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15th edition of the Biodiversity Conservation Awards

The BBVA Foundation recognizes bearded vulture conservation in Spain, protection of orangutans in Indonesia, and the environmental journalism of Antonio Cerrillo

The conservation of the bearded vulture in Spain, the protection of orangutans in Borneo (Indonesia) and the whole of the island’s rich biodiversity, and the “best environmental journalism” represented by Antonio Cerrillo take the honors in this 15th edition of the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation.

15 October, 2020

Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ) wins the award in the Biodiversity Conservation Projects in Spain category for “recovering and conserving the Pyrenean region’s last remaining bearded vultures […] and its success in getting the species to breed again in areas like Picos de Europa, where it had become extinct over 50 years ago.” The jury singled out the “determination, passion, ceaseless innovation and scientific rigor” that inform the organization’s work, enabling it to forge “a bond between nature and society this is vital for our country’s biodiversity.”

The BBVA Foundation Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation has been bestowed on the IAR Indonesia Foundation and the head of its orangutan conservation program, Karmele Llano, “for taking an innovative and integrated approach to protecting the biodiversity of Indonesia’s Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, in Borneo,” and “various of its iconic species,” among them the orangutan. The jury also lauded the Foundation for its “long-term conservation strategies in an ecosystem beset by deforestation due to the advance of palm oil cultivation.”

Antonio Cerrillo, environment correspondent with Spanish daily La Vanguardia, receives the award for Knowledge Dissemination and Communication in Biodiversity Conservation in Spain “as a groundbreaking journalist, a byword for the best environmental reporting in Spain over the last 30 years, and a mentor to the coming generations,” and for “combining rigorous handling of local conservation issues, with coverage of the major issues on the global environmental agenda.” This journalist, adds the jury, stands out for “his superlative critical and informative skills, his independence, and the objectivity and coherence of his reporting.”

The protection of nature is an ongoing priority for the BBVA Foundation, which for over twenty years has supported research in ecology and conservation biology, conservationist projects based on scientific evidence, and the communication of knowledge and mobilizing of social awareness around diverse facets of conservation. The runaway decline in biodiversity afflicting our planet means we depend more than ever on the people and organizations working to achieve meaningful, lasting outcomes in the protection of nature, like the winners in the fifteen editions of the BBVA Foundation Biodiversity Conservation Awards.

Established in 2004, until their 12th edition these annual awards were organized into three categories, two of them devoted to projects in Spain and Latin America. Since 2018, this latter category has been replaced by another recognizing conservation projects of particular significance and impact undertaken in any country. The third category, finally, recognizes endeavors in communicating the best available knowledge and raising awareness on the multidimensional issue that is conservation.

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 scheme. The jury deciding the awards is made up of scientists working in the environment field, communicators, experts in areas like environmental law and policymaking,  and representatives of conservationist NGOs (see list below) who bring to the table complementary viewpoints on nature conservation.

Biodiversity Conservation Projects in Spain: Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ)

Return of a unique bird

The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) also goes by the colorful name of ossifrage or bone-breaker, in honor of its singular diet. As the only scavenger to feed exclusively on the marrow of carrion bones, it has developed a particularly close relationship with large flocks of sheep or goats. Although itself no threat to human activities, it has been a collateral victim of practices like the laying of poisoned bait against wolves, as well as the deterioration of its habitat. In the course of the 20th century it disappeared from most of Europe’s mountain regions, surviving almost solely the Pyrenees. It was this situation that inspired a group of “firmly motivated and committed” naturalists to join forces in 1995 “to prevent the bearded vulture’s extinction in Spain” in the words of Gerardo Báguena, current president of the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ).

Since then, the FCQ team have developed original techniques unknown to all but a few specialists worldwide. In perilous climbing expeditions in the Pyrenees, weighed down with special incubators, they rescued some fifty eggs with scant chance of surviving in the nest; raised the chicks on a diet of bones from the time they weighed just a few grams, and instructed them in the habits of their species. Finally, they reintroduced them to into the wild, thereby staving off the threat of extinction.

“Spain’s bearded vulture population has grown by over 200% in these 25 years,” Báguena points out, with numbers jumping from 50 pairs in 1995 to 140 in 2019. Working with scientists from affiliate centers of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), FCQ experts have added to our understanding of the biology of a species occupying a unique ecological niche, through recourse to such ingenious techniques as placing egg-shaped sensors in the birds’ nests after removing the real eggs to be reared in captivity. The mother bird incubates these spy eggs, which record and transmit large quantities of data – e.g., temperature and number of times the egg rolls over – so the human breeders can replicate in real time what happens in the nest.

