Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund Names 2014 Conservation Heroes

Protecting diamondback terrapin turtles in New Jersey. Leading a coral restoration program in the Caribbean. Conserving fruit bats in Madagascar. Sound like pretty interesting careers, right?

Many people around the world have an unwavering passion and interest in protecting nature and its precious wildlife. Every year, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) proudly honors these special individuals who dedicate their lives to preserving species and wild places. Today, DWCF announced this year’s 19 Conservation Heroes, each of whom will receive a medal and a $1,500 award to share with the nonprofit organization that nominated them.

This year’s recipients are:

Aimee Rasoanasolo nominated by Conservation Fusion
As president of the KENDRI Teacher’s Association in Kianjavato, Madagascar, Aimee Rasoanasolo leads more than 40 teachers from eight primary schools to go above and beyond the classroom in sharing nature with their students. Through her leadership, KENDRI has created 9 school gardens (which provide lunch for the children), a sustainable goods market and a conservation camp. Aimee is committed to teaching the children about conservation via poems and songs she creates and shares.

Ken Nedimyer nominated by the Coral Restoration Foundation
Ken Nedimyer is the president and founder of The Coral Restoration Foundation. Ken is a pioneer in coral restoration – not only leading one of the largest coral nurseries and restoration programs in the Caribbean, but creating and perfecting the method for farming endangered species of coral in Florida. Ken founded the Coral Restoration Foundation as a nonprofit organization to grow and transplant coral and educate, train and engage volunteers to restore coral reefs.

Juliette Velosoa nominated by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Juliette Velosoa has successfully bridged the gap between endangered species conservation and improving the lives of people reliant on natural resources through her work to protect the Rere, or side-necked turtle – one of Madagascar’s most critically endangered species. Juliette leads many projects to protect the Rere, which is now protected in seven of the eight watersheds in the species’ range – thanks in part to Juliette’s efforts. The success of her work lies in her ability to connect with local communities and find ways that people and wildlife can both benefit from better management of natural resources.

King Geoffrey Nzito nominated by Fauna & Flora International
King Geoffrey Nzito is the traditional leader of the Batwa community, the indigenous people of the Semliki forest in western Uganda. When the forest became a national park in the late 1980s, the Batwa were displaced resulting in conflict and negative impacts on the community. King Nzito negotiated with the park management to provide access to sites important to the Batwa, reducing conflict. He also supports conservation of the park by organizing the Batwa to support sustainable forest management and he has spearheaded environmentally friendly income generating activities for his people.

Berdiyar Jollibekov nominated by Fauna & Flora International
Berdiyar Jollibekov works with communities, government officials and other nonprofits to create an effective conservation program for the saiga antelope in Uzbekistan – one of the world’s most threatened antelope species. To protect this species, Berdiyar works across international borders, in five languages, in a landscape known for its harshness and scale. He is passionate about community involvement in conservation projects, and as a member of the plateau community in Uzbekistan, he works hard to ensure the voice of the community is heard.

Sue Robertson nominated by the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association
Sue Robertson has been maintaining and monitoring American kestrel nest boxes for more than 40 years at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. During her lifelong commitment to kestrels, she estimates that she has banded more than 3,000 birds. She also uses the American kestrel as a model species to talk to school groups about wildlife conservation and has mentored hundreds of trainees from around the world. Recently, Sue participated in the development of the American Kestrel Partnership, which has more than 650 partners and monitors more than 2,000 nests to better protect the species.

Etty Rahmawati nominated by Health In Harmony
Etty Rahmawati uses innovative methods and engaging techniques to teach people of all ages in Borneo about the important linkages between environmental and human health. In many of the places she works, teachers do not subscribe to her methods of interactive, participatory education for children. However, the response of local school children is powerful – awareness of the environment is increasing in kids; their understanding of conservation themes increases 50 percent as a result of her programs. Etty is amplifying her impact by training other teachers to inspire future generations in Indonesia.

Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke nominated by the Houston Zoo and the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center
Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke has dedicated his life to protecting highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with GRACE. Even amidst armed conflict in the DRC, Jackson, a veterinary technician, kept the vision of GRACE alive to care for gorillas orphaned by poaching so they could live a better life and one day be reintroduced to the wild. Today, Jackson manages all the Congolese staff at GRACE, who care for 14 gorillas, and helps to direct GRACE’s conservation education and community outreach initiatives. Jackson along with his wife Denise and their 11 children act as conservation ambassadors and work to encourage their community to help protect DRC’s wildlife and the forests that they all share.

Daniel Leturesh nominated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare
Daniel Leturesh is the Chairman of the Olgulului Ololarashi Group Ranch (OOGR) in Kenya, where he works with local communities to develop and protect wildlife lands to create benefits for local wildlife and local communities. Recently, he spearheaded a plan to protect four conservation corridors in OOGR from development, including the Kitenden corridor, which offers the only link for elephants and antelope between Amboseli Park and Kilimajaro Park (in Tanzania). Daniel worked tirelessly with several agencies and the OOGR people to develop plans beneficial for both. His efforts continue to instill and promote good practices in wildlife and environmental conservation.

Lovemore Mungwashu nominated by the International Rhino Foundation and the Lowveld Rhino Trust
The relationships Lovemore Mungwashu built in his previous role as Chief Warden of Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Department serve him well today as Operations Coordinator at the Lowveld Rhino Trust. Because of the trust and relationships he built with the Parks Authority he is able to overcome obstacles to rescue rhinos and pursue the prosecution of poachers. Lovemore inspires the staff with his integrity, passion and leadership. Without him, much of the rhino conservation work in Zimbabwe simply would not have happened.

