INDIANAPOLIS – Every year, actors, musicians and athletes walk the red carpet at awards ceremonies held to honor the best of the best in entertainment and sports. But until 2006, the achievement of scientists working to save the world’s species went largely unrecognized.
Since then, the Indianapolis Zoological Society, Inc. has recognized the people fighting to preserve the lives of threatened animals around the globe with prestige and support.
The society operates the Indianapolis Zoo, whose many conservation initiatives include a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden, among others. The society awards the Indianapolis Prize — a $250,000 unrestricted award and the cast bronze Lilly Medal — to the person selected as the world’s leading animal conservationist. Five other finalists receive $10,000 each.
Russell Mittermeier, chief conservation officer for Global Wildlife Conservation, is this year’s Indianapolis Prize winner. Mittermeier’s work focuses on protecting hundreds of species and millions of acres of habitat throughout the world in what are known as “biodiversity hotspots.” The designation of hotspots allows conservationists to select areas where they can support the most animal species at the lowest cost.
Mittermeier called the Indianapolis Prize “the Nobel Prize for conservationists” and said it shines a light on important achievements that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
“It really elevates the status of wildlife conservation, in general,” Mittermeier said. “The group of people who have received (the Indianapolis Prize) so far is really a hall of fame of international wildlife conservationists. For that reason, I am very proud to be a part of this group.”
Past prize winners include George Archibald, who has spent more than 30 years saving endangered crane species across the world; Patricia Wright, who studies social and family interactions of wild lemurs on Madagascar; and Carl Jones, who has brought back at least nine animal species back from the brink of extinction.
“I think more and more we have to recognize the great accomplishments of people in our business, because what we’re trying to do is really save the world,” Mittermeier said. “I think that deserves a lot of recognition, and the Indianapolis Prize has really taken us a long way in that direction.”
Mittermeier said he hopes the work of current conservationists inspires a new generation of wildlife protectors. The first step to saving the world, he said, is to experience it.
“We want more people to learn about nature not just from seeing it on television or reading about it in books, but getting out there and actually living it,” Mittermeier said. “Whether it’s in your own backyard or in some tropical location. And it’s getting easier and easier to visit some of these wonderful rainforest areas or coral reefs or other natural systems across the world. Now once you’ve done that, you’re converted for life. It’s always a life-changing experience.”
The spirit of conservation is one zoogoers Jennifer Philipps, a longtime Indiana resident, and her niece Reyna Quintana of Pueblo, Colorado, hope to pass on to future generations. Both say it’s important to protect animals no matter where they live. Although the Indianapolis Prize goes to major conservationists, Philipps and Quintana say people can start their own conservation efforts at home. Both say just disposing of trash properly can help.
“Respect your environment and everyone else’s,” Quintana said. “You’re not the center of the universe.”
The Indianapolis Prize was created in 2006 to “elevate conservationists and put them on the pedestal that entertainment and sports stars really get,” said zoo spokeswoman Melanie Laurendine.
It has been awarded only seven times. A nominating committee made up of scientists from across the world and Indianapolis Zoological Society trustees selects six finalists, and then a jury chooses the prize winner from among the finalists. Jury members include Jonathan Baillie, the chief scientist for National Geographic; Jon Paul Rodriguez, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission; and Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect, a conservationist support organization.
Mittermeier said he plans to use the money to make a difference in countries he has not yet visited, including all the rainforest countries in west and central Africa. He also wants to become the first person to view all 78 genera of primates in the wild. But his main effort, he said, will be continuing his conservation mission.
“I want to be engaged in setting aside more and more conservation areas in the high priority biodiversity hotspots and biodiversity wilderness areas. I don’t have a whole lot of time to left to do this,” said Mittermeier, who is 68, “so I’m looking forward to pushing as much as I can over the next few years.”
In addition to the Indianapolis Prize, the Indianapolis Zoological Society honors people who use their communication skills to raise awareness about endangered species and habitats. Actor Harrison Ford, known for his roles as Indiana Jones and Han Solo, is this year’s winner of the Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador award, which recognizes individuals who have been “effective, credible and consistent voices for wildlife.”
Both awards will be presented at the Indianapolis Prize Gala on Sept. 29 in Indianapolis.