Our cahow crusader on Indianapolis honour roll

Former Government Conservationist Dr. David Wingate is one of 29 animal conservationists nominated to receive the $100,000 Indianapolis Prize, the world's leading award for animal conservation. Mr. Wingate has been nominated for bringing the Bermuda petrel or cahow back from the brink of extinction over a 40-year period.

The work of nominees for the Indianapolis Prize spans the globe, and represents a range of species from amphibians to zebras, as well as elephants, tigers, wolves and whales, among many others.

The news has been received by Dr. Wingate with a mixture of pleasure and cautious optimism.

  • <B>New honour:</B> Dr. David Wingate, who has devoted 50 years of his life to bringing the cahow back from the brink of extinction, is among 29 nominees for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize in recognition of his work. He is seen here holding the cover of an artificial cahow nest, many of which he installed at Nonsuch Island Nature Reserve.

    New honour: Dr. David Wingate, who has devoted 50 years of his life to bringing the cahow back from the brink of extinction, is among 29 nominees for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize in recognition of his work. He is seen here holding the cover of an artificial cahow nest, many of which he installed at Nonsuch Island Nature Reserve.


Former Government Conservationist Dr. David Wingate is one of 29 animal conservationists nominated to receive the $100,000 Indianapolis Prize, the world's leading award for animal conservation. Mr. Wingate has been nominated for bringing the Bermuda petrel or cahow back from the brink of extinction over a 40-year period.

The work of nominees for the Indianapolis Prize spans the globe, and represents a range of species from amphibians to zebras, as well as elephants, tigers, wolves and whales, among many others.

The news has been received by Dr. Wingate with a mixture of pleasure and cautious optimism.

"It is very flattering, but there are some very big names on the honour roll, and so many good people to select from, so even if I do not win it is a huge honour to be considered among them, and that is recognition enough," he said.

Among the nominees is Dr. Roger Payne of the Ocean Alliance who, with Bermudian Frank Watlington, made the first recordings of humpback whales in the waters off Bermuda. He is being nominated for devoting more than 40 years to the study and protection of whales.

Dr. Wingate's name was put forward by someone whom he knew "marginally" but who had a connection with someone whom he knew "slightly better". He then had to submit certain information about himself, and also provide three names of people who could vouch for him. One was Bermudian and two were from abroad.

The nominating committee is now reviewing the applications and will announce the names of the six finalists in early 2008. The Prize jury will then determine the winner, who will be honoured at the next Indianapolis Prize gala, to be held on September 28, 2008 in Indianapolis.

In addition to the $100,000 prize, the recipient is also awarded the Lilly Medal – an original work of art which signifies the winner's contributions to conserving some of the world's most threatened animals.

Dr. Wingate's interest in the cahow began in 1951, when the species previously believed to be extinct for 300 years was rediscovered. He was just a schoolboy at the time, but when he returned from Cornell University in 1957 he took charge of the cahow conservation programme on grants from the New York Zoological Society and the Bermuda Government, and wound up devoting 50 years of his life to preserving the species.

The cahow lives on the ocean far from here, returning to shore only after dark and leaving before dawn. It nests in underground burrows which are extremely hard to find.

When Dr. Wingate foresaw that the birds were largely confined to three acres of little islands which would eventually be eroded by the elements, he realised that if the