Devender Singh Chauhan nominated by the International Snow Leopard Trust
Devender Singh Chauhan is the Range Forest Officer in the Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh state, northern India, where he has taken an extremely involved approach to wildlife management, community outreach and problem solving, nurturing strong, friendly ties with other government departments. He has personally addressed villager concerns about wild grazers destroying crops by employing local youth as guard watchers. Additionally, he has focused on protecting areas of high ecological values in Spiti, and has encouraged villagers to set up eco-camps to draw the interest of tourists to the unique environment. He has earned the respect of everyone from the local community to government officials and beyond for his hard work, dedication, and ability to have a strong personal connection with everyone and everything around him.

Daudet Andriafidison nominated by the Lubee Bat Conservancy
Daudet Andriafidison is the driving force behind fruit bat conservation in Madagascar. Fruit bats, like all other bats, are often unpopular and neglected in conservation plans. However, the bats have a champion in Daudet, who not only studies them, but makes a real difference in bat conservation. Daudet is working to create protected areas for the flying fox (a type of fruit bat), a species in decline due to habitat fragmentation. Due to the work of Daudet and his colleagues the local flying fox population has grown from 200 to almost 4,000 since 2006. In addition, Daudet has linked bat conservation to conservation of baobabs – an iconic tree in Madagascar – so his work not only protect bats, but the forests where they live.

Claudia Perla nominated by Paso Pacifico
Claudia Perla tirelessly scrambles up steep cliffs to study the endangered black-handed spider monkey in Nicaragua, where she has gained a reputation in the community for her hard work and grit. As a young female forester, Claudia has persevered through various set-backs and represents the future of conservation in Nicaragua. Her extensive knowledge of the black-handed spider monkey and passion for native forests will be integral to ensuring a better future for this endangered primate and her country.

Martha Gruber nominated by Tampa Bay Watch
Martha Gruber is an environmental scientist and project manager at Tampa Bay Watch in Florida, where she has been overwhelmingly active in community outreach and education, promoting conservation, and successfully creating small- and large-scale community bay grass nurseries and plantings. She has worked with nearly 30 Tampa Bay area schools involving more than 13,500 students in the “Bay Grasses in Classes” program, and she has led the program to restore 91 acres of habitat around Tampa Bay. In the community, she has worked with over 4,400 volunteers that have helped to restore 148 acres of marsh habitat. Martha also serves as a board member for the Friends of the Tampa Bay Refuges group, and as a volunteer for Save Egmont Key and the Egmont Key Alliance. She makes a lasting and positive impact not only on the environment, but everyone she comes in contact with through her passion, work ethic, attitude and sense of humor.

Mergen Markov nominated by The Altai Project/Earth Island Institute
Once a hunter of the very animals he now works to protect, Mergen Markov risked his family’s livelihood as the first participant in a local program to turn poachers into wildlife protectors. In a remote Russian village, a six-hour journey from the nearest paved road, Mergen confiscates snares, educates fellow hunters, and uses camera traps to monitor snow leopard populations. Since this work began four years ago, the number of snares in the area has decreased by more than 80 percent and the population of snow leopards has grown from just two cats to at least six as of September 2014!

Thulani Thusi nominated by The Barry and Patricia Wakeman Education Foundation and the Wildlife ACT Fund Trust
Thulani Thusi is a passionate wildlife conservationist from South Africa, who is conducting the Tembe-Ndumo Community Conservation Project for the Wildlife ACT Fund Trust, and has been operating conservation education programs in the communities surrounding Tembe Elephant Park and eastern Ndumo Game Reserve since 2006. Thulani has earned the respect of his fellow Tembe tribe members, and is frequently present at tribal meetings between his people, the parks, and other tribal communities. He has made strides in conservation education within the communities, and has never hesitated in his involvement despite obstacles including distrust and unrest between the parks and communities. He was instrumental in winning the crucial support of local communities for the reintroduction of African wild dogs into Tembe Elephant Park. Thulani has worked tirelessly to promote rhino conservation, and has bravely ventured into Mozambique to spread the idea of conservation and to create lasting conservation education programs.

The Storm Drain Terrapin Rescue Team nominated by The Wetlands Institute
The Storm Drain Terrapin Rescue Team, championed by Joe Grotolla, and Steve and Susan Ahern, has been crucial in the success of diamondback terrapin (turtle) conservation in New Jersey. They discovered that storm drains may pose a significant threat to terrapin hatchlings that get lost in the maze-like networks the storm drains form. The team took action to reduce the potential impacts, working on a volunteer basis to rescue the terrapins, raising money for terrapin conservation and engaging local school children in the efforts. To date the team has rescued and released nearly 5,000 terrapins.

Rupali Ghosh nominated by the Turtle Survival Alliance
Rupali Ghosh is the Project Coordinator responsible for the study, protection, and reestablishment of the Northern River Terrapin (turtle) – a species once thought to be functionally extinct in nature – in Bangladesh. Regarded as a “force of nature” by her colleagues, she travels village to village, seeking information on the locations of individual turtles, and has used her knowledge, personality, and determination to establish a local captive breeding program. Over the past two years 99 hatchlings have been produced as a result of her work, and Rupali even secured two wild hatchlings, proving the species still exists in the wild. She continues to work with locals in an attempt to locate wild nesting sites and locate more captive turtles, and she is providing new hope for the species’ recovery.

Abdullahi Ali nominated by the University of Wyoming
Abdullahi Ali is a student and project lead studying hirola (antelope) in the Ijara District of northeastern Kenya. The protection of this critically endangered species has been primarily impeded by a lack of biological knowledge of this mysterious animal, and his work has been critical to the long-term prospects of the species. Abdullahi has worked tirelessly with local communities and governments and both national and international organizations to garner support for his wildlife conservation efforts, and has even developed the Hirola Conservation Project (HCP) to further their protection.