Honoring the Conservation Champions We Lost in 2021
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The year 2021 was one of healing and celebration at African Wildlife Foundation. In July, we published the results of our successful COVID-19 emergency response, spanning 15 African countries. In October, we marked AWF’s 60th anniversary at the Benjamin Mkapa African Wildlife Photography Awards in Nairobi, Kenya, with more anniversary-focused events and exhibitions planned for the new year. But 2021 was also a year of great sadness, in which we lost several champions for conservation and animal welfare. From a naturalist and the father of biodiversity to one of our most beloved Hollywood stars, we pause to remember and celebrate these extraordinary individuals. Their dreams live on in our work.
On December 26, 2021, famed American biologist Edward O. Wilson died at the age of 92. Wilson was the world's top authority on the study of ants and the architect of sociobiology, through which he applied new theories of insect behavior to vertebrates, and to human culture. Wilson’s accomplishments, research, and Pulitzer Prize-winning books over the course of a career that spanned six decades are unparalleled.
South African Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu died on December 26, 2021. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner was hero to countless millions around for his work as a human rights activist and his role in dismantling apartheid, but he was also known in Africa as an outspoken naturalist and advocate for African wildlife. Tutu was a vocal critic of illegal wildlife trade, in particular Rhino poaching in South Africa. He believed, as we do at AWF, that poaching of African wildlife robs communities of their precious natural heritage and harms biodiversity. Tutu frequently helped to draw greater international attention to poaching during critical times. Like others in the public spotlight, he wielded his influential role when and where he could for the good of conservation.
With the passing of Betty White on December 31, 2021, the world lost a true champion of animals everywhere and one of the leading voices for wildlife conservation. The comedian and star, whose TV and film work is recognized by millions of fans around the world, led numerous efforts throughout her life to protect animals.
White’s commitment to animals was much greater than casual endorsements and philanthropic endeavors. She was responsible for groundbreaking television programs to engage youth in wildlife causes, and often tapped relationships in Hollywood with fellow actors to deliver her important messages to children. In many ways, she forged the path for today's celebrity conservationists and cable TV channels and internet platforms devoted strictly to animals.
Loss of habitat is one of the leading challenges for conserving wildlife, and visionaries like Wilson and White understood the need to identify alternative ways to finance the conservation of some of the world’s most precious animals and protect our vast natural landscapes. At AWF, we shared a special bond with Betty White. She was a generous supporter over the years and we got to witness her devotion to animal welfare first-hand. In 2010, she established the Betty White Wildlife Fund as a vehicle for concerned investors, but her importance as an influencer cannot be overstated.
While putting our tribute together, Kenyan Paleontologist Richard Leakey died on January 2, 2022. Leakey’s life's work and service to Kenyan Government and to founding the Kenya Wildlife Service resonates powerfully with AWF leadership and our staff across the continent. Establishing worldwide acclaim for definitively proving through scientific research that Africa is the cradle of humanity, Leakey was known in his home of Kenya as a powerful and often stern advocate for a post-colonial fortress approach to wildlife conservation. Much of Leakey’s huge body of work today helps to inform the demands and evolution of sustainable community-based conservation strategies utilized by African countries, AWF, and other organizations to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
Lest we forget the many unsung heroes of conservation who also passed away in 2021, including journalists, politicians, and law enforcement officials working to end poaching and the illegal wildlife trafficking. We honor their important contributions. On Sunday, January 6, 2021, six Virunga National Park Rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were killed in an ambush by a local militia group. SuruMwe Burhani Abdou, 30; Alexis Kamate Mundunaenda, 25; Reagan Maneno Kataghalirwa, 27; Eric Kibanja Bashekere, 28; Innocent Paluku Budoyi, 28; and Prince Nzabonimpa Ntamakiriro, 27 were heroes on the frontlines of conservation and we hope to honor their memories by continuing to fight for the wildlife they gave their lives to protect.
Scientists, defenders of biodiversity, animal advocates, and people from all walks of life can set conservation examples for the rest of us – Leakey and Wilson did it through their research and discoveries; Betty White through her professional creativity and passion for animals; and the Congolese rangers by fighting to conserve wildlife and habitats on the front lines. We remember these giants for helping to leverage resources for countless programs that continue to make a difference. Their monumental work has paved the way for a growing chorus of conservation voices in African countries and around the world, ensuring that approaches and perspectives are diversified and inclusive. They helped us to inspire the next generation of conservationists. They exemplified the strength of our commitment at AWF to protect wildlife and wild lands. They made a huge difference, and we will never forget their incredible contributions to our planet.