- Whitley Fund for Nature is a UK charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South.
- Its rigorous application process identifies inspiring individuals who combine the latest science with community-based action.
Two Kenyans have been feted for their outstanding job in protecting wildlife and ecosystems in partnership with local communities.
The two were among five others who have also played a crucial role in spearheading solutions to the key drivers of biodiversity loss around the world.
Leonard Akwany won the 2023 Whitley Award for his efforts to bolster grassroots fisheries management at Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake.
Akwany who could not hide his joy said; “I am a native of Lake Victoria. I share local people’s problems and aspirations. So I am in intimate synch with problems facing Lake Victoria fisher folk communities. They have traditional ecological knowledge of fish breeding grounds but protection of those areas is constrained by limited resources and inadequate BMU empowerment.”
He said local people’s involvement in wetlands restoration, citizen science monitoring and surveillance, and the development of green-value chain options such as ecotourism exemplifies involvement, and benefits and adds a positive attitude to the work.
“I am inspired by the pro-activeness and sense of community service from local fisher folk communities; youth, women and men who work with me towards the conservation of fisheries and wetlands resources of Lake Victoria in Kenya.”
Whitley Fund for Nature Patron, HRH Princess Royal, presented the awards to Akwany and five other winners on April 26 at the Royal Geographical Society, in a ceremony which also marks the 30th anniversary of the Whitley Fund for Nature.
Other winners included Albert Salemgareyev (Kazakhstan), Dr Tulshi Laxmi Suwal (Nepal), Mamy Razafitsalama (Madagascar), Yuliana Bedolla Guzmán (Mexico) and Dr Serge Alexis Kamgang (Cameroon).
Kenya’s Dr Shivani Bhalla, a former Whitley Award winner of 2014, was also separately honoured with the £100,000 Whitley Gold Award.
Bhalla's work with a team of Samburu warriors, elders and women to secure a future for lions in northern Kenya amid the worst drought, has won praise.
Every year, a past Whitley Award winner is chosen to receive the Whitley Gold Award, worth £100,000, in recognition of their outstanding contribution to conservation.
Winners of the award receive funding, training and media profile including films narrated by Trustee Sir David Attenborough.
In addition to the £40,000, they are individually awarded in project funding, the Whitley Fund for Nature will provide each winner with networking opportunities, communications and speech training, and introduce them to a dedicated network of over 200 fellow award-winning conservation leaders across more than 80 countries.
Whitley Fund for Nature is a UK charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South.
For over 30 years it has channelled £20 million to more than 200 conservationists across 80 countries.
An early pioneer in the sector, WFN was one of the first charities to channel funding directly to projects led by in-country nationals.
Its rigorous application process identifies inspiring individuals who combine the latest science with community-based action, to benefit biodiversity, climate and people.
Lake Victoria is where native fish species have more than halved and unsustainable fishing is tipping waterside communities into food insecurity.
Shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, Lake Victoria is a key global biodiversity hotspot, with fishing activity supporting the livelihoods of four million people and producing an annual catch worth $600 million.
However, overfishing, climate change, pollution, and the degradation of critical aquatic habitats such as wetlands have led to plummeting fish stocks and reduced native fish species from 500 to 200.
Globally, freshwater species have fallen by 83 per cent, the largest decline of any species group, according to the most recent Living Planet report.
WFN Trustee Attenborough said the work of conservationists has never been more urgent; “We need the work of Whitley Award winners to succeed and to help them to whatever extent possible.”
The Founder of non-profit Ecofinder Kenya based in Kisumu, Akwany’s project will create a community-managed fishery reserve of 3,000 hectares (7,413.15 acres) to allow native fish species to recover.
Akwany will use the award to bolster the capacity of five Beach Management Units—which consist of fishers, fish traders, boat owners and stakeholders—so they can effectively manage fisheries in their zone, and reduce environmentally damaging fishing practices, like the use of trawl nets.
With 281 BMUs in total across Lake Victoria’s shore in Kenya, the success of Akwany’s new programme has the potential to have a much wider impact.
His plans include the training of 200 BMU members on alternative green livelihoods to reduce fishing pressure while protecting local incomes. He also plans on building on previous work in restoring wetlands which promoted ecotourism, green energy technologies and regenerative agriculture.
Training will also address the poor involvement of women in BMU leadership.
Akwany expects the proactive participation of women in the fisheries industry to help address cases of gender-based violence in fishing communities, known locally as “jaboya culture”.
His new project will be implemented in the Winam Gulf area covering Kisumu, Siaya and Busia counties in Western Kenya, and will target three native fish species which are critically endangered—cichlids, Ngege and Mbiru as well as the Ningu—found in shallow, inshore waters.
It includes the protection of riparian wetlands and river mouths and will indirectly benefit papyrus birds and semi-aquatic antelope known as Sitatunga.
Bhalla's work on the other hand involves working with communities.
The all-Kenyan team at Ewaso Lions where Bhalla is Founder and Executive Director is sustaining wildlife, livestock and people by incorporating drought management into day-to-day efforts.
They do so by digging for water, the lifeblood of a region which consists of an arid panorama of grasslands, acacia trees and scrubland.
A community-led approach has been crucial to the success of the team which has seen the local lion population rise to a record high even as lions remain more endangered than elephants or rhinos in Africa.
Bhalla’s team at Ewaso Lions also took on a humanitarian role when the drought struck by providing food relief to more than 1,700 households and schools.
Bhalla has been active in big cat conservation in Kenya since 2002, establishing Ewaso Lions in 2007 which has grown to a team of 64 full-time employees, mostly made up of Samburu warriors.
Ewaso Lions encompasses three national reserves and 11 community conservancies with a mission of putting local people at the centre of all programmes to create a sense of pride over the landscape by working with elders, warriors, women and children.
Bhalla says culture is crucial in securing lions.
“A huge threat to lions and all wildlife in this region is the loss of the Samburu culture. If the culture is lost, we will lose our wildlife.”
The grassroots project in the Ewaso ecosystem, northern Kenya, will build on momentum following the COP15 global treaty agreed at the UN's Biodiversity Summit, which recognises the role of local and indigenous peoples in safeguarding as much as 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity.
Ewaso Lions has overseen a rise in the local lion population to more than 50 last year from 11 before 2008.
The team safeguards community land and monitors lion movements using traditional knowledge and modern technology.
This saves about 250 livestock from lions annually in its 4,530km² remit.
The Samburu people are semi-nomadic and measure wealth in livestock, typically cows and camels which can be worth up to $1,000 each.
Lions are increasingly coming into contact with livestock, threatening livelihoods, while the drier landscape and ongoing drought are exacerbating coexistence.
Other threats include plans for large-scale infrastructure projects and diseases, such as distemper and rabies.
Warrior Watch encourages young warriors to become wildlife conservationists and protect lions. Samburu warriors travel on foot throughout the landscape tracking lions and alerting nearby pastoralists to their presence to prevent livestock from being attacked.
“Mama Simba,” is another dynamic women-led conservation initiative created by local Samburu women.
The lions of Samburu are more solitary than those found in other parts of Kenya and live alongside pastoral communities outside of protected areas. They hide during the day and emerge at night to hunt.
Bhalla’s new programme will empower and train 150 community members across northern Kenya. It will also engage with 25 top global conservation leaders to develop a framework to be rolled out globally, with the aim of ensuring that conservation decision-making happens at the local level, while also deepening the cultural values of communities which have always lived alongside wildlife.
She said; “We need to be investing in local leaders from all demographics who ultimately provide their own sustainable solutions to address the conservation challenges that are faced globally… I envision a future where with or without conservation projects, conservation will be a way of life.