Leading conservationist Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh has won a prestigious Whitley Award worth £40,000 for her work with chimpanzees in her home country of Nigeria.
The Director and Founder of the SW/Niger Delta Forest Project, Rachel’s research and conservation work addresses the decline of chimpanzees and their habitat. With 80% of forests lost to uncontrolled farming and logging, chimpanzee habitat has been disappearing at an alarming rate. Chimps are also under threat from poachers, hunted for their body parts.
The Whitley Awards, often referred to as ‘Green Oscars’, are awarded annually to individuals from the Global South by UK-based conservation charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN). Rachel is one of six conservationists to be recognised this year for their achievements in nature conservation.
Rachel fell into the conservation world after accepting an internship at the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, and soon realised she had found her calling. After the Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzee was declared the most endangered of all chimpanzee groups in 2012, Rachel launched her project in the Idanre Forest cluster and Ise Forest Reserve; refusing to stand by and watch these great apes continue to decline.
Over the past eight years, she and her team have led a genetic study amongst other relevant activities, which in 2018 found that whilst chimpanzee populations in the South West and Niger Delta of Nigeria share ancestry with the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, they are in fact a distinct group. This exciting discovery reinforced the urgent need to protect this group of chimpanzees, helping Rachel to gain support for her cause.
Rachel’s approach combines patrolling, education, research and policy reform to protect this newly discovered primate. With her Whitley Award, Rachel aims to work with the government to establish about 40,000 ha of conservation areas, and to advocate for revised laws to protect the area’s wildlife. With most wildlife preservation laws in the state created in the 70s, many have become obsolete and are in need of reform.
Rachel’s team also works closely with communities in and around forest areas, using public awareness campaigns to educate people about the importance of endangered animals and to discourage poaching.
Working against gender stereotypes as a Nigerian woman, Rachel has amazed many people with her choice of career. Her family feared the work was dangerous but they have since come to admire her strength.
Rachel said: “In a country where women’s voices are not being heard and are often discounted, I am determined to make a difference and be an inspiration to others. Having a daughter has been like a driving force for me. There are so many obstacles for women and I want to use my resilience to show her and many young Nigerian women that they can make the sort of impact that is distinguishable, constructive and timeless despite the obstacles we face.
“I am extremely proud to have been recognised by the Whitley Fund for Nature. The funding will help me and my team to conserve chimpanzees and other wildlife in this fast disappearing forest ecosystem.”
Edward Whitley, WFN Founder, said: “Rachel’s strength of character and determination should be admired. The work of SW/Niger Delta Forest Project has made important gains for chimpanzee research and conservation, and we look forward to watching Rachel’s career progress as she scales up her work in the years to come.”
Rachel is among six conservationists to receive 2020 Whitley Awards to support their work to conserve some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular natural habitats. While normally presented to winners by charity Patron HRH Princess Royal at an annual ceremony in London, the 2020 Whitley Awards Ceremony was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the winners will receive their funding now, they will be invited to attend a ceremony and related events in London later this year to celebrate their achievements, should circumstances allow.
This year’s Whitley Gold Award honours Brazilian conservationist Patrícia Medici for her outstanding dedication to protecting South America’s largest land mammal, the lowland tapir, using it as a flagship for largescale habitat preservation. Patrícia is a world expert in the science of tapir conservation and has dedicated her life to shedding light on this unusual looking, yet little-known species. Against a backdrop of political and environmental instability in Brazil, her work is more important than ever. The Whitley Gold Award enables the expansion of her work to the embattled Amazon.