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Rolex announces 2019 Laureate finalists, public vote to choose winners

Rolex announces 2019 Laureate finalists, public vote to choose winners
24 May
Rolex has announced the ten finalists for its 2019 Rolex Awards, each vying to become one of the five chosen Laureates, honoured for their work in global development projects

Held every three years, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise began more than 40 years ago to support pioneering men and women advancing knowledge of the world, protecting cultural heritage and  preserving natural habitats and species. The endeavour was inspired by the company founder, Hans Wilsdorf, and seeks to assist individuals or organisations in finding solutions to combat the growing climate crisis.

Since the first awards in 1976, 140 Laureates, ranging in age from 24 to 74, have carried out projects benefiting millions of people in more than 60 countries by implementing technological and scientific innovations, protecting endangered species and ecosystems, exploring new frontiers, reviving time-honoured practices and protecting forgotten peoples. Each of the five finalists will receive $200,000 to help advance their project, as well as worldwide publicity.

In previous years, the finalists and eventual winners were chosen solely by an international jury of experts in the fields of global development. For 2019, Rolex is giving the public a say in selecting the eventual five Laureates through an online vote in which the world at large can help influence the final judging decisions. Each finalist will present their projects to participants of the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington DC on 12 June. The jury will then choose the final five Laureates, taking into account the public vote, on 14 June.

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Emma Camp, 32, United Kingdom

Camp is a British marine scientist developing a method to revive the world’s dying reefs through natural selection. Her method involves identifying hot spots of naturally resilient corals that can withstand stresses such as acidic and warming waters. Camp then wants to transplant these ‘super survivors’ to areas of the Great Barrier Reef that have been devastated by coral bleaching while enlisting volunteers to monitor their survival.

Camp is planning a marine expedition to new resilience hotspots on the northern Great Barrier Reef, the Low Isles and Howick Island; studying corals, identifying key traits involved in their resilience and, for the first time, trying to transplant them to areas devastated by mass coral death. In the long-term, Camp wants to train local stakeholders and ecotourism communities in innovative coral restoration techniques to reverse the damage caused by human action in the world’s great reefs.

Miranda Wang, 25, Canada

Wang is an entrepreneur whose company, BioCollection, is developing techniques to convert plastic waste into valuable industrial chemicals used to make products such as cars, electronic goods and textiles. BioCollection was founded in Silicon Valley to pioneer solutions to the emerging global plastics crisis.

Since China’s ban on plastic waste imports, the US has been adding 30 tons of plastic waste per month in municipal disposal centres. Much of the non-recyclable waste is added to landfills or illegally dumped into oceans and rivers. Wang plans to develop a fully-commercial processing plant and recycle 45,500 tonnes of plastic waste by 2023, so eliminating 320,000 tonnes of CO₂ emissions.

Krithi Karanth, 40, India

Karanth is an Indian conservationist focused on resolving the issues surrounding conflict between animals and wildlife. In India, wild animals are restricted to just five per cent of the country’s land mass, which inevitably leads to thousands of clashes between humans and animals each year, such as tigers, leopards and elephants. The Indian government pays out $5million yearly in compensation to farmers and villagers for wildlife damage, but Karanth estimates those compensated may only represent a fraction of the people actually affected by clashes. In 2015, she set up a service, Wild Seve, for villagers to call for compensation if they had suffered from wildlife losses. It identifies conflict hotspots and currently serves half a million people living in 600 villages near Bandipur and Nagarahole Parks in the State of Karnataka. Wild Seve has filed 14,000 claims for 6,400 families (worth $200,000), which has helped to decrease hostility and increase trust between conservationists and communities.

Karanth now plans to expand Wild Seve to 1,000 more villages and field-test measures in high-conflict zones to reduce crop damage and make people, livestock and wildlife safer. Local attitudes and awareness are crucial. Karanth, also plans to run Wild Shaale, a conservation education programme in 300 schools located within high-conflict areas. The aim is to reach 20,000 children, and to survey community attitudes in vulnerable villages. In time, she hopes this could become a model for community-based conservation worldwide for those living in close proximity to wildlife.

