Champions of wildlife and wild places win prestigious awards

The National Geographic Society honors Explorers working to protect elephants, bats, a rare antelope—and millions of miles of ocean.

She’s devoted her life to protecting Kenya’s elephants.

Now conservation biologist Paula Kahumbu has been named the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year, an honor given annually by the National Geographic Society to an individual who shines a critical light on important issues facing our planet.

It’s one of four awards presented by the Society this week during its Explorers Festival, held virtually for the first time. Other honors include two Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation, and the Hubbard Medal—the Society’s highest distinction. 

“In a strange and fantastic way, it's an endorsement that I'm on the right path,” Kahumbu says of her award, “and that I should keep going.” She is the CEO of WildlifeDirect, an organization dedicated to stopping the poaching of elephants and other wildlife in Kenya. Her signature campaign, Hands Off Our Elephants, has strengthened anti-poaching laws and spurred significant awareness and support for conservation in the country. Since the initiative’s inception in 2013, elephant poaching in Kenya has decreased by a staggering 80 percent. Rhino poaching has decreased by 90 percent. 

Kahumbu says that her drive and inspiration to protect Kenya’s wildlife comes from “a conviction that not only [can] I make a difference—but that I must.” 

Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, has won the Hubbard Medal, named for the first president of the Society, Gardiner Greene Hubbard. It is the organization’s most prestigious award, given to individuals who have made pioneering strides in exploration, scientific research, and discovery. Previous honorees include conservationist Jane Goodall, astronaut John Glenn, and deep-sea explorer Bob Ballard, who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic.

Sala founded and leads Pristine Seas, a National Geographic Society initiative to protect critical areas of the ocean. His work has taken him “diving all over the world, from coral reef islands in the vast Pacific to the frozen archipelagoes of the Arctic,” he wrote in 2019. To date, Pristine Seas has helped to create 23 of the largest marine reserves on the planet, covering an area of more than two million square miles.

Honored for their achievements in conservation are wildlife biologists Abdullahi Ali and Bernal Rodríguez-Herrera, the recipients of the National Geographic/Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation.

Bernal Rodríguez-Herrera is a professor at the University of Costa Rica School of Biology and founder of the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, an organization dedicated to conserving an 850-acre wildlife refuge in northern Costa Rica. His work is particularly focused on protecting the nearly 170 species of bats in Latin America, threatened by habitat loss and intentional killings due to misperceptions and fear. “We depend on biodiversity,” Rodríguez says. So “we have to learn to live with it.” When he found out that he’d won the Buffett award, he was in disbelief. “It was like a storm in the dry season!” he says of the welcome news.

Abdullahi Hussein Ali, also a Buffett Award winner, is the founder of the Hirola Conservation Program, which aims to stop the silent extinction of the rare and critically endangered hirola antelope in areas along the Kenya-Somali border. Between 300 and 500 hirola remain in the wild, threatened by habitat loss, poaching, and drought. In working to protect them, Ali’s group has put an emphasis on education, empowering local residents—including Somali herders—to play an active role in hirola conservation. (Read more about the critically endangered hirola.)

“Species extinction is a very difficult thing to witness,” he says. Working to save a species “is not an easy job, but it’s deeply inspiring when you aren’t doing it alone—but with your community.”

Paula Kahumbu, a fellow Kenyan, says that “the challenges facing wildlife in Africa are [both] historical and current and the future looks dim at times,” but “the idea of giving up on wildlife in Africa is to me like giving up on your child. I never tire of trying new ways of making a difference.”

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.


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