Two conservationists – fighting to help threatened Andean bears in Bolivia and rare cockatoos in the Philippines – have been bestowed with the highest awards in conservation, known as the ‘green Oscars’.
The Andean bear conservation project, developed and run by Chester Zoo in partnership with The University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and Bolivian NGO Prometa, has won a prestigious Whitley Award.
Work supported by Chester Zoo to protect critically endangered Philippine cockatoos by employing former poachers as wardens is also being recognised at the ceremony in London.
Run by the Whitley Fund for Nature, the international prize honours exceptional conservationists working in grassroots conservation projects in developing countries.
The six winners were chosen from a total of 166 contenders from 66 countries.
Dr Ximena Velez-Liendo, a Chester Zoo and WildCRU Conservation Fellow, is among this year’s winners with her project ‘An uphill climb: enabling coexistence of Andean bears and farmers in the Bolivian mountains’.
Chester Zoo Conservation Fellow and Research Associate of WilCRU Dr Ximena Velez-Liendo said: “I never imagined I would receive such an honour. The Whitley Awards are very prestigious and only the best of the best of conservation scientists receive them. It’s a dream come true!
“Thanks to the Whitley Award, the funding will help us to get the research equipment we need to improve our understanding of the bears’ distribution and we will be able to work with more communities and expand our project.”
With severe droughts affecting Bolivia’s agriculture production, communities are shifting from agriculture to livestock, which has led to an increase in encounters between local people and bears.
Applying an interdisciplinary approach of both ecology and social sciences, the project aims to develop practical interventions for immediate reduction in Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) conflict, developing alternate livelihoods to local communities, bringing positive change and monitoring the Andean bear populations.
Earlier this year, Chester Zoo and WildCRU joined forces to deliver high-impact conservation research.
This collaboration aims to provide new research to assist conservationists in developing innovative approaches to tackle global challenges such as human-wildlife conflict, livelihoods and sustainable development, and monitoring of populations of endangered species in the wild.
Head of conservation science at Chester Zoo, Dr Alexandra Zimmermann, said: “This project is key to our understanding of the human wildlife conflict facing Andean bears in their habitats in South America. This Whitley Award will provide the essential support we need to work with local communities, developing sustainable options for people to live alongside the species.”
Indira Lacerna-Widmann, chief operating officer of the Katala Foundation, a Philippines-based organisation which successfully implemented the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Programme (PCCP), is also among the prestigious winners with her project ‘Partnering with prisoners to safeguard the Critically Endangered Philippine cockatoo’.
Head of field programmes at Chester Zoo, Scott Wilson, said: “The Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Programme is hugely successful, and we are proud to have been major project partners since 2003.
“The dedication of Indira and the rest of the Katala Foundation team has led to the effective protection of several high biodiversity sites in Palawan, providing a haven for the critically endangered Philippine cockatoo, plus numerous other threatened species.”
Assessed by an expert academic panel, the conservationists each won a prize worth £35,000 in project funding over one year.
Winners were announced on Thursday, May 18 during the Whitley Awards Ceremony, presented by HRH The Princess Royal at the Royal Geographical Society in London.