Another practice to prove successful was the separation of eggs in the event of a double clutch. The female vulture generally lays a single egg, a difficult process during which she “shrieks and twists,” says Báguena, echoing the observations of FCQ naturalists watching through telescopes. But at times she lays two eggs and both chicks are born healthy. This gives rise to what Báguena describes as a “harrowing” selection process in which one chick kills its sibling without the parent birds intervening.

“It may be distressing to watch,” Báguena remarks, “but we cannot interfere with nature.” By contrast, when FCQ experts rescue eggs from a double clutch the chicks are born and fledged separately. The results are encouraging. When freed on reaching adulthood, the birds show no aggressiveness: “We see the two siblings flying together in the knowledge that, left on their own, one would certainly have died in the nest.”

FCQ’s efforts were crowned with the first wild birth of a bearded vulture in the Picos de Europa National Park, where the original population had gone extinct over fifty years before. The chick was a female, born on 14 March last, and named the welcome one, ‘Bienvenida’ in Spanish. “We wanted to celebrate a new era,” Báguena explains. “Behind us lies a time of extinctions; the bear, the Pyrenean ibex … now all that is changing, and we hope the recovery will gather pace.”

The 15 specialists of Fundación Conservación del Quebrantahuesos can name “each and every one” of the 26 specimens making up the new Picos de Europa population, and can even recognize them in flight. “We watch them with telescopes and precision optical equipment. They are simply magnificent.”

Worldwide Conservation Projects: International Animal Rescue (IAR)

Saving the orangutan and its ecosystem

“In order to rescue animals, you first have to rescue humans.” This is how Karmele Llano (Bilbao, 1978) describes the conservation strategy deployed by International Animal Rescue (IAR) in Indonesia, the organization she founded in 2006 to protect the biodiversity of the island of Borneo, with particular attention to one of its emblematic, and critically endangered species: the orangutan. “It’s a region with widespread poverty,” says Llano, “where indigenous communities have no access to either healthcare or education, and this pressure drives them to practices like poaching and illegal felling.” In awareness of this, the IAR, according to the jury granting it the Worldwide Biodiversity Conservation Award, has led a project privileging the “empowerment of local people” as a means to halt the degradation of the ecosystem harboring Borneo’s orangutan population, “beset by deforestation due to the advance of palm oil cultivation.”

Between 1999 and 2015, over 100,000 of Borneo’s orangutans were lost as a consequence of habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and wildlife trafficking. Without action to stem the decline, it is reckoned that by 2025, 82% of the population will be extinct. The goal of IAR Indonesia is to prevent the disappearance of these great apes and other unique species that inhabit Borneo, among them the proboscis monkey and the clouded leopard, through a conservation program in the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, occupying 200,000 hectares of tropical rainforest of immense conservation value. “This zone is known as the heart of Borneo,” Llano points out. “It is an area supremely rich in biodiversity, with many plants and animals found nowhere else. If they go extinct here, they disappear from the face of our planet.”

After graduating in veterinary medicine from the University of León, Llano, who admits to a lifelong love of “all animals, but especially wildlife,” took the decision in 2003 to move to Indonesia to take part in a volunteer scheme for the rescue and recovery of orangutans. “It was planned to be just a short trip,” she recalls, “but it changed my whole life, as I chose to devote myself completely to the program.” Three years later, she and her husband Argitoe Ranting – an Indonesian also involved in the protection of these primates – founded a local NGO which in 2007 concluded a collaboration agreement with International Animal Rescue, an international organization engaged in conservation work with threatened species in six countries. Today, the IAR Indonesia Foundation that Llano leads has 250 people working in biodiversity conservation in Borneo.

“Our project uses a holistic approach,” its director explains. “Initially we confined ourselves to the rescue and reintroduction of orangutans displaced by habitat loss and fragmentation, but we later realized that these efforts would come to nothing if we didn’t lend support to local communities, who were still resorting to illegal logging because they had no other way to make a living.”

Since its creation, IAR has restored to the forest 46 rescued orangutans that have successfully readapted to life in the wild. But furthermore, the organization that Llano heads has launched a support program focused on the healthcare, education and employment of local indigenous communities as a way to halt deterioration of the ecosystem that sustains the great apes. “In rich countries,” she explains, “we suffer a disconnect that blinds us to the reality of these communities. They, by contrast, lack even the bare essentials and the conservation of nature is a luxury, because they face hardship on a daily basis and their first priority is to preserve themselves.” Thanks to her organization’s efforts, some 70 local people once engaged in illegal logging now work for IAR in the rescue and recovery of orangutans.

