The Tusk Conservation Awards returned for its 11th year on November 27, 2023, celebrating the inspirational work of conservationists championing biodiversity, wildlife, and the environment. The work of this year's winners has contributed to the preservation of chimpanzee, gorilla, bonobo, and painted dog populations, and has earned them recognition as some of Africa's leading conservationists.
“Africa, its people, and its biodiversity are disproportionately affected by the impacts of a warming planet. Impacts which are, for the most part, not driven by those most affected,” said Tusk Royal Patron, The Prince of Wales, at the awards ceremony at The Savoy, London, UK.
“Those living in Africa emit just a quarter of the emissions than that of the average global citizen. Yet the African continent is set to incur disproportionate loss and damage from climate change. But we do have the power to change this, and the stories we have heard tonight provide both optimism and hope. By investing in nature-based solutions we can help mitigate the worst effects of our warming planet and put it back on a healthier path.”
The Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa Winner 2023 was awarded to Dr Ekwoge Abwe of the Cameroon Biodiversity Association. Fanny Minesi, Director of Friends of Bonobos of Congo, was granted the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa, and Jealous Mpofu, Chief Tracker at Painted Dog Conservation, was given the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award. We spoke to them to find out more about their contributions to conservation.
Dr Ekwoge Abwe, how has connecting people from grassroots organizations and traditional communities been pivotal in your conservation work?
Our initial surveys in the Ebo forest, Cameroon, revealed not only a forest teeming with wildlife and plants, but importantly recent relics of human occupation, including abandoned settlements, farm cultivation, and grave sites. We realized from the onset that conservation in this landscape could only be achieved through close collaboration with communities whose history and ancestry are intricately linked with the wildlife and forest; those who call it home.
United by a shared forest, but alienated by the civil strife around Cameroon’s independence in the early 1960s, our first real challenge was to work with the disparate communities east and west of the Ebo forest. From 2007, we started bringing hunters from these communities together in a series of conservation workshops held at the Limbe Wildlife Centre, a sanctuary for animals confiscated from the wildlife trade.
In addition, through continued lobbying, in 2011 we supported the first ever meeting of traditional chiefs from more than 40 communities around the Ebo forest. This was the birth of the Ebo Traditional Chiefs’ Association, their goal being to enhance the welfare of their communities and protect the rich biodiversity of the Ebo forest for posterity.
Today we have succeeded in initiating and supporting community-led conservation around the Ebo forest, including supporting the Gorilla Guardians and Chimpanzee Guardians. This is important because the forest is not legally protected by law and has suffered from threats ranging from hunting and the bushmeat trade to habitat loss through logging and the expansion of agro-industrial plantations.
The communities see themselves today as custodians of the rich biodiversity of the forest, which is home to a unique population of gorillas and tool-wielding chimpanzees, in which they take enormous pride. The gorilla and chimpanzee guardian clubs engage in alternative sustainable livelihood activities to reduce dependence and pressure on wildlife and their habitat.
Fanny Minesi, what’s it like working with bonobos, and is rewilding them difficult?
Bonobos are endlessly fascinating. They are our closest genetic relatives – with DNA that is 98.7 percent the same as ours. They are intelligent, playful, resilient, and generous, each one different from the others. They have so much to teach us! [But they are also] very sensitive to stress, and this is partly why it is very difficult to return them to the wild.
We select candidates for rewilding from the bonobos at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary who have recovered from the trauma of being orphaned and captured. We choose a cohesive social group to rewild together. On moving day, we transport them more than 800 kilometers [500 miles], by truck, airplane, truck again, and finally by boat to a quarantine site near the Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Forest. The quarantine site gives them time to get used to their new environment and prevents the introduction of illness to the forest.
A rewilding mission is very complex and involves many, many people. Everything happens with the bonobos’ cooperation, or not at all. But before we can even begin, we must first create the conditions for success in the wild. This means building strong partnerships with the people living near Ekolo forest. Helping them understand how protecting bonobos and their rainforest is better for them than extraction, and ensuring they benefit from their conservation efforts – this is absolutely critical.
Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Forest is the first provincial-level protected area in DR Congo, and it is true partnership. With their help, we have returned more than two dozen bonobos to their rightful place in the rainforest, and at least 10 babies have been born to the rewilded bonobos. Rewilding is very challenging, and also very rewarding.
Jealous Mpofu, what challenges do you face working with painted dogs?
Due to the painted dogs having one of the largest home ranges of any land mammal, it is both challenging, but equally rewarding to see them in their natural habitat. I monitor five packs, which have a combined territory of more than 3,000 km [1,800 miles].
The dogs are active early in the mornings and late afternoons when it is nice and cool, so I have to start my day at around 4 am to drive to the last sighting of the pack I am monitoring. If you stay in bed for too long, you find them gone. When the packs are further out, I have to camp out overnight to look for the dogs, and often stay in the bush for days until I see them, particularly if there is an injured dog in the pack.
The threats they face include diseases like distemper, parvo, and rabies. However, their biggest threat is mankind through road accidents where the dogs build dens near major highways, not forgetting shooting and accidental snaring. My colleagues and I have been standing guard on the highway guiding dogs returning from hunts back to the den, making sure they are not killed by vehicles.
I also recall last year in Hwange National Park when four dogs were snared in one pack. I had to track them down so my colleague Peter could dart them, and one by one, as I found them, we got the snares off.
How does it feel to be recognized at the Tusk Conservation Awards?
Dr Ekwoge Abwe: It never crossed my mind that our conservation work in a remote corner of Cameroon would be recognized, let alone celebrated on such a global stage. That said, I have always believed that conservation anywhere is conservation everywhere! I am humbled by this recognition and award. This is not a solo effort; I wish to fully acknowledge the hard work and sacrifices of our entire team in Cameroon and the support of the grassroots communities we have been working with over the years.
Fanny Minesi: I am thankful and feel really honored. Honestly, I was not expecting this! When you are deeply immersed in the work every day, you do not look for honors. And I accept it in the name of my team, because nothing would be possible without them, and on behalf of the people who are working so hard without recognition or awards. I am also thankful to our partners in Congo and around the world because it is thanks to them that bonobo conservation is happening.
Jealous Mpofu: I feel absolutely honoured to win this award, recognising my passion and commitment for saving the painted dogs for over the last 25 years and most importantly, keeping their future secure. This recognition will provide me with a platform to raise awareness of the plight of painted dogs, as the reality is, if we don’t do something to help them now, these beautiful animals will be lost to humankind.
Find out more about the Tusk Conservation Award winners here.