Disney Conservation Heroes named

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is delighted to announce that two outstanding individuals working on projects in Kazakhstan and Uganda have been named as Conservation Heroes this year by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF).

This award recognises local citizens for their tireless efforts to save wildlife, protect habitats and educate communities. Recipients were nominated by non-profit environmental organisations, and each honouree and their nominating organisation will share a US$1,500 award from DWCF.

The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund focuses on protecting wildlife and connecting kids and families with nature. Since 2004, Disney has honoured more than 100 leaders around the world for their extraordinary conservation efforts.

Saiga saviour

One of this year’s winners is Berdiyar Jollibekov – Project Manager at Fauna & Flora International. Berdiyar joined FFI in 2011 with a burning drive to provide a local perspective on conservation issues, and help stop the decline of the unique and distinctive saiga – one of the world’s most endangered antelopes.

As if working in five languages across international borders in a landscape known for its harshness and scale was not challenging enough, Berdiyar decided to embark on a fellowship programme in Germany to help him develop strategies to combine conservation with local livelihood improvements.

Berdiyar emerges from his tent. Credit: FFI.

A harsh environment in which to work – Berdiyar emerges from his tent. Credit: FFI.

He has shouldered the responsibility of having to be away from his family for long periods of time while travelling between remote villages to promote conservation and learn from villagers about the pressing environmental issues affecting their lives.

With a wide grin, he explains that while travelling he is able to speak with his youngest daughter via Skype, and when finished she frequently asks her mother, “when daddy will come out of the phone and become big again.”

The saiga is an ancient species with a large cartilaginous nose which is used to attract females during the mating season and gives them an endearing alien-like appearance. Wild herds were once well-managed and over a million animals roamed the Ustyurt Plateau in Central Asia.

Saiga. Credit: Igor Shpilenok

Saiga are Critically Endangered, having experienced severe population declines in recent years. Credit: Igor Shpilenok.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, spelled disaster for the saiga. Populations plummeted by 95% as the decline of authority, widespread poverty, changing economic forces and a demand for saiga horn wreaked havoc on this once stable population.

But with champions like Berdiyar on the case, the future looks brighter for the saiga. In his words: “The saiga is a part of our cultural heritage and it would be a tragedy if we lost this unique symbol of the Ustyurt.”

Negotiating for a better world

Another 2014 Conservation Hero is King Geoffrey Nzito, the traditional leader of the Batwa people who have historically lived in the Semliki forest in western Uganda.

In the late 1980s, Semliki became part of a national park, and access to the forest and its resources was severely restricted without any consideration of the Batwa community – even though this forest had been an integral part of their subsistence and way of life for centuries.

Some of the Batwa refused to leave and continued to access forest resources for subsistence and barter, which resulted in conflict between the community and the park’s management. During this unsettled time, and with limited access to traditional food and medicine from the forest, the health and well-being of the community deteriorated, and many Batwa died, including their King Awutu, the father of King Nzito.

Since taking on the Batwa leadership mantle, King Geoffrey Nzito has made huge gains for his people and the forest. Using his excellent diplomatic skills, King Nzito has secured land outside the forest for housing and has also negotiated with the park management to provide access to many of the Batwa’s ancestral sites within the park, which has reduced conflict over cultural values.

In addition, he has encouraged his people to support sustainable management of the forest and help further the conservation goals of the park, a concept that ties in well with the Batwa’s traditional stewardship of their forest home.

Beyond this, King Nzito is addressing social and health issues, such as encouraging people to take their children to school and leading in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

He is also promoting economic empowerment for his people, and spearheading environmentally friendly and sustainable income-generating activities, such as bee-keeping and cultural tourism, and is training the youth to be tour guides – providing visitors with fascinating insights into the forests that these young people know like the backs of their hands.

King Nzito’s leadership is a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to his people and the park authorities of Uganda.

A salute to all our conservation heroes

At Fauna & Flora International, we are deeply proud of all our staff and partners who work tirelessly, against all the odds, to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.

We would like to congratulate Berdiyar and King Nzito for their well-deserved awards, and would also like to take this opportunity to salute every one of our hardworking staff – you are all heroes.

For information on Disney’s commitment to conserve nature and a complete list of 2014 Conservation Hero Award recipients, visit www.disney.com/conservation.