The Indianapolis Prize

July 2017


Celebrating Global Conservation Heroes

Indianapolis is a sports town known for fast cars, its deeply-rooted love of basketball and its designation as the amateur sports capital of the world. With so much attention lavished on sports heroes, could it actually be possible to raise an animal conservationist to the level of a national hero?

More than a decade ago, the Indianapolis Zoological Society in Indianapolis, Ind., attempted to answer that question, setting out to create a program that would recognize and reward conservation champions and elevate them to the level of international celebrities, rock stars and sports icons.

The Zoo wanted to show that the stories of successful wildlife conservation are accessible, and it needed to innovate in a way that would inspire future generations. The program also had to employ the key elements at the heart of the Indianapolis Zoo’s mission: the engagement, enlightenment and empowerment of communities in the advancement of conservation action worldwide. With that as its foundation, the Indianapolis Prize began.

The Prize, now universally regarded as the world’s leading award for animal conservation, is awarded biennially and provides an unrestricted $250,000 cash award and the Lilly Medal to each winner, as well as $10,000 to each of five other finalists. Globally-renowned professional conservationists form a nominating committee and jury, tasked with selecting the Finalists and Winner from a world-class pool of nominees whose work spans species iconic and unknown from the rainforest to the tundra. And last year’s Indianapolis Prize gained two billion media impressions—that’s a number equivalent to more than one out of every four people on our planet.

The program highlights the passion, dedication, experience and expertise of conservation champions through outstanding storytelling in high-definition video and other media, as well as personal appearances and the spectacular Indianapolis Prize Gala, which is attended by well over a thousand guests and celebrities. The stories reflect all aspects of life on earth, full of drama and action, but most of all, hope and victories.

Saving Species

In 1974, the Mauritius kestrel was the world’s rarest bird. With only four left, most people saw a lost cause. Dr. Carl Jones, Winner of the 2016 Indianapolis Prize, saw something else. He saw possibility.

Possibility became action; action became achievement.

Dr. Carl Jones, Winner of the 2016 Indianapolis Prize.

Inspired by British conservationist Gerry Durrell, Jones reared the last pair of kestrel eggs on the island—bringing the species back from the very brink of extinction. Those kestrels are now breeding and thriving in the wild, with a population of nearly 400.

“He has achieved what most people in the world would say is impossible,” said Christopher Clark of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

A legitimate hero for the natural world, Jones’ work goes far beyond the kestrel. He noted that all Mauritian species have a distinctly important ecological function, from the echo parakeets to the giant tortoises introduced to the Mascarene islands at the request of Charles Darwin. Jones understood that to save one species, you must support the biodiversity that sustains the ecosystem. Over his decades-long career he has pioneered population management techniques to reverse the decline of many bird, reptile and mammal species.

“Carl has unselfishly, ceaselessly and single-mindedly acted to save a dozen animal species from extinction and to boost their fragile populations towards viability,” said Lee Durrell, honorary director for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. “I know that Gerry would have agreed with me that there is no finer example of the spirit of the Indianapolis Prize than Carl Jones.”

Jones continues to lead Mascarene ecosystem restoration efforts as chief scientist for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the scientific director for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, and will be one of the keynote speakers at the 2017 AZA Annual Conference.

Heroes Across The World

The inaugural Indianapolis Prize was awarded in 2006 to Dr. George Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. The 2008 Winner was Dr. George Schaller, known by many as the most important field biologist since Charles Darwin, and both a senior conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and vice president for Panthera. In 2010, Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, received the Prize for his pioneering research in elephant social behavior and for leading the way in the fight against the poaching of African elephants. Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, received the 2012 Prize for his work that led to the first listing of the world’s largest land carnivore as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. In 2014, Dr. Patricia C. Wright, founder of Centre ValBio, became the first woman awarded the Indianapolis Prize for her accomplishments in the conservation of Madagascar’s lemurs.

“These heroes create successful action plans that other conservationists can model. Our planet is a better place because of their efforts,” said Honorary Chair, actress and author Jane Alexander, for whom the Indianapolis Prize’s “voices for wildlife” award is named.  The 2016 Indianapolis Prize Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador is actor Sigourney Weaver.

Celebrating Locally and Globally

The Prize is just one of the many ways the Indianapolis Zoo advances animal conservation, drawing attention to the approaches that ensure future generations will live in a flourishing and sustainable world. The program and award represent the vitality and commitment of the Indianapolis community, while spreading news across both national and international borders to connect with influential individuals, emerging leaders, prospective scientists and youth.

In 2016, the announcement of the Winner took place at London’s iconic Natural History Museum, while local Indianapolis community events included programs on Girls in Science, talks to school groups and a forum on conservation leadership in the 21st century. A national university lecture tour followed.

But it’s the spectacular Indianapolis Prize Gala that causes noted conservationists and their supporters to convene in the Circle City every two years. The Winner and Finalists are honored while an influential audience is captivated by an impactful evening of storytelling and emotion, complete with awe-inspiring films shot around the globe and an increasing celebrity presence. In 2016, the films were narrated by Sigourney Weaver and included a featured appearance by Sir David Attenborough.

A Lasting Legacy

When the Prize was first awarded in 2006, former Association of Zoos and Aquariums President and Chief Executive Officer, Jim Maddy said, “Zoos throughout this country play a significant role in the worldwide effort for animal conservation. The Indianapolis Prize is an outstanding addition to the cause of preserving the world’s endangered animals, and it is a prime example of a single zoo’s ability to increase awareness of and spur action toward conservation of the natural world.”

“Right now, many potential animal extinctions are preventable, but without the efforts of dedicated conservation heroes, their projects, and their organizations, many extinctions will become inevitable. It’s both our privilege and our obligation to support the work of those who are proven champions,” said Indianapolis Zoo President and Chief Executive Officer, Mike Crowther.

In a decade’s time, more than 140 nominees have shared their journeys—taking us from the sky to the sea—and the Prize has awarded more than $1 million that has been used to further expand research and projects, propelling programs forward and preparing future conservationists, creating an avenue for those succeeding to continue achieving victories. It has also driven several million dollars more in direct donations to those it honors. Perhaps its most important contribution, though, was noted by 2012 Winner Dr. Steve Amstrup, who said “It was certainly nice to receive the money, but the biggest impact was the number of doors that it opened up for me.  It gave me a much taller pulpit to preach from.”

“Right now, many potential animal extinctions are preventable, but without the efforts of dedicated conservation heroes, their projects, and their organizations, many extinctions will become inevitable. It’s both our privilege and our obligation to support the work of those who are proven champions,” said Indianapolis Zoo President and Chief Executive Officer, Mike Crowther. “Our world is unquestionably better off because of the Indianapolis Prize winners and we hope others will not only take notice of, but also join in their work to save wild things and wild places.”

What began as a dream became a program. Today it’s no longer just a program, but a promise. It’s a promise that when conservationists find paths to success we will find ways to tell their stories, open doors for them and support their work. Now, the most successful conservationists on the planet are beginning to take their places on a stage normally reserved for the superstars of popular culture—and rather than just using it to promote themselves, they are spreading inspiration, hope, calls for action and the adoption of a new conservation ethic.




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