Over the generations, my family have always been involved in conservation. My great-great-uncle set up Paignton Zoo, starting with domestic animals, but importing increasingly exotic ones. Then my grandfather set up a charitable trust called the Whitley Animal Protection Trust in the 1960s – that was always a part of our lives as we grew up. So the concept has been in the family for generations.
Conservation has become more pressing over the last 30 years. When I set up the Whitley Fund for Nature – the charity behind the Whitley Awards – in 1993, it was off the back of us wanting to find and fund the best placed people who are working in developing countries where funds are most needed.
What the WFN tries to do is focus on conservation success stories and the progress that’s being made. The awards ceremony is about recognising and celebrating that – winning those small battles. In addition to the financial benefit of winning an award, our winners receive professional communications training to turn scientists into ambassadors so they’re able to communicate what they’re doing to the public and to policy makers.
We’ve now funded 170 conservationists in 70 different countries. Our first award winner was in 1994, and the prize value at that time was £15,000. Over the years it has increased as more supporters have joined us; at the moment they’re at £35,000, and we have seven or eight new Whitley award winners every year. We’re not the only funder, but we’re quite a significant one, and we help them get more funding. They raise a considerable amount of money once they’ve won our award, because we then put them in contact with other funders and nominate them for other prizes to help them fund raise. So the award acts as a stamp of approval and our funds are leveraged many times over.
“The good news is there are some fantastic and truly heroic people who are making a difference in places. Each victory is one to be really cherished”
Winning a Whitley Award is partly about the financial gain, but a lot of it is to do with the increased profile experienced as a result, especially back in a winner’s home country. If you give a grant it’s obviously great, but we thought it would have more impact if you make it into a high-profile award. Often a winner’s picture with our Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, will appear on the cover of their local newspaper. It gives them more influence when they’re trying to make policy recommendations, and it helps build pride in the local communities; they realise that people overseas care about what they’re doing.
All our previous winners are eligible for further funding, so they’re not in the spotlight just once and then never again. Once we’ve found them, we stick with them and invest in them. Very excitingly, we’ve just set up a new funding programme called the Whitley-Segré Conservation Fund to support past winners. Every pound we are able to raise for this programme will be matched by our Swiss partner, Fondation Segré, giving supporters the chance to double their donation for the first time.
We only ever fund local people in their own countries, we don’t believe in parachuting people in for a short period of time. You need somebody with local knowledge of the context in which they’re working so that what they do is effective. Somebody who is seen as part of that community, somebody who’s integrated, that’s how we’ve seen successful results in conservation.
Conservation doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long-term process, and sometimes the results aren’t as quick as you’d like them to be. Our donors realise this and are also in it for the long haul, which we are so grateful to them for. They all feel very connected, because they’re able to meet the people that they’re funding.
It was while writing Gerald Durrell’s Army that I met Claudio Padua, in Brazil. I was looking at who was doing good and effective conservation work, people who had been trained by Gerald Durrell, and Claudio was one of those people. When I first went out there it was really just him, working on the black lion tamarin project. He won a Whitley Award in 1999 and now he’s built an NGO called IPÊ, which operates multiple projects across the country, working to conserve tamarins (which are now in a much better position), tapirs and giant armadillos to name a few. So it’s gone from being something really small, to something much bigger.
Conservation still needs all the help it can get. The good news is there are some fantastic and truly heroic people who are making a difference in places. Each victory is one to be really cherished.
1961 Born in Shrewsbury
1983 Graduated from Oxford University with an honours degree in English
1988 Became a trustee of the Whitley Animal Protection Trust
1992 Wrote Gerald Durrell’s Army
1994 Launched the first Whitley Awards ceremony
2013 Awarded an OBE for services to wildlife conservation
This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.