Nairobi, April 26 – Munir Virani, a raptor biologist devoted to conserving one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world has been presented with the prestigious Whitley Award, which honours individuals working in grassroots nature conservation in developing countries.

Virani, Vice President at The Peregrine Fund is working to preserve Kenya’s endangered vultures in Africa’s Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. He is also a member of the editorial board of Swara magazine, the long-standing publication of the East African Wild Life Society.

He swapped a promising cricketing career for a lifetime commitment to conservation. He first began his project in 2003 following the Asian Vulture Crisis which saw 40 million vultures poisoned across South Asia, as a result of a now banned painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug used in cattle.

The Masai Mara is home to abundant wildlife, with vast grassland plains, spanning over 200 sq miles. Each year the Mara welcomes 1.3 million Wildebeest that migrate from the Serengeti and mass together on the banks of the River Mara.

The area is home to various tribal groups and Munir Virani works closely with the Maasai people who have tremendous respect for vultures and use their feathers for head gear or arrows.

Referred to locally as “Serengeti soap,” these scavengers are vital to the health and hygiene of the plains and swiftly consume rotting carcasses, preventing the spread of disease.

Vultures are collateral damage in the war between livestock herders and predators.  In retaliation for the loss of livestock to big cats, farmers resort to poisoning carcasses in the hope of reducing predator numbers. The subsequent incidental killing of vultures is catastrophic, with numbers falling by over 70 per cent in the past 30 years.

Virani’s Whitley Award will expand his successful anti-poisoning programme — which saw cases drop in the Masai Mara by nearly 50 per cent in 2016 — to Kenya’s Southern Rift Valley. He will work with pastoralists and NGOs to reduce livestock predation using predator deterrents and fortified livestock enclosures. Thirty conservation leaders will be trained to champion the cause in their communities and to respond to incidents, while GPS tagging will monitor vultures and target future conservation interventions.

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “Munir truly is a voice for these overlooked scavenger birds. His work with communities will allow vultures to thrive in this dynamic ecosystem and counter human-wildlife conflict. We are especially pleased to be working with Munir during our 25th anniversary year and look forward to following him on his journey.”

Munir said: “Vultures are often associated as the ‘ugly betty’ of the world, yet they are a vital part of our ecosystem and prevent the spread of deadly disease. Supporting the Maasai people to become the next generation of conservationists has been especially rewarding. Our project will continue to develop practical solutions on the ground, develop champions and tackle a landscape level threat that is unprecedented for any other species.”

An annual event, often referred to as the ‘Green Oscars’, the 2018 Whitley Awards, are part of Whitley Fund for Nature’s 25th Anniversary celebrations.

The winners will each receive £40,000 in funding to support their work to conserve some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular places.