21 September, 2023
The Asociación Herpetológica Española wins the award in the Biodiversity Conservation Projects in Spain category “for its rigorous, ongoing monitoring of amphibian and reptile populations, two groups facing serious conservation problems due to habitat destruction, pollution and climate change,” in the words of the award citation. The jury also singled out the association’s success in “engaging society through its volunteer programs and the knowledge acquired through citizen science.”
The EDGE of Existence program of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) takes the Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation “for identifying and carrying forward specific conservation actions, within a scientific framework, targeting evolutionary distinct species that are also at risk of extinction.” Its actions to date have targeted 157 species in 47 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The jury hailed the program’s involvement in “training young researchers at local level” which, it said, “has helped establish a stable worldwide network of conservation agents.”
The award for Knowledge Dissemination and Communication in Biodiversity Conservation in Spain has gone to journalist Miguel Ángel Ruiz Parra, an environmental reporter on Murcia’s La Verdad newspaper “for his work of over three decades informing and educating the public about the natural wealth of the southeast of the Iberian peninsula and its principal threats, like those confronting the Mar Menor.” In its citation, the jury highlighted the importance of local reporting on environmental issues in creating an informed and considered public opinion that can aid in the defense of the environment.”
A mosaic of “biodiversity guardians”
Biodiversity stands alongside climate change as the core environmental issue of our time. For years now, the scientific community has been alerting to the fact that species extinction is rapidly accelerating, to the point of being a thousand times faster than the natural rate. This reality, documented by science, has found echo in the media, who have joined in the task of relaying the scientific evidence to a public increasingly aware of the scale of today’s environmental challenges.
Environmental culture has put down firm roots in Spain, with the vast majority of citizens believing that species diversity is an essential part of the country’s wealth and the wellbeing of its human inhabitants, and voicing their concerns at the degradation of the natural environment. Most are convinced that the situation is serious, and that a mismatch exists between the problem before us and the measures taken to address it.
Frontier scientific research on the environment is of course a vital resource, but it is not enough of itself. Scientific evidence and social awareness must also find their reflection in public policies, the decisions of leading private-sector agents, and concrete actions by conservationist and environmental organizations like those recognized annually over the space of two decades by these BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation. And the support of public opinion – the combined knowledge and values of the population – is absolutely vital if we are to meaningfully and consistently address the countless issues that surround the conservation of nature and life.
Over 18 editions, the awards have found their way to a diverse set of organizations that, from differing angles and with differing objects, have taken effective steps to protect nature. These run from major ecologist and naturalist organizations like WWF and SEO/Birdlife to local associations concerned with a single species like the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (bearded vulture), Fundación Oso Pardo (brown bear), or the Programa Ballena Franca Austral Program (southern right whale) in Argentina, or specializing in specific ecosystems, like Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre, protecting nature in the Iberian south east, or Fundación Global Nature, working to preserve wetlands, by way of public agencies undertaking vital tasks for the protection of nature, among them environmental police force SEPRONA or the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office. At the same time, the Knowledge Dissemination and Communication category has reflected the many and varied ways of amplifying the conservation message, with awards for media journalists and other communicators disseminating knowledge of the natural world through multiple channels and formats, from illustration and photography to audio recordings and documentary films.
Together, the BBVA Foundation’s biodiversity awardees form a mosaic that reflects how the global biodiversity crisis is a complex, many-faceted problem that demands an array of approaches and strategies acting on different levels, and a firm, long-term commitment if we are to make significant headway in the defense of nature.
The awards for projects in Spain and worldwide each come with a cash prize of 250,000 euros, while the communication award is funded with 80,000 euros, giving a combined monetary amount that is among the largest of any international prize program. The jury deciding the awards is made up of scientists working in the environment field, communicators, experts in areas like environmental law and policy making, and representatives of conservationist NGOs who bring to the table complementary viewpoints on nature conservation.
Biodiversity Conservation Projects in Spain: Asociación Herpetológica Española
A network of sentinels to ensure the conservation of amphibians and reptiles
Asociación Herpetológica Española (AHE) came into being in 1984, the fruit of the explosion of interest in nature and natural resources initiated in Spain in the late 1970s, and a newfound concern about how this heritage could be conserved. The foundational meeting was attended by 32 herpetologists with the shared view that amphibians and reptiles deserved the same kind of rigorous and professional treatment extended to other zoological groups. Today’s association boasts more than 500 members.
The AHE promotes and coordinates the study of herpetofauna – amphibians and reptiles – along with their conservation and that of their environment. Eva Graciá, the association’s president, points out that “amphibians are the the world’s most endangered group of vertebrates.” In response, for more than a decade, the AHE has been taking preventive action with projects aimed at garnering rigorous information for the early detection of conservation problems.
“These species are highly sensitive to habitat loss, degradation, pollution, climate change and invasive species,” Graciá explains. “And in the case of reptiles, particularly turtles, we have the added problem of species trafficking.” If the situation is problematic globally, it is no less so in Spain. “It is telling that even such a common species as the Iberian green frog is currently in decline,” she adds. “These species are indicators, alerting us to environmental deterioration on a major scale.”
The association’s members too act like sentinels, whose ongoing monitoring of amphibian and reptile populations serves to identify trends and situations of threat. “This has proved a very useful tool which, if well designed and properly deployed, can produce high-quality information,” says Graciá. “And while that is happening, these same citizens are learning about environmental stressors. By participating, they can at times reverse the causes of decline as well as producing information. That said, the process must be carefully thought out, since otherwise we are left with masses of data that serve little purpose.”
Jury chair Rafael Zardoya, director of the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences, describes the association’s contribution: “At times when we think of biodiversity conservation projects we confine ourselves to those devised to protect a species or habitat that is already critically endangered, but what the Asociación Herpetológica Española brings to the table is a preventative approach. Continuous population monitoring is a vital conservation resource, because it can detect the risk before collapse happens, and allow measures to be put in place. The association’s volunteers operate like sentinels alerting to situations of vulnerability.”
In 2015, they began a project inside the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park, centered on the fight against emerging amphibian diseases, which five years later not only continues but has been rolled out nationwide. Titled SOS Anfibios, it is open to all citizens, who can contribute by collecting samples of infected animals in the wild or in the pet trade. Graciá explains how this works: “We provide the sampling kit, they send it to us and we analyze it in the lab using a quantitative PCR similar to the COVID diagnostic test.” What they are looking for are three pathogens: the fungi Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) and Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), and the Ranavirus. “We currently have people collaborating in almost all of Spain, and have received over 6500 samples, with AHE itself contributing 1400 more, and around 25% of these display one of the three.” The project has also given rise to a website, sosanfibios.org, where information can be shared. Thanks to the data gathered, the pathogen Bsal has now been included in the list of invasive species.
This project is supplemented by a further two programs. “Monitoring of the Amphibians and Reptiles of Spain” (SARE in its Spanish initials) was launched in 2008 with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Designed so any herpetology enthusiast could provide data on the abundance over time of amphibian and reptile species in a given area, without interfering significantly in their behavior and dynamics, so far data have been obtained for 25 species.
In second place, we have the programs “Monitoring of Amphibian and Reptile Data in Spain” (SIARE), an amphibian and reptile database now containing over 50,000 entries, all of them verified by experts; and AHEnuario, a parallel, open-access database with almost 36,000 entries where users can collect and manage individual observations of amphibians and reptiles in Spain.
This information has made it possible to detect changes in species distribution and activity patterns, and assess how these are tied in with environmental factors, so helping to design and prioritize conservation actions. “For instance, a proposal was successfully submitted to the Ministry for the Ecological Transition to include the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) in the ‘vulnerable’ category of the threatened species list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).”
The association is currently engaged in a series of tech upgrades: “The aim is to create an app that will facilitate data gathering by supporting data entry from a mobile phone,” says Eva Garciá. “We are working hard to be more efficient.”
Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation: EDGE of Existence program. Zoological Society of London
Identifying critically endangered species with initiatives across three continents
“Conservation resources are typically targeted towards a small group of flagship species like tigers or elephants, but many other species that get completely overlooked represent huge amounts and really important parts of biodiversity,” remarks Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation and Policy at the Zoological Society of London.
It was with this in mind that his organization created the EDGE of Existence program, EDGE standing for “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered,” to identify which species were most in need of conservation attention and take steps to ensure their protection.
Precisely because they were so little known, some of these species promptly became ambassadors for their own endangered status. “They are wonderful, they are odd,” says Terry, recalling the image of a Mary River turtle with a punk mohawk of algae that made its way around the world. The turtle is one of those singular EDGE species that have headed up press articles alerting the public to their precarious state of conservation. “All these wacky stories capture people’s imagination,” Terry admits. But they are also a key means to raise funding for conservation actions.
The fact is that there are whole branches of the tree of life of which we know very little that could simply vanish from the Earth. And their disappearance would mean the extinction of an entire evolutionary lineage, as well as losing us an invaluable source of scientific knowledge. As Terry puts it, “if they go, millions of years of evolutionary history go with them, as does all of the knowledge that their genomes hide.”
His team soon realized that the key to conserving species under the EDGE label was to support conservation actors in the countries where they occur. Their solution was to create a fellowship program providing two-year grants to individuals in Latin America, Africa and Asia to design and implement a conservation project targeting one of the EDGE species. With a keen focus on training and ongoing support, in its fifteen years the program has financed 137 people in 47 countries.
“There are so many deeply skilled, deeply passionate conservationists who just do not get that opportunity, because they cannot break into international funding mechanisms,” Terry explains. The program accordingly accompanies fellows on their first steps, building their understanding of how to engage global donors, connect with global support networks or build their own NGOs. “Then they go on and do amazing things, they win awards, they achieve great scientific discoveries… They become leaders in their own space, and it’s all because we help them get the tools to launch their careers.”
Proof of its long-term success is that 100% of program fellows continue working in conservation once their funding has expired, with 80% still dedicated to the same species they signed up to help. Hence Terry’s conviction that “empowering local leaders is how you create a sustainable pathway towards conservation.”
Fellow Caleb Ofori-Boateng is a case in point. With the EDGE fellowship he won in 2012, he succeeded in protecting 100 hectares of habitat of the Togo slippery frog (an EDGE species), as well as discovering a new species of endangered amphibian. As of this year, he is Regional Director of EDGE of Existence projects in Africa, where he will lead new generations on the fellowship program that shaped his own professional career.
However, a species’ conservation is never about it alone, since each occurs within a habitat whose survival it depends on: “We always view the species as the tip of the iceberg,” says Terry. “And typically, the reason why they’re threatened is that there have been major pressures on their habitats. So you need to address those pressures.” Local communities too have a key role to play in protecting threatened species, since they may at times be repositories of valuable knowledge that it is important not to lose with the species.
It is for these reasons that EDGE of Extinction has recently partnered with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew to produce an equivalent to the EDGE list for plants instead of animals. “They are the basis of the system, and, as such, absolutely vital,” says Terry, who ventures that the project could be broadened out to other taxonomic groups.
But perhaps the most immediate priority he sees is to expand the current program. “We have trained 137 fellows, a huge achievement of which we’re really proud. But, then again, that’s only 137 people, and we are right in the midst of a global extinction crisis. I want to double that, I want to quadruple that, I want to really see it grow and develop.”
To take EDGE global, they have begun to work with other organizations. One example is their recent alliance with the U.S. Rainforest Trust to fund the conservation of areas harboring EDGE species. Terry hopes that this is just the start of a long list of collaborations: “We want to work with a network of like-minded organizations who can really ramp up the ambition we can have around a shared view of a section of life that is just completely overlooked.”
Knowledge Dissemination and Communication: Miguel Ángel Ruiz Parra
Local reporting on a global crisis
Miguel Ángel Ruiz Parra (Águilas, Murcia, 1969) is the head of environmental news at La Verdad, a newspaper based in the Murcia region that forms part of the Vocento group. As well as honoring him for his more than three decades of professional career, the jury reserved mention for “the importance of environmental reporting at local level in creating an informed and considered public opinion that can aid in the defense of the environment.”
“Environmental reporting was hard to get into when I was starting out,” remarked Ruiz Parra in an interview granted after hearing of the award. “But because of my personal love of nature, I knew that there were interesting stories there that our readers should know about. I began writing ‘feel good’ pieces on species and spaces, which served as a ‘Trojan horse’ so I could start covering environmental stories in a more transversal, systematic way. And it soon became clear that the issues at stake were vital for the region. Issues like water management, land management, air quality, how we live in our cities…”
He has covered all these topics since the early 1990s, when, as he recalls, “not even the big national media carried environment news on a regular basis. Today could not be more different. The paper’s current management are fully behind us to the extent that environmental news has become a key content, often dominating the front page. For thirteen years, we have had an editorial team that promotes and supports this strategy, and it has also gone down well with our readers, who from the start proved eager to consume environmental news, not just the feel-good stories but also articles about ‘hard’ issues like pollution or climate change.”
It is precisely the pollution and degradation of a local ecosystem, the Mar Menor, that has occupied much of La Verdad’s environmental attention: “The laguna has been in the news almost every day for the past seven years, when the eutrophication crisis broke, causing what became known as the ‘green soup’. And the news is never good.” Journalists from Spain and the world over have visited the region to report on the state of the Mar Menor. The difference between how they tell it and how Ruiz Parra tells it is, for him, the key strength of local reporting: “Having direct contact with the issue we are writing about. We state plainly that this is a crisis driven by economic activity: pollution due to chemical fertilizers from agriculture and livestock, uncontrolled urban expansion since the 1970s, waste from the mines that were worked there until the 1950s, motor boats and urban waste dumping. We state the problems and name those responsible, and for a regional newspaper that has to work with all the main players in the region… that can mean a lot of pressure. Also – another trait of local environmental reporting – when I cover the Mar Menor I bring to bear personal, social and cultural factors that I share with the local community. It’s a way to engage the readership, and get them on your side, but it’s also a big responsibility.”
In his experience, local news can become big enough to change legislation: “We kept up a steady barrage of news in the paper, which alongside the social mobilization, including demonstrations of over 50,000 people, was certainly behind the passage of the Mar Menor Conservation and Protection Act. And in some cases now before the courts, like that involving nitrate pollution of the Mar Menor from illegal desalination plants (known as the Topillo case), both the public and private prosecution have relied as documentary evidence on material we published on the aggressions suffered by the Mar Menor, dating from way back before 2016.”
One of the big changes with respect to the journalism of the past is that scientific knowledge circulates far faster and is much more accessible: “This is especially true of environmental journalism,” Ruiz Parra reflects. “In Murcia we are lucky enough to have some of Spain’s leading research centers, and I am lucky enough to be able to call on them for information. They trust me to disseminate the results of their research and I manage to make news out of their advances. It is vital in my line of work to have access to scientific production, which in Murcia is very much centered on the environmental crises affecting us all.”
Environmental journalism, he believes, is increasingly about the call to action. “It is now beyond doubt that the climate crisis is the gravest threat facing humanity, and the job of environmental journalists is to convince society of the need to act. While avoiding catastrophism, we must always be aware that we are reporting in real time on humankind’s greatest challenge.”
Ruiz Parra has worked in almost every environmental reporting format. In 2011 he created the environmental channel “Los pies en la tierra,” a section of his paper’s website combining analysis and opinion pieces; over the last year he has produced “Campo a través,” a weekly newsletter on environmental news for subscribers of laverdad. es; for five years he has directed and presented a program on environmental matters for regional TV channel Canal 6; he has contributed as an expert on environmental issues to various local radio programs, including the now defunct Punto Radio, as well as national station Radio 5; and since 2018 he has written regularly in specialist magazine Ballena Blanca. In addition to his environmental reporting role, he has headed the Culture, Society and Local sections of La Verdad, and is currently in charge of its Weekend supplement.
The jury in this edition was chaired by Rafael Zardoya, Director of the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC). Remaining members were Clemente Álvarez, coordinator of the Environment and Climate section of El País newspaper; Andrés Cózar, Professor of Ecology, in the Department of Biology at the University of Cádiz; José María Gómez, Research Professor at the Arid Zone Experimental Station (EEZA) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC); Isabel Miranda, editor of the Environment in Society section of ABC newspaper; Juan Carlos del Olmo, General Secretary of WWF España; and Guillermo Palomero, President of the Brown Bear Foundation, with Laura Poderoso, Deputy Director of the BBVA Foundation acting as technical secretary.