Local leaders chart the way to sustained conservation

The Whitley Fund for Nature looks for local leaders who are already succeeding and puts its money where it really counts, and this year, awarded its top honour to a Kenyan environmentalist whose decades of work with local communities and groups has meant its lion population is growing outside fenced and protected areas.

Believing local leadership is crucial for sustained solutions, the fund has given £20 million to support the work of more than 200 grassroots conservation leaders in more than 80 countries across the Global South. Each year one of those 200 past Whitley Award winners receives the Whitley Gold Award – worth £100,000 of project funding – in recognition of their outstanding contribution to conservation. 

This year, that Gold Award went to Dr. Shivani Bhalla for her decades of work in promoting coexistence between people and wildlife in northern Kenya. She was inspired, growing up in Kenya, by Joy Adamson’s book Born Free. Dr. Bhalla first won a Whitley award in 2014 and received additional funding in 2016 and 2019.

“Founding Ewaso Lions in 2007, Shivani and her team have spent nearly two decades addressing lion declines through their community-initiated and led solutions which now cover over 4,500 km2,” the Gold Award citation said. “Through their efforts, the Ewaso landscape is now one of the only regions in northern Kenya where lion numbers are increasing outside of protected areas.” Specifically, the team:

  • Stabilised lion populations across the Ewaso landscape over the last decade through community-led programs, with 50 lions recorded in 2022, up from 11 known lions before 2008.
  • Scaled up lion monitoring efforts to cover 4,530 km2, and partnered with the Kenya Wildlife Service to conduct the first National Carnivore Survey in Kenya – a first of its kind in Africa – with findings shaping conservation actions.
  • Reduced disease transmission to wild carnivores by maintaining the health of domestic dogs to achieve a healthier balance between people, livestock, and wildlife.
  • Reduced human-wildlife conflict and significantly increased positive attitudes towards lions among Samburu warriors, bringing retaliation killings in the region down to zero in 2021 and 2022.
  • Formed the ‘Mama Simba’ initiative, designed by and for Samburu women, to reclaim their place as protectors of wildlife through environmental literacy and lion habitat recovery activities
  • Invested in a new generation of conservationists, educating local children on wildlife and the environment through the widely popular Ewaso Lions’ Kids Camp.
  • Reignited communities’ pride in the wildlife they live alongside, bringing 1,500 members on safaris – many of whom have never seen wildlife up close in a safe environment.

Thanks to the award, Dr. Bhalla and the Ewaso Lions will now be sharing their model of locally-led programming much more widely.

“Shivani and her team will collaborate with the Ewaso community and conservation practitioners from across the globe, including WFN alumni, to develop an open-source framework which lays out clear pathways for conservation practitioners to build skills within their teams to ensure that conservation decision-making happens at a local level,” the fund says. “Sharing the framework across international channels, this project will catalyse a movement of community-led conservation globally, with the ultimate goal that for local communities, conservation will become a way of life.”

This work will draw on the Partners Principles training in ethical community engagement developed by the 2022 Whitley Gold Award winner, Charudutt Mishra, the world’s leading expert in conserving snow leopards. “Shivani is building upon and complementing this initiative with her 2023 Gold Award – a wonderful example of the ripple effects and collaboration that WFN seeks to foster through its global Winner Network,” the fund said.

Edward Whitley set up the awards in 1993, determined to send funds directly to the local leaders who can bring about long lasting and effective nature conservation. “We seek to cut out the high overheads of conservation charities in the West, and to sidestep the process of parachuting well-meaning outsiders into other countries to ‘solve’ their problems for them,” he says. “We have found and funded extraordinary leaders, many of whom have become internationally recognised.”

For more about the amazing Whitley winners and their work, please do visit their website.

Cover image by Ewaso Lions