Environmentalists from Rwanda and Colombia Win 2017 National Geographic/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation: Award Honors Conservationists Olivier Nsengimana and Rosamira Guillen

Rosamira Guillen, executive director of Fundación Proyecto Tití, an organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of Colombia’s cotton-top tamarin, is the 2017 winner of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation. Dr. Olivier Nsengimana, a veterinarian and founder of the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, is this year’s recipient of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation.

Guillen and Nsengimana received their $25,000 awards at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 14, during National Geographic’s first-ever Explorers Festival, a celebration of exploration bringing together the most fascinating and innovative scientists, conservationists, explorers, and storytellers to share—with one another, and with the world—how their discoveries and ideas are creating change for the better.

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. The award acknowledges the winners’ remarkable work and lifetime contributions that further the understanding and practice of conservation in their countries.

Rosamira Guillen is a Colombian landscape architect and environmental designer-turned-conservationist. She cofounded and is now executive director of Fundación Proyecto Tití, an organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of one of Colombia’s most endangered native primate species: the cotton-top tamarin.

“Even though I was always interested in nature and the environment, I didn’t know much about wildlife,” Guillen said. “I couldn’t believe that this primate species was only found in this region of my country and that, growing up, I had never heard about how special and important cotton-tops were for our biodiversity and for the conservation of their tropical forest home.”

Fundación Proyecto Tití has raised the profile of cotton-tops in Colombia and abroad while increasing the reach and scope of its conservation efforts. During Guillen’s tenure, Fundación Proyecto Tití’s research led to the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifying the cotton-top tamarin as “Critically Endangered” in 2008 and as one of the “World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates” in 2009. The foundation also helped stop construction of an airport in critical cotton-top habitat; supported the designation of forest protected areas and creation of a biological reserve to protect cotton-tops in perpetuity; and established conservation agreements with 26 local landowners in 2016 alone.

“Our intention is to protect cotton-top tamarins and guarantee a long-term future for this species,” said Guillen. “We want to make cotton-tops a symbol of Colombia’s biodiversity and thus generate pride in supporting the conservation of this amazing animal.”

Dr. Olivier Nsengimana is a Rwandan veterinarian who designed and implemented a unique conservation project to save his country’s endangered grey crowned cranes by working to abolish their illegal trade. Nsengimana began the project in 2014 after winning the Rolex Awards for Enterprise–Young Laureate, Environment honor for his efforts to protect this amazing species.

Nsengimana has since established the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA), a nonprofit dedicated to expanding research and conservation projects connected to endangered or threatened species in Rwanda, including the grey crowned cranes. Founded and run by Rwandans who come from and understand local communities and their challenges, RWCA provides a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to critical conservation issues in order to create sustainable solutions.

To combat the threats to grey crowned cranes, RWCA works closely with the Rwandan government and other partners to raise awareness about their conservation status and the laws protecting them. RWCA also identifies and bands captive cranes; removes them from captivity with the hope of reintroducing them to the wild; and cares for those too ill or disabled to return home. In addition, RWCA engages with local communities to enforce the laws protecting wildlife and to find alternative livelihoods to illegal trading.

Rwanda is a small country with incredible biodiversity, but it is challenged by high population density and extreme poverty, resulting in resources and land being overstretched and significant competition between people and wildlife. The grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) is the only species of crane in Rwanda. Despite being a symbol of wealth and longevity in Rwandan culture, the crane faces increasing threats due to habitat loss and growing illegal trade. Over the last 45 years, it is estimated that the grey crowned crane’s global population has declined by as much as 79 percent, leaving approximately 300 to 500 in Rwanda.

Nsengimana was inspired to work toward saving cranes and other species in his country and to promoting the beauty and diversity of Rwanda’s nature after growing up in a country devastated by genocide. “Every Rwandan has had a role to play in moving forward from the genocide,” Nsengimana said. “I knew that whatever I did with my life, I had to contribute something meaningful to my country.”


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