Oxford University collaboration wins ‘green Oscar’ for conservation

May 18, 2017

WildCRU congratulates Ximena Velez-Liendo who, on 18th May, won a prestigious Whitley Award, presented by HRH Princess Anne. Ximena is the first post-doctoral Chester Conservation Fellow at the WildCRU, and her amazing success is a wonderful jewel in the crown of the new partnership between Chester Zoo and WildCRU.

Ximena works with Andean bears in Bolivia. Run by the Whitely Fund for Nature, the international prize is the highlight of the conservation calendar. Often referred to as the ‘green Oscars’ it honours those who have made an exceptional contribution to the field, by supporting grassroots ecology projects in the developing world. A total of 166 entries were considered, from 66 different countries before the final six winners were chosen. Each ecologist recognised won a year’s worth of project funding, worth £35,000.

This Chester-WildCRU project, in collaboration with the Bolivian NGO Prometa works with poachers instead of against them, employing them as wardens to guard the wildlife. The knock-on effects of climate change have caused severe water shortages in Bolivia, impacting agricultural production in the region.  As a result of the changing circumstances, communities are shifting from an economic focus on agriculture to livestock, which has led to an inevitable increase in encounters between local people and bears.

Earlier this year Oxford’s WildCRU unit joined forces with Chester Zoo with the shared aim of delivering high-impact conservation research to address the global decline of biodiversity. The partnership was designed to investigate major challenges in conservation by combining some of the international projects that Chester Zoo coordinate with Oxford’s cutting-edge scientific research. It is the zoo’s largest formal partnership with a university in its 85 year history.

The Andean bear conservation project was a direct result of this partnership. The initiative takes an interdisciplinary approach to environmentalism, combining ecological motivations with social science interventions. By offering sustainable alternatives the team are able to offer the farming community a mutually beneficial arrangement, where the bears become equally or more valuable alive, as they are dead.

Dr Alexandra Zimmermann, Head of Conservation Science at Chester Zoo, said: ‘This project is key to our understanding of the human wildlife conflict facing Andean bears in their habitats in South America. The Whitely Award will provide the essential support we need to work with local communities, developing sustainable options for people to live alongside the species.’

Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU, said: ‘Don’t be fooled by her miniature stature or by the graciousness  with which she addresses Princess Anne, Ximena is a power-house of commitment and as tough as they come – seeking out her Andean bears in some of the most hostile habitats in the world. As the first post-doctoral Chester Conservation Fellow at WildCRU, Oxford is immensely proud of her triumph at the Whitley Awards, of her skill and her dedication: she embodies the ambitions of WildCRU’s partnership with Chester Zoo, and she is a standard-bearer for the blend of science and practicality that is the hallmark of modern conservation, with concern for the well-being of these endangered bears and that of the people that live alongside them.’