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October 31, 2009

Kenyan and Guatamalan Receive Buffett Conservation Awards

Two wildlife advocates, a Kenyan marine biologist and a Guatemalan farmer, are winners of the 2005 Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation, administered by the National Geographic Society. The awards were presented at a Washington ceremony.

Scientist Thomas Lovejoy of the Conservation Trust presented a framed award citation and a check for $25,000 to each of the two recipients of this year's Buffett Conservation Award: Kenyan Nyawira Muthiga and Marcedonio Cortave of Guatemala. Ms Muthiga was honored for her leadership in the field of marine conservation, Mr. Cortave for his efforts in promoting community-based management of natural forests.

Nyawira Muthiga has worked tirelessly to save endangered marine animals along Kenya's Indian Ocean coast. The tall, slender biologist says it was her early experiences at the beach that sparked her interest in marine biology:

"When I grew up, as a teenager, we lived in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania," says Ms. Muthiga. "We used to spend the weekends at the beach, swimming and walking around looking for shells. I remember my brother being stung by a jellyfish and he was really upset. But at that time it made me think of how exciting the ocean must really be."

Ms. Muthiga says it's a special challenge for many African women to get a university education and become scientists, because boys are usually given preference. But she says her parents were very supportive. She earned her doctorate degree from the University of Nairobi, and did post-graduate work in Florida. Ms. Muthiga's work focuses on reconciling local communities with the needs of the country's priorities for marine wildlife. She is especially concerned about endangered sea turtles - which are caught for food - and an animal similar to the manatee, called the dugong.

"We used to have in Kenya -- in the 1960s, you could find herds of 30 to 40 dugong," says Ms. Muthiga. "Now the sightings are of one or two every so often. We did an aerial survey in 1997 and counted four dugong. Their numbers have really gone down." Like manatee, the dugong are drowned in fishing nets, she explains.

On the other side of the world, in the Peten region of Guatemala, Marcedonio Cortave worked to involve community organizations in forest management. His efforts to give villagers a stake in managing the environment in which they live helped conserve the natural forests, decrease the extent of logging and forest fires, and increase protection of archeological sites from looters.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Cortave said that popular American TV series such as Survivor -- which is currently taking place in Guatemala -- help bring more eco-tourism to the Mayan areas. But he adds that care must be taken to insure protection of the ancient structures. "It is a great challenge," explains Mr. Cortave, "because for us the biggest part is to achieve a balance between conservation of the ecosystem and allowing people to see the great things the Mayans left behind."

Mr. Cortave also was honored for his diplomacy, working with groups that are often at odds with each other: "That is precisely one of the greatest challenges," he says, "to achieve a consensus between the indigenous people of Guatemala, the Mestizo people of Guatemala, the national government and international governments."

The Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation is named for its founder, Howard Buffett, the son of one of the wealthiest men in the world, legendary American investor Warren Buffett. A photographer who started a cheetah conservation center in South Africa, Howard Buffett lives a modest lifestyle and enjoys working the land on his Illinois farm.

Howard Buffett says that he wants to salute local conservationists who haven't received wide acclaim, particularly people who work with communities to raise their sense of responsibility for the endangered habitats in which they live. "Conservation efforts frequently are so focused on the habitat and the animals that they forget whole groups of communities that surround protected areas and rely on its resources," says Mr. Buffett. "It's important that whatever strategies are employed for the conservation work, they make sure the surrounding communities are included in some way."

Mr. Buffett points out that this year's conservation awards spotlight individuals working in regions of the world that offer unique attractions: the ancient Mayan ruins of Guatemala and the wildlife safari lands of Kenya. "The lions and elephants of the world capture our imagination and attention," says Mr. Buffett. "But the ability to take this award and focus it on something that isn't as often looked at, is one way to bring it to the forefront."

This year's recipients of the Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation -- Kenyan Nyawira Muthiga and Guatemalan Marcedonio Cortave -- both say they will use their prize money to further conservation programs in their countries.