The epic battle to save Earth’s species

Tapir time: Patricia Medici is leading efforts to preserve this little-known animal. © Marina Klink

Is conservation the most important job? As the winners of a prestigious environmental prize collect their awards, some people say there is no more noble task than protecting our planet.

In the wetlands of rural Brazil, a living fossil is facing a fight for survival. For centuries the lowland tapir, a strange looking creature with a snorkel-like snout, has been crucial to maintaining the region’s delicate ecosystem.

Now the “gardener of the forest” is under threat: roadkill, poaching and habitat destruction are decimating South America’s largest land mammal.

But the tapir is not fighting alone. For more than two decades, biologist Patrícia Medici has led the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative, working to restore its habitat and spread the word about the species’ plight.

“A long time ago I fell in love with this animal, and I made a commitment that my life would be dedicated to taking care of them,” says Medici.

Now, her hard work is being rewarded. On Wednesday, Medici will be named as the 2020 winner of the Whitley Gold Award, an annual prize for wildlife conservationists, at a virtual ceremony attended by both David Attenborough and the Princess Royal.

For Medici, the award is about more than just recognition: with the £60,000 prize money, she can continue to study her beloved tapirs for years to come.

She is not the only winner: over the past 26 years, the Whitley Fund for Nature has given £18m to more than 200 grassroots conservationists across the Global South.

“Whitley Award winners are local environmental heroes, who harness the best available science and lead projects with passion,” says Attenborough. “There are few jobs more important.”

This year, six other recipients of the “Green Oscars”, from Borneo to Brazil, will each be awarded £40,000 to carry out vital work to save the world’s wildlife.

In South Africa, “Frog Lady” Jeanne Tarrant is battling to save the country’s amphibians. South Africa is a vital frontier for frogs – almost two-thirds of the country’s 135 frog species are found nowhere else in the world.

Tarrant has issued a stark warning: “The fact that almost half of amphibians are experiencing declines should be a massive wakeup call to humanity that all is not right with our planet.”

But all hope is not yet lost for South Africa’s amphibians. Tarrant and her team are already seeing results: in 2011, they rediscovered the critically endangered Amathole Toad 13 years after it was last seen.

For Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh, who studies the genes of rare chimpanzees in Nigeria, winning the Whitley Award marks the culmination of a lifelong dream.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I have dreamt of changing the world. It took my work on chimpanzees to make me realise that the world is right where I am at.”

Yet for Ikemeh, the virtual ceremony will be a stark reminder of the disruption caused by Covid-19, a zoonotic disease linked to the wildlife trade, and by association habitat destruction.

“I believe the conservation solutions my team and I are committed to will allow us to contribute even in a small way to stopping the processes that cause this kind of pandemic,” she says.

Is conservation the most important job?

Wildlife warriors

Yes, say some. The answer is obvious: conservation is clearly the most meaningful job anyone could have. If we do not work now to preserve the planet, humans may not even be alive in years to come. And you do not have to be a chimpanzee geneticist or tapir expert to be a conservationist: everyone can make small changes in their lives to help protect the environment.

No, say others. It is not helpful to compare different jobs. If there is one thing we have learnt during the coronavirus pandemic, it is that road sweepers and delivery drivers are just as important as bank managers. There is no doubt that conservation is vital work, but other people also have crucial roles to play in maintaining the quality of our lives on this planet.

You Decide

  1. If you could bring back one extinct animal, what would it be?
  2. Are some jobs more important than others?

Activities

  1. In groups, make a list of five changes your school could make to become more environmentally friendly. Which suggestion would have the biggest impact?
  2. Use the expert links to read about how anyone can become a conservationist. Then write a speech encouraging your classmates to join the effort to save the world’s wildlife.

Some People Say...

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910), Russian author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that species are now becoming extinct much faster than they used to. One 2015 study estimated that the extinction rate has increased a hundredfold over the last century, and most experts say humans are to blame. Species that have been declared extinct since the start of this millennium include the Pinta Tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, the Caribbean Monk Seal and the West African Black Rhinoceros.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds how we should protect the world’s wildlife. Many conservationists, like Medici, Tarrant and Ikemeh, focus on protecting habitats to ensure the survival of the species that are still clinging onto life in challenging environments. But some say we need a more radical approach. In recent years there has been a focus on reintroduction – proactively rewilding landscapes by bringing back extinct native species. One success story is the return of beavers to the UK.

Word Watch

Living fossil
The first fossil records of tapirs date back to the Oligocene, 20 million years ago.
Snorkel-like snout
Tapirs are excellent swimmers. They use their long nose like a snorkel.
Whitley Gold Award
The Whitley Awards are grants awarded each year by the Whitley Fund for Nature, a UK conservation charity set up by philanthropist Edward Whitley. Each year, the prestigious Gold Award is given to a previous prize winner.
Princess Royal
Princess Anne has been the patron of the Whitley Fund for Nature since 1999. The title Princess Royal is an honour bestowed on Anne by her mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
Global South
The term Global South is often used to denote low-income regions outside of Europe and North America – although not all countries fit into this category.
Amphibians
Amphibians receive on average 75% less conservation funding than mammals, birds or reptiles.
Zoonotic disease
An infectious disease caused by a pathogen that has jumped from a non-human animal to a human. Conservationists worry that habitat destruction will force wild animals into cities, making new zoonotic diseases more common.

Subjects

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