Topher White, 37, United States

White is a technologist whose work is predicated on preventing deforestation by stopping illegal logging and collecting data on animal sounds. To do this, he repurposed old phones to listen to all the sounds of the forest. Utilising Artificial Intelligence, White’s NGO, Rainforest Connection, can pick out chainsaws, logging trucks and road building, as well as alert forest managers and indigenous communities in time to intervene. The same technology is being used to monitor the sounds of birds and animals, providing scientists with a way to study the health of wildlife populations in a given area.

The sounds are live-streamed, creating a vast digital library that gives scientists access to raw acoustic data. ‘We should be able to detect animals that don’t even make sounds. Jaguars might not always be vocalising, but birds and other animals around them are,’ says White. The 37-year-old American has extensively tested his ‘forest guardian’ technology in the jungles of Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru and Sumatra, and plans to scale up its protection to 60,000 hectares of rainforest in both the Tembé Indigenous Reserve in Brazil, and on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Brian Gitta, 26, Uganda

Gitta has developed a means to test for malaria without the need for blood sampling. Malaria infects 220 million people every year, and a procedure such as Gitta’s would be vital as one of the keys to administering life-saving treatment for malaria is fast diagnosis. Currently tests require both a blood sample and a skilled analyst, not always widely available in the developing world. Gitta and his team have developed a portable electronic device that gives a reliable reading in minutes, without drawing blood. According to the World Health Organization, 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia carry almost 80 per cent of the global malaria burden. Worldwide, 61 per cent of malaria deaths are children.

Gitta, who originates from Uganda, has suffered from the disease many times. After five generations of prototypes, he has developed the Matiscope, which simply requires the patient to insert a clean finger into the device wand uses light and magnets to detect the malaria parasite. The goal now for Gitta is to improve diagnostic accuracy, in particular for the early stages of the disease, and to convince doctors and patients that they no longer need blood tests. The Matiscope is currently undergoing clinical trials and if it succeeds, Gitta, plans to deliver it to hospitals throughout Uganda and Kenya.

Sara Saeed, 32, Pakistan

Doctors are very scarce in rural Pakistan and many families suffer from a lack of medical care, while in the cities there are many well-qualified female doctors are unable to practice their vocation due to cultural norms. Sara Saeed’s solution is a service that connects home-based female doctors with people in rural and impoverished communities. Digital technology allows for the creation of a telemedicine delivery system which has the potential to work in remote communities at a low cost via an electronic health network. Pakistan has a population of 200 million people and 50 per cent do not have access to health care.

Saeed’s company, Sehat Kahani, aims to help female doctors get back into the workforce by connecting them with low income and rural communities using digital technology. Her network of 23 ‘e-health clinics’ across Pakistan already serves 86,000 patients, employs 1,500 female doctors and more than 90 nurses and field health workers. Recently it has included Pakistani female doctors living overseas, making its services more available 24/7. Saeed plans to expand her network to 100 e-clinics, delivering affordable healthcare to ten million people by 2023. The result is a model that not only saves lives and delivers affordable care but also empowers skilled women to reach their full potential.

Grégoire Courtine, 31, France

Medical scientist Grégoire Courtine’s mission is to restore sensorimotor functions after central nervous system disorders, especially spinal cord injury using neuroprosthetic systems, robotic interfaces, and advanced neurorehabilitation procedures. He has devised an implantable neuroprosthetic ‘bridge’ to bypass the site of the back injury, enabling the brains of spinal patients to regain control of their legs. This electronic bridge will be placed between the patient’s brain and lumbar spinal cord, supported by wireless technology. The system conveys signals from the brain controlling voluntary movement to the legs via electrical stimulation of the lower spinal cord and helps damaged spinal nerves recover.

Courtine is an avid rock climber and extreme sports fan, whose passion for sports spurred him to start developing a cure for leg paralysis, as did is chance encounter with a young paralysed athlete in a wheelchair. He recently had a breakthrough with this technology when he helped restore walking in three long-term paralysed men, each of whom can now stand and walk short distances on crutches. He next plans to conduct a clinical trial involving three patients that have been paralysed for about a year. They will gradually re-learn to walk using the bridge and a suspended harness. This experiment will establish the technological and conceptual framework for developing a fully implantable brain-spine interface that may one day become a common medical treatment for people who can no longer walk because of spinal injury.

