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South African culture is steeped in stories of the Southern Ground-hornbill, but numbers are declining as human impacts mount. South African conservationist, Lucy Kemp, has received a prestigious Whitley Award worth £40,000 to align traditional beliefs with new conservation action that will protect the bird and its habitat.

The Whitley Awards are presented annually to individuals from the Global South by UK-based charity the Whitley Fund for Nature. Lucy is one of six conservationists to be recognised in 2021 for their commitment to conserving some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular natural habitats. During a virtual celebration last night (12th May), they received messages of support from charity Patron HRH The Princess Royal and Trustee, Sir David Attenborough.

Sir David Attenborough, WFN Trustee, said: “Whitley Award winners are local environmental heroes, harnessing the best available science and leading projects with passion. I admire their courage, their commitment, and their ability to affect change. There are few jobs more important.”


With its striking red-black-white colouring and rhythmic, drum-like call, the Southern Ground-hornbill is a long-lived and large-bodied bird. Valued culturally as the “bringer of rain, the hornbill is said to have the ability to predict, signal and even command the summer rains and are believed to be so powerful that they can avert lightning strikes. Many farmers rely on sightings of the bird for a signal of when to prepare their land for crops and are growing increasingly concerned with their decline.


Now Endangered in southern Africa, the Southern Ground-hornbill has disappeared from 70% of its historical range. Cultural protection has kept some populations safe, however downward trends continue – mostly on commercial farmland and some communal grazing areas where western influence trumps traditional beliefs.

Nest availability is a major factor in breeding success. The Southern Ground-hornbill is a territorial creature that needs its own space. If ideal nest sites are scarce, it will choose a sub-optimal site rather than leave its territory, which increases vulnerability to predation or flooding and limits chick survival.


As the child of hornbill research pioneers, Lucy was taken on trips to breeding sites across Africa and Asia from just a few months old and spent her childhood surrounded by wildlife. Her successful early career in conservation led her to work on programmes to protect black rhinos, wild dogs and cheetahs before she returned to her roots and became project manager of the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project in 2010.

With her Whitley Award, Lucy will implement local custodianship outside of protected areas in South Africa. Custodians are trained to protect natural nests and install artificial nests where needed, which will improve breeding success. In addition, a network of citizen scientists, led by regional Champions, will support an intensive national monitoring programme.

She will also document cultural beliefs, so that indigenous knowledge can be fully incorporated into conservation activities, as well as producing national roadmaps to recovery for Namibia and Botswana where the species is most threatened beyond South Africa.

Whitley Award winner, Lucy Kemp, said, “A magically wild childhood, filled with travel and exploration, instilled the belief in me that the careful balance of nature is truly precious. Most threats to species are caused by humans so it’s important that we educate ourselves and learn how we can adapt our actions in order to better protect them. My work with schools and young people provides me with hope that the next generation will use their knowledge to live in harmony with our area’s remarkable creatures.”

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “Lucy’s passion continues to inspire so many people. Her work with communities, to conserve the Southern Ground-hornbill – a cultural icon – is an example of the impact we can make collectively. Her family must be proud that she is able to carry on their pioneering research, so this species survives. We are delighted to welcome Lucy into our network of Whitley Award winners.”

This year’s Whitley Gold Award, worth £100,000 GBP, honours Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu for her outstanding work securing justice for wildlife and citizens. Paula is pioneering a new approach, that protects the country’s wildlife and habitats while recognising Kenyans’ legitimate aspirations for economic development. CEO of WildlifeDirect, her Whitley Gold Award will enable her to expand her efforts, empowering concerned citizens through the first-ever Environmental Justice Desk, educating field rangers in the collection of evidence admissible in court, and defending iconic habitats from unchecked development by powerful interest groups that override environmental concerns with impunity. Paula will foster a culture of public participation in environmental decisions and promote African leadership of wildlife conservation across the continent.

Whitley Gold Award winner, Paula Kahumbu, said: “I want to see a global shift in the narrative where Africans are the storytellers about African wildlife and assume the lead in efforts to protect it”.

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The 2021 Whitley Award winners are:

  • Lucy Kemp, South Africa: A community-based approach to conserve the Southern Ground-hornbill
  • Nuklu Phom, India: Establishing a Biodiversity Peace Corridor in Nagaland
  • Iroro Tanshi, Nigeria: Bats from the brink – participatory action to save the short-tailed roundleaf bat
  • Kini Roesler, Argentina: Hooded Grebe – guardian of the Patagonian steppe
  • Sammy Safari, Kenya: Transforming the future of sea turtles through coastal stewardship
  • Pedro Fruet, Brazil: Building bridges to encourage coexistence with the Lahille’s bottlenose dolphin

The 2021 Whitley Gold Award winner is:

Paula Kahumbu, Kenya: Justice for people and wildlife