerhead shark. Hammerheads migrate thousands of miles each year, connecting populations across Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

This shark species has a hammer-shaped head (which is called the cephalofoil). It has evolved to improve the shark’s vision and to provide a larger area for the electroreceptors that the sharks rely upon for hunting prey.

Photo credit: Edwar Herreno, courtesy of Whitley Awards

THREATS: In Costa Rica, scalloped hammerheads are used as food in the national fish dish, known as ‘ceviche’. They are also sometimes used as bait to catch other fish.

SUCCESSES: Based on the data collected by Ilena and her team, the coastal wetlands of Golfo Dulce were declared a Scalloped Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary in May 2018. This marks the first shark sanctuary in Costa Rica, and the first shark sanctuary globally to focus specifically on juvenile nursery habitat.

An Interview with Ilena on behalf of the Whitley Awards and Nat Geo Kids

I chatted with Ilena after she won her Whitley Award, which is worth £40,000 in project funding over the course of year. Charity Patron HRH The Princess Royal presented winners with their award in front of 450 guests and 500 livestream viewers, and on behalf of National Geographic Kids, I caught up with her the following day…


Kate: Hi Ilena, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. To kick things off, what ignited your connection with the sea?

Ilena: I think I had a close connection with the sea from a young age. I’m originally Italian; I was born in Italy and grew up in a little farm in Tuscany. As a child, I would spend the summer months in the water, swimming in the sea. My happiest childhood memories were in the sea.

Growing up on a farm, I always had a close connection with animals too – so I had a great childhood – but my parents had to sell the farm, as it was hard to keep a small farm like that running. They decided to change their lives and move to Costa Rica when I was 16.

It was a hard move at first, because it was so different to what I knew, but aged 17 I started to dive and discovered a whole new world under the water.

Ilena scuba-diving

Kate: What made you want to work with hammerhead sharks?

Ilena: My decision to work with sharks happened when I visited the Cocos Island in the Pacific Ocean during my studies work.

I got to dive with hammerheads for the first time – and they were so cute! I know some people think they’re a little strange, but for me they were very beautiful. I saw in them as vulnerable, because they get scared very easily. I knew they that they were in danger, and I wanted to help them.

Photo credit: David Garcia, courtesy of Whitley Awards

Kate: Why do the hammerhead sharks of Costa Rica need help?

Ilena: Hammerheads are such an emblematic species for Costa Rica and the Cocos Island – which is an oceanic island 300 miles from Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, thanks to Cocos Island, we have a marine habitat area that’s 10 times bigger than the land mass, however, we famously have 25% of our land protected but only 3% of our marine habitats are officially protected.

Costa Rica is such a famously green country, but incredibly an endangered species – the scalloped hammerhead shark – is used as bait or eaten in a restaurant.

Local fishermen catch the hammerheads along the coast to use them for ceviche, which is a national fish dish in Costa Rica – and also, when they can’t sell the hammerheads as meat in the market, they use them as bait to catch more valuable species, such as snappers.

That’s why we work very hard and try to promote the protection of new marine areas, particularly along the coast. Along the coast is where we see a lot of human impact: the fisheries; degradation of habitats because of the rivers; there are mangroves in the hammerhead’s nurseries grounds and we see people damaging the mangroves – we need people to see that we are causing these impacts.

What makes your job so important?

Shark populations have declined by 75% around the world. In Costa Rica and Cocos Island the population decline is around 45%.

Cocos Island has 40 years of protection, however, the population is still in decline. That’s why we focus our conservation efforts on this particular island.

In 2018, the government of Costa Rica declared a sanctuary in the wetlands of Golfo Dulce, recognising our work and the importance of protecting the nursery grounds for hammerheads.

Ilena at work underwater

We need to see that we are all connected. In Costa Rica there’s a river in the middle of our capital city, it’s connected to a mountain in the Gulf, which is a nursery ground for the population of hammerheads in Cocos Island – 300 miles from the coast of Costa Rica.

People need to understand the connection; even if you live in the capital, you can impact the hammerheads around Cocos Island.

A lot of your work involves baby hammerhead sharks, how and why do you help them?

The female hammerheads give birth on the coast of Central America, in Golfo Dulce – which is located in the South Pacific of Costa Rica.

This is where we have identified an important nursery ground for hammerhead sharks with an abundance of young shark pups.

The sharks stay in the area where they are born for the first month of their lives and then they start to move around the Gulf. After 3 years of living in these ‘nursery sites’ the sharks start exploring outside the Gulf, before migrating to the oceanic islands.

What is the future of shark conservation for you?

I’m a marine biologist and I’ve spent 10 years studying sharks. When I started out, my focus was on publishing scientific papers. The science is important, because we need it to understand and promote the correct course of action for conservation. Now I understand that we need education. Education is the real tool to change people’s behaviour and habits.


I’m working to establish an educational station in a community in Golfito, Golfo Dulce. Golfito is a poor fishery city, so we would like to make a positive space for children’s education with a library, a playground and a site where they feel comfortable and safe to learn.

Here we would like to implement educational workshops and training to inspire the future generations of marine conservationists.

Children in Costa Rica learning about the amazing hammerheads

We would also like to improve our monitoring programme and supporting tagging expeditions to record future population trends, and to support the government in the implementation of the laws we have in relation to protecting marine species in Costa Rica.

Discover more about Ilena’s favourite memories of working with these sharks, and learn about her experience of seeing a congregation of 500 hammerheads in this month’s National Geographic Kids magazine.

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Learn more about the Whitley Awards

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