Conservationists from Tanzania and Mexico Win 2014 National Geographic/Buffett Awards

Biologist Enriqueta Velarde, a researcher at the University of Veracruz’s Institute of Marine Sciences and Fisheries in Mexico, who has devoted 35 years to studying and conserving the seabirds of the Gulf of California’s Isla Rasa, is the 2014 winner of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation. Scientist and biologist Benezeth Mutayoba, professor at Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture and vice chairman of the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society, who highlights the plight of African elephants and the bushmeat crisis in Africa, is this year’s recipient of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation.

Velarde and Mutayoba received their U.S. $25,000 awards at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., last night, at an Explorer Awards ceremony.

“Established through a gift from The Howard G. Buffett Foundation in 2002 to celebrate and recognize unsung conservation heroes working in the field, the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation is given each year to two outstanding conservationists, one in Latin America and one in Africa,” National Geographic said in a news statement about the awards. “The award acknowledges the winners’ remarkable work and lifetime contributions that further the understanding and practice of conservation in their countries.”

Remarkable Visonaries

“It is an honor to participate with National Geographic in recognizing the achievements of these two remarkable visionaries who are making such a positive difference to conservation in their countries. These conservation leaders are inspirational mentors and role models to their communities,” said Howard G. Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of The Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

From the news release:

Enriqueta Velarde’s work focuses on seabird ecology. She has visited Isla Rasa every spring for the past 35 years to measure, weigh, census, band and observe the seabirds. Year after year, she has followed the survival of the banded birds, estimated their breeding effort and success, quantified their diet and recorded behavioral patterns. As a result of her data, she extended her studies to research the interrelation of bird population size to anchovy and sardine stocks in the Gulf of California. Anchovies and sardines are the main economic bases for the large fishing community in the area.


Enriqueta Velarde, Biologist, Isla Rasa, Biologic Reserve, Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico. © Photo by Ralph Lee Hopkins.
Enriqueta Velarde, Biologist, Isla Rasa, Biologic Reserve, Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico. © Photo by Ralph Lee Hopkins.


Velarde’s ongoing conservation efforts on Isla Rasa have transformed the island from a place of destruction and exploitation to an international example of conservation and orderly ecotourism. During the time she has studied the birdlife on Isla Rasa, she and her team have totally eradicated invasive rats that had a devastating effect on the seabird population. The success of this effort triggered a broader program of invasive species management in other Gulf of California islands and has become an example for controlling invasive species in island systems in general. Velarde and her team have also been successful in convincing fishermen to stop illegally ransacking birds’ nests to sell the eggs.

In addition, Velarde has established a close collaboration with the indigenous Mexican Comcaac community and collaborated with colleagues on a project for training Comcaac “paraecologists” in the towns of Punta Chueca and El Desemboque in the state of Sonora.

Velarde’s book, “Islas del Golfo de California,” written in the 1980s, was used 20 years later as the base for the designation of the islands of the Gulf of California as a World Heritage site.

For more than a decade and a half, Benezeth Mutayoba, a professor at Sokoine University of Agriculture’s Department of Veterinary Physiology, Biochemistry, Pharmacology and Toxicology, has engaged in challenging conservation research, especially on elephants and the bushmeat trade, and has mentored students to take action to protect their unique natural heritage.

Among his many conservation accomplishments was to develop, with colleagues, mitochondrial DNA testing methods to identify bushmeat sold illegally as domestic beef and pork to hotels in Tanzania and other East African countries. His technique is now used by scientists in other parts of Africa. He also served as a member of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force aimed at identifying and supporting solutions that effectively respond to the bushmeat crisis around the world.


Photograph courtesy of Benezeth Mutayoba
Photograph courtesy of Benezeth Mutayoba


In addition, Mutayoba collaborated on research examining the long-term impacts of poaching of female elephants in Mikumi National Park in southern Tanzania. The research found that survivors who had lost kin displayed altered behavior, heightened stress levels and lower fertility. These long-term impacts also prevail in elephants that survived past heavy poaching in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. Mutayoba presents these finding at various venues to communicate that poaching has long-lasting effects on elephant populations.

He also has been instrumental in several genetic studies to develop DNA tools for determining the origin of seized ivory, and, as vice chairman of the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society, he has challenged the Tanzanian government’s denial of the elephant poaching crisis and has raised awareness of its scope and impact. As a result, at the end of 2013, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete launched “Operation Tokomeza” to end elephant poaching in Tanzania and ordered aerial counts of all the major elephant populations in southern Tanzanian reserves and national parks.

Additionally, Mutayoba is deeply involved in researching and documenting wildlife connectivity and the movement of large animals outside the protected areas in Tanzania.

National Geographic Society/Buffett Award recipients are chosen from nominations submitted to the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, which screens the nominations through a peer-review process.

“This year’s awardees are recognized for their outstanding leadership and the vital role they play in managing and protecting the natural resources in their regions. They are exemplary conservation advocates who often battle difficult odds with courage and commitment,” said Peter Raven, chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration.

Howard G. Buffett is chairman and CEO of The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which focuses on humanitarian and conservation issues. A farmer, businessman and widely published author and photographer, Buffett is a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates and serves as a UN Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger on behalf of the World Food Programme. He has traveled to more than 130 countries documenting the challenges of preserving biodiversity while providing adequate resources to meet the needs of a growing global population. He has been recognized globally for his commitment to food security, conservation and journalistic freedom. He has written eight books on conservation, wildlife and the human condition.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn