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COVID-19: The view from Whitley Fund for Nature

Whitley Fund for Nature supports grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South, for whom the effects of the pandemic have been profound. Across our network of over 200 conservationists in more than 80 countries, many are facing delays to urgent projects, reduced income from livelihoods based on ecotourism, or an increase in harmful activities by people who are struggling to survive. But our winners never cease to inspire us with their ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

In Uganda, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka protects the health of mountain gorillas and the people with whom they share space, resources and 98% of their DNA. For over 20 years she has been working to prevent the transmission of zoonotic diseases between these two species and, since winning her 2009 Whitley Gold Award and additional continuation funding, now holds influential positions including on Uganda’s National Disease Taskforce. As Gladys feared, poaching has doubled during lockdown as income from tourism has disappeared and people cannot afford to feed their families. She and her team are doubling their support by providing fast-growing food crops and boosting online sales of locally grown Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

In India, 2017 Whitley Award winner Purnima Barman leads a group of women conserving the Greater Adjutant Stork. During lockdown they have sewn 11,000 facemasks embroidered with a stork motif – helping to spread awareness of their work while protecting against the spread of COVID-19.

In London, WFN had to postpone its Whitley Awards Ceremony for the first time since the charity was founded in 1993. This inspiring event, which brings together the winners of our flagship Whitley Awards each spring, is integral to our mission. Winners receive £40,000 in project funding over one year and, during the Awards Week, are able to network, attend training and raise their profile; photos of our Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, handing them their Awards often make the front pages of newspapers in their home countries, giving them greater clout with decision makers and future funders.

But the WFN team, working from home, saw an opportunity to do things differently and announced this year’s recipients online. Funding for NGOs is needed now more than ever and, with the wonderful support of our Award donors, we felt it was urgent to give conservation grants as planned. Media and speech training was also provided virtually, to give our new winners the tools to capitalise on their success. The impact on our digital engagement has been phenomenal and we’ve continued to innovate by introducing campaigns like #TakeoverTuesday – whereby winners share their news via WFN’s social media channels, getting information from conservationists around the world directly into people’s hands at home.

WFN is special precisely because of this close connection with winners, who can apply for further continuation funding as they grow from grassroots leaders into internationally-recognised figures. Our funders are part of this family, too, and with everyone now literate in video calls we’ve been able to facilitate Zoom meetings between donors and the winners they support, catching up across continents from our sofas in the UK, USA, Asia, Africa and South America.

Like many, lockdown has also given us time to step back so we can work out how to take greater strides forward in our fight to save the planet. As Farwiza Farhan, one of our 2016 Whitley Award winners working in Sumatra, said to us, “it’s as though nature has given us a time out, forcing us to sit in a corner and think about what we, as a collective, have done”. In response, WFN has launched a programme giving £500,000 to nature-based solutions that tackle the climate and biodiversity crises hand-in-hand with communities. COVID-19 has brought another unprecedented crisis to bear on the world, but we believe that by investing in threatened ecosystems now we will secure significant, sustained benefits for the climate, wildlife, people and business. As we emerge from lockdown our governments have an opportunity to make the economic recovery a green one, and at WFN we want to use this momentum to support grassroots action that will have a global impact. As for all charities these are challenging times, but we hope we can continue to attract much-needed support for the environment and those conservationists working nonstop to save it.

Amy Forshaw is Communications Manager (maternity cover) at Whitley Fund for Nature, a fundraising and grant-giving charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders across the Global South.

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