“These animals never cease to amaze me,” says Llano. The Spanish vet and her team have been privileged to observe orangutan mothers teaching their young in what she calls “the forest school”: proof that these primates have a culture, in the sense that knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation. “The infants learn by imitation what can or cannot be eaten, their mothers or other adults teach them about the dangers of the forest, such as reptiles, and they are even instructed on how to make a bed out of branches and leaves.” For all these reasons, says Llano, “not respecting orangutans is almost like not respecting our own species, because of how close they are to us.”

Knowledge Dissemination and Communication: Antonio Cerrillo

A byword for the best environmental reporting

Antonio Cerrillo (La Rambla, Córdoba, 1959) is among the pioneers in Spanish environmental journalism, as the jury’s citation states, but his entry to the trade – which he has been practicing for over 30 years at daily newspaper La Vanguardia – was entirely the product of chance. He had been working as a reporter on court cases and local news, when “in the late 1980s the opportunity arose to write on the environment, and I decided to take it up,” he recalls. “And the reason I have stayed in the field so long is that I have never stopped learning and wanting to learn more.”

With a degree in Hispanic Philology from the University of Barcelona, Cerrillo was the first dedicated environment reporter at La Vanguardia, where he started in 1983 and continues to this day. In the course of his career he has tackled numerous issues including biodiversity conservation, climate change and the destruction of the ozone layer, as well as environmental problems that particularly affect Spain, like those related to water or waste management.

Much of his work has involved reporting on UN conferences on climate change and biodiversity, but he has also found time to author or co-author several books on the subject of the environment. It was Cerrillo, moreover, who broke the news in the press of the contamination of the Flix reservoir (River Ebro), which had been functioning for decades as an underwater industrial waste dump, prompting the launch of a plan to decontaminate the area with European funding. He was also the driving force behind Canal Natural, a dedicated section of the La Vanguardia website, where he has been able to foreground items on wildlife conservation.

“We cover every kind of subject matter: fauna and flora, but also agriculture, politics, the economy … They all demand an environmental perspective,” Cerrillo explains. The veteran La Vanguardia reporter believes his mission is not only to inform, but also to educate, analyze and even shock when necessary. “Those who label us as alarmists are those who prefer inaction,” he says. “But it not the messenger who is raising the alarm, it’s the community of scientists.”

Cerrillo is convinced that the most effective means to engage readers is to tell the story “in the most educational way possible.” “It is also crucial to change the kind of iconography where the news story comes with a photo of a polar bear adrift in the Arctic. We have to find an image that gets closer to people,” he urges, “not one that immobilizes us.”

He approaches environmental news not so much as a specific thematic area, but more from the standpoint of conveying the cultural values derived from new development paradigms more closely aligned with nature. “When we talk about climate, we’re no longer just talking about rising temperatures, we are talking about causes and solutions, about measures to change the prevailing energy model. Environmental reporting touches on the desire for a profound social transformation that can solve these environmental problems, which are, in turn, the visible sign that betrays our conduct towards the world around us.”

On today’s pandemic and its fallout, omnipresent in the media, he contends that “we cannot help but see, deep down, how ecological issues and environmental degradation are the origin, the root cause of many of these problems.” He also points out that the pandemic has had ecological impacts. “There has been a decrease in pollution that has made us see, in a great global experiment, how it is possible to reduce the chief cause of pollution in cities, car traffic. We have also experienced cities with less noise, and this has conjured an image in our collective mind of how a society might look where human beings were a secondary presence.” This should lead us, he believes, to posit a “green” recovery, in which the role of air transport, tourism and the energy model must radically change. “As must the proliferation of single-use plastics and masks, which threaten to further mire waste management and increase the damage to nature.” All this, he adds, comes down to “describing a new world in environmental reporting.”

Jury members      

The committee in this edition was chaired by Rafael Pardo, Director of the BBVA Foundation. Remaining members were Araceli Acosta, Chief Press Officer at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Caty Arévalo, Head of Communications at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Miguel B. Araújo, Research Professor at the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC); Javier Gregori, Chief Science/Environment Editor with radio broadcaster Cadena SER; Carlos Montes, professor in the Department of Ecology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM); Juan Carlos del Olmo, General Secretary of WWF España; Cristina Ribas, Lecturer in Journalism at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF); Antonio Vercher, Chief Public Prosecutor for Environment and Land Planning; and Rafael Zardoya, Research Professor at the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC).