Whitley Awards for Nature

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Maureen and I went along to the Whitley Fund for Nature’s annual awards at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday night. The winners were:

● John Kahekwa – gorillas in Democratic Republic of the Congo – I’d looked up which gorilla family we bumped into on my gorilla visit in eastern Congo in 2011, just in case they were mentioned. I’ve been fortunate to have two gorilla encounters – that time in the Congo and a few years previously in Central African Republic – and they are truly amazing animals

Virunga NP, Gorilla - she sat there and studied us 0223 542

▲ A gorilla from the 36-member Kabirizi family in the Virunga National Park – I write, in my forthcoming book Tony Wheeler’s Dark Lands … there’s a polite ‘harrumph’ behind us and we look around to see one of the gorillas is following us. She sits down to look at us. Then lies back and scratches her stomach. Then rolls on her side and props her head up on her hand with her elbow on the ground. Then makes a couple of faces. And then indicates ‘could we please get out of the way because she’d like to carry on down the path.’  So we politely move to one side and damn me, she does a perfect little forward roll somersault, curls up in a ball and rolls past us down the path! I’d say ‘like a black furry gym ball’ except she probably weighs over 100 kg.

● Zafer Kizilkaya – Turkey – marine protection in Gökova Bay
● Aparajita Datta – hornbills in Arunachal Pradesh
●Daniel Letoiye – Gevry’s zebras in Kenya
● Zahirul Islam – sea turtles in Bangladesh
● Ekwoge Abwe – great apes in Cameroon
● Eugen Simonov – Amur River in Mongolia, China and Russia

And a long term award went to Çağan Şekercioğlu for assorted projects in north-east Turkey. Afterwards Princess Anne, the patron of the organisation, said all the right things.

Heron Island turtles 542

▲ I was pleased to hear of the Bangladesh turtle protection winner’s work. I’ve seen turtles come ashore and lay their eggs, but the magic turtle moment was with our children around sunset, walking along the beach one day on Heron Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. A batch of turtle eggs simultaneously hatched out and the tiny turtles erupted from the sand and started their first perilous dash to the sea. Birds were picking them off before they even reached the water and Tashi and Kieran, my daughter and son, raced around chasing the birds away. We’d been told that it’s important not to handle the turtles, to physically help them get to the water, they have to imprint that first journey from their birthplace.