João Campos-Silva, 36, Brazil

João Campos-Silva, ecology professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, led the analysis into the population recovery of Arapaima gigas, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, which had been previously depleted due to overfishing, exacerbated by the species’ easily exploited habit of surfacing regularly for air-gulping. Eight years of data were used to measure how population sizes varied between managed, protected oxbow lakes and open-access lakes. The study demonstrated a dramatic rebound in arapaima populations that had been previously overfished in lakes under community-based management, concluding that these management programmes are a clear ‘win-win’ conservation solutions, compatible with the socioeconomic reality of Amazonian countries. In close partnership with local associations and fishing leaders, Campos-Silva has a plan to save not only the arapaima but with it, the livelihoods, food supply and culture of the indigenous communities who depend on the Amazon’s rivers for survival.

Campos-Silva has already demonstrated that he is potentially capable of saving the species, as protection of river-connected lakes in the western Amazon has enabled a spectacular 30-fold recovery in local arapaima numbers. Closing the lakes has also brought populations of manatees, giant otters, giant turtles and black caiman back from near-collapse, while the fish recovery is yielding thousands of dollars in new income for struggling forest communities. Going forward, Campos-Silva wants to expand the project to 60 new communities outside protected areas, with the goal of raising fish numbers fourfold in just three years.

Pablo García Borboroglu, 49, Argentina

Borboroglu is a conservationist who has launched a campaign in response to the alarming decline of global penguin populations. He is hoping to find out what exactly is causing this steep decline and attempt to discover ways we can prevent the extinction of these magnificent and fragile ocean birds. There are 18 species of penguins, over half of which are considered threatened, a situation worsening each year. Borboroglu, president of the Global Penguin Society, says that: ‘Penguins are true indicators of the health of the oceans, because they’re sensitive to all the changes in their habitats.’ The most pressing threats are the climate crisis and overfishing reducing food in proximity, driving the birds farther away from their colonies to find fish to feed their chicks. ‘To get their food, they swim hundreds of kilometres. When they come back, the chicks have often starved to death.’

So far, Borboroglu’s work has benefited 1.6 million penguins, helping to secure 32 million acres of habitat and involving thousands of kids in educational activities. His project will seek to improve scientific knowledge of three penguin species; the Magellanic, King and Fjordland Crested penguins, from Argentina, Chile and New Zealand respectively. In order to make science-based recommendations to guide their conservation, Borboroglu will engage local communities and schools in Argentina, teaching students about penguin study and conservation. He will also present this model to other countries to follow as well as work with local and national governments and landowners to improve decision-making on matters that affect penguin conservation, including the designation and management of new Marine Protected Areas.

Yves Moussallam, 31, France

Volcanologist Yves Moussallam plans to uncover the great scientific mystery of how the gases and aerosols emitted by the Earth’s 150-plus active volcanoes are affecting the climate crisis. He is planning two expeditions aboard a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel to measure and analyse the matter emitted from 17 of the most active volcanoes along an arc of the world’s most volcanically-active region – the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area stretching more than 5,000km. While fulfilling his goal to uncover the effect that volcanic gases have on the global climate, Moussallam will be documenting and sharing his discoveries online to raise awareness that scientific adventure and exploration of new worlds are still possible.

Moussallam says that ‘volcanoes have shaped our planet and its atmosphere over aeons. Collecting real-time data on volcanic activity in the most remote places on Earth is key to a true understanding of their role in accelerating or masking climate change. Satellite data indicates that a third of all the world’s volcanic gases originate from Melanesian volcanoes, but until now most sampling has taken place at accessible volcanoes in developed countries.’

The expedition will mix science and Pacific cultural heritage as Moussallam sets sail on a vaka, a traditional Polynesian vessel that is environmentally friendly and can moor anywhere in the islands. Once the team has arrived in the islands, it will deploy high-tech aerial drones, undersea robots and advanced sensors to analyse the gases produced by volcanoes located between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Moussallam also hopes to supply the islanders with improved early-warning systems for volcanic eruptions.

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