18th edition presentation ceremony

The Biodiversity Conservation Awards celebrate advances in protecting nature with the union of knowledge and values as a foundation for action

The presentation ceremony of the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation celebrated advances in protecting nature based on the best scientific knowledge and ethical values, in the face of the threat of a “sixth mass extinction” that looms over the future of life on Earth. Awards in this 18th edition distinguish the long-term population monitoring of amphibians and reptiles conducted throughout Spain by the Asociación Herpetológica Española in response to the serious conservation problems confronting these two vertebrate classes; the work done by the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program in the identification of critically endangered species, and the training of conservation leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia to act in their defense; and the rigor and excellence of Miguel Ángel Ruiz Parra’s environmental reporting in the Murcia-based regional newspaper La Verdad, which has highlighted the threats facing an iconic ecosystem, the Mar Menor lagoon.

23 November, 2023


Biodiversity Conservation Awards

18th Edition

“The mission of these awards over almost two decades has been none other than to recognize that the formidable challenge that is conservation demands multiple, decentralized strategies and approaches, undertaken in the main by civil society and the media, sometimes supplementing and at other times filling the numerous and consequential gaps left by changing public policies on the environment,” said Rafael Pardo, Director of the BBVA Foundation. “What stands out about the awards being presented this evening are the species and the ecosystems their protagonists address, not the most glamorous, but no less important for that, and their efforts to communicate the local effects of general or even global forces and dynamics. In all three cases, their innovative contributions combine proven success with a lasting commitment.”

“There is a yawning gap between the acknowledgement of environmental conservation as one of the most urgent problems of the 21st century and the scientific evidence about the modest progress actually made,” Rafael Pardo continued. “And this is especially true in the cases of climate change and biodiversity conservation.”

From this standpoint, he concluded, “it is absolutely critical to strengthen and expand conservation programs, following the example of the awardees here tonight and incorporating the traditional variables associated with land-use pressure and species exploitation, allied with growing attention to the impacts of climate change. Biodiversity conservation is a daunting challenge, but one that can be met with the best resource at humanity’s command, the interaction or union of knowledge with values, as a combined foundation for action.”

Biodiversity Conservation in Spain: Asociación Herpetológica Española

A network of sentinels working for the protection of reptiles and amphibians

“We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis that is without precedent. One that is widely referred to as the ‘sixth mass extinction’. Some might argue that if diversity has already endured five mass extinctions in the course of Earth history, what is so unusual about a sixth. But I want to stress here that this extinction is substantially different from those that went before, in that it is a direct consequence of human activity.” These words were pronounced by Eva Graciá, President of the Asociación Herpetológica Española (AHE), which was granted the Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Spain in recognition of its four decades of outstanding work in defense of amphibians and reptiles, two vertebrate groups that she describes as “in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

Amphibians, in effect, are the world’s most endangered class of vertebrates, with over 40% of species at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. And some reptile groups such as crocodiles or turtles are also struggling to survive, with respectively 50% and 60% of species under threat. “These groups are a warning to us about the risk we are running as a species,” Graciá points out, “namely the loss of ecosystem services on an intimidating scale.”

In Spain, however, “recovery or conservation plans are in place for only 14% of endangered amphibians and reptiles,” the AHE President laments. In this troubling context, the awardee organization has undertaken dozens of projects in the last forty years aimed at securing their protection, by gathering rigorous data for the early detection of conservation problems. The AHE currently has some 500 members, who act as sentinels continuously monitoring the populations of these species in order to warn of imminent threats.

One of its keynote initiatives is the “Monitoring of the Amphibians and Reptiles of Spain” project (SARE in its Spanish initials), launched in 2008 with the support of Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment and designed so any herpetology enthusiast can provide data on the abundance over time of amphibian and reptile species in a given area. Another is SOS Amphibians, rolled out in the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park and centered on the fight against emerging amphibian diseases. This conservation project is open to any individual, who can do their bit by collecting samples from infected animals in the pet trade or in the wild.

“We believe our association has played a fundamental role in promoting scientific knowledge and awareness in Spain about traditionally reviled amphibians and reptiles,” says Graciá. For this reason, the AHE President chose to end her speech in a spirit of qualified optimism: “Lately, our volunteer programs have been filling up quickly, and our identification guides have been selling out of copies, so we have needed to reprint them. This growing interest in biodiversity conservation fills us with hope.”

Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation: Zoological Society of London

Saving species on the verge of extinction with actions across three continents

“Our program’s mission is clear. We are igniting a global movement to protect Earth’s most unique and overlooked species,” said Dr. Paul Barnes, EDGE of Existence Programme Manager at the Zoological Society of London. The EDGE initiative has been granted the Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation for its work in identifying and carrying forward specific conservation actions informed by scientific studies, targeting evolutionarily distinct species at severe risk of extinction.

