The ceremony may have smacked of royalty, but the winners of the 2007 Whitley Awards—presented by HRH Princess Royal and Sir David Attenborough—were leaders of the people. The Whitley Fund for Nature, a UK-based international conservation charity, held its annual ceremony on May 10 at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Four of the ten individuals honored work on Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)-affiliated projects. All of the winners have grappled with habitat degradation, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and other environmental problems, employing creative solutions to help save wildlife and benefit local communities.
From the grasslands of the Bolivian Chaco to the Amazon basin of Colombia, South American conservationists Erika Cuéllar, Luis Fernando Aguirre, Silvio Marchini, and Fernando Trujillo have focused their conservation activities on unique and fragile ecosystems, where wildlife and people coexist. Expanding human settlement, mechanized agriculture, mining, and other forms of economic development threaten many of South America’s fast-shrinking biomes. In order to reverse the course of environmental degradation, these four individuals have devoted themselves to inspiring local awareness and support for conservation of wild places among those who most rely on them.
Home base for conservation biologist Erika Cuéllar is the Gran Chaco tropical dry forest of Bolivia. Erika has been a staff member with the WCS Bolivia program in Santa Cruz since 1996. Though the Gran Chaco wilderness once spanned three countries, today the only remaining expanse still relatively undisturbed is Kaa-Iya National Park. The park is also the first of its kind in South America to be proposed by an indigenous group: the neighboring Isoseño Guaraní people. Their land, together with Kaa-Iya, is home to many wildlife species, including the critically endangered Chacoan guanaco. Only 200 of this iconic South American mammal remain, primarily as a consequence of cattle ranching that has virtually eliminated grasslands.
Erika has worked alongside the Isoseño for the past decade as they have administered the park, with support from WCS. In 2002, she consolidated the Guanaco Conservation Project with Paraguay to improve rangeland management for the natural recovery of guanacos. Erika is committed to a future in which the Isoseño are land managers with an equal stake in wildlife conservation. Her program trains locals as “parabiologists” with professional field research skills.
Dr. Luis Fernando Aguirre
Bolivian biologist Dr. Luis Fernando Aguirre is deeply devoted to bats, which are gravely threatened by habitat destruction and public misconception. More than half of all Bolivian bat species are found in montane forests, which are being overtaken by expanding agriculture, mining, and logging operations. Just as the bats cannot survive without the forest, the forest relies on the bats for pollination and seed dispersal. In 1998, Luis founded the Bolivian Bat Conservation Program—a branch of the conservation organization BIOTA, a WCS partner—focusing on public education and habitat conservation. Working with an army of volunteers, he and his team have surveyed the bats in Bolivia, raising the number of known species from 106 to 122. The program’s education component has reached more than 150,000 people. By increasing knowledge of how bats use their habitats, BBCP is informing conservation policy and developing action plans for threatened species.
The forests of Brazil’s Amazon, known for having the highest biodiversity in the world, are the focus of Brazilian zoologist Silvio Marchini. Despite its status, this region continues to lose more wilderness annually to the agricultural frontier than anywhere else in the world. Though the fate of Amazônia has become a focus of worldwide concern, attempts to create protected areas in the forest have mostly ignored the beliefs and attitudes of the poor migrant farmers working the frontier.
In 2002, Silvio established Escola da Amazônia to address the apathy and opposition felt by many towards conservation of their local rainforest. The program trains teachers from schools bordering the most threatened park on the frontier, and offers practical economic alternatives to ranching and logging. With nearly 400 participating students from both private city schools and rural public schools, the program is gradually changing attitudes among Brazilian youth, and slowing habitat loss. Silvio has since expanded his conservation activities to the Pantanal wetlands of southwestern Brazil, where he coordinated a conservation program for WCS from 2003 to 2005.
Dr. Fernando Trujillo
Among the world’s most endangered cetaceans, river dolphins still swim the waters of the Amazon basin of Colombia, where Dr. Fernando Trujillo works. But even in their last stronghold, species such as the pink river dolphin face water pollution and persecution by fishermen, who kill them for bait and accidentally trap the mammals in nets. As scientific director of Foundation Omacha, Fernando has helped establish fishery management practices to protect these and other river species such as the giant otter, manatee, turtle, and caiman. Supported by WCS, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, he led a survey of the dolphins in the upper Amazon basin. Essential to Fernando’s conservation work is the encouragement of locals, especially fishermen and indigenous people, to take leadership roles. Omacha is also developing economic alternatives to fishing to reduce the pressure on wildlife, including ecotourism, handicrafts, and a dolphin-friendly catfish certification scheme for local hotels and restaurants. For his efforts, Fernando received the Gold Whitley Award.