The Zoological Society of London launched the EDGE of Existence program in 2008, in the conviction that conservation projects were not always aimed at the species most in need. Its mission, accordingly, was to put these species on the map and catalyze action to secure their future. Today the program’s activities reach 157 species in 47 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia

“These kinds of species are often neglected by conventional conservation programs,” Paul Barnes continued, “yet they represent entire branches of evolutionary history. Large charismatic animals monopolize the funding while thousands of lesser-known species representing large portions of the tree of life slip closer to extinction. They are the underdogs, the unsung heroes of our natural world, the critical threads supporting the intricate web of life. If they are lost, there is nothing else like them left on Earth.”

The EDGE of Existence program designs its actions using a methodology based on research studies that rank the conservation priority of each species not just by its current threat status but also by its importance for biodiversity. In this respect, says Barnes, “EDGE is an exemplar of innovation in conservation. It has achieved that surprisingly rare yet acutely needed combination of science and action.”

One of the founding principles of the Zoological Society of London’s program was to support conservation actors in the countries where species 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. In the past fifteen years, the program has funded 137 people in 47 countries.

“Through our efforts,” said Barnes, “we have seen first-hand the power of science-driven conservation. By supporting local conservation leaders, we are not only investing in the present but also sowing the seeds for sustainable conservation and a sustainable future.”

The EDGE of Existence Programme Manager was at pains to underscore this sentiment: “In a world often clouded by despair over environmental degradation, our programme, and this award, stand as a beacon of hope and success. The model of conservation championed by our program is having a profound impact around the world. It demonstrates that with the right approach, dedication, and support, we can bend the curve on environmental crises and set a path toward a more desirable future.”

Knowledge Dissemination and Communication: Miguel Ángel Ruiz Parra

The value of local reporting in the face of a looming global crisis

“It is now beyond doubt that the climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing humanity, and environmental journalists have the huge responsibility of getting this across to our readers,” said journalist Miguel Ángel Ruiz Parra, after picking up his award in the category of Knowledge Dissemination and Communication in Biodiversity Conservation in Spain.

For three decades, Ruiz Parra has been in charge of environmental news at Murcia-based regional paper La Verdad. His investigative articles on the degradation of the Mar Menor lagoon are not only acknowledged as a journalistic high mark, but have also served as a reference in the judicial terrain – in a number of ongoing cases, the prosecution has relied on them as documentary evidence – and influenced legislation at national level. The award recognizes his journalistic output for its ability to connect the local and the global through rigorous reporting based on robust, validated science.

“With this award comes a clear message that I think is important to highlight: the recognition of local journalism, of the reporting work done day by day in direct contact with the conflicts, in this case environmental conflicts, looking squarely at the problems, and also the advances, as they come to light, and returning time and again to the issues that concern society,” explained Ruiz Parra. “In my case, I always say that I work from the Region of Murcia for the world. Turning the environmental problems of the Iberian southeast into chronicles with a universal appeal, putting faces to the protagonists of the news and zeroing in on that astounding fact that will interest the reader whether they be in Murcia, Madrid, Bilbao or New York.”

The case of the degradation suffered by the Mar Menor lagoon is, for him, a testament to how local reporting can punch above its weight in the face of a grave environmental threat: “We kept up a steady barrage of news in the paper, which along with the mass 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, both the public and private prosecution have relied as documentary evidence on material we published, both news items and features, concerning the aggressions directed against the lagoon.”

For all these reasons, Ruiz Parra too concluded on an optimistic note on the progress that can be made, from the press in his case, in confronting today’s environmental crisis: “I have worked in environmental journalism for thirty years, and I can assure you that three decades ago it wasn’t easy to convince my bosses at La Verdad that animals and plants had interesting stories that were well worth telling. Now, many years later, the situation could not be more different, and the climate and biodiversity crisis that is overwhelming humanity has ensured environmental journalism the media attention it deserves.”

About the BBVA Foundation and the Biodiversity Conservation Awards

For more than twenty years now, the BBVA Foundation has lent its support to knowledge generation in ecology and conservation biology, conservationist projects based on scientific evidence, and the mobilizing of social awareness around this central challenge of our time.

Over their first eighteen editions, the Biodiversity Conservation Awards have found their way to a diverse set of organizations that have taken effective steps to protect nature, from major ecologist organizations like WWF and SEO/Birdlife to local associations concerned with a single species, like the bearded vulture or Cantabrian brown bear, or specializing in the preservation of ecosystems like wetlands or the Mar Menor, as well as public agencies undertaking vital tasks for the protection of nature, among them environmental police force SEPRONA or the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office. They also seek to distinguish the fundamental role of environmental communicators in ensuring that conservation issues remain at the forefront of the news, with awards for media journalists and other professionals disseminating knowledge of the natural world through multiple channels and formats, from illustration and photography to audio recordings and the making of film documentaries.

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.

Jury members

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 at the University of Cádiz; José María Gómez Reyes, Research Professor in the Arid Zone Experimental Station of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC); Isabel Miranda, environment editor in the Society section of newspaper ABC; Juan Carlos del Olmo, General Secretary of WWF España; and Guillermo Palomero, President of the Fundación Oso Pardo, with Laura Poderoso, Deputy Director of the BBVA Foundation acting as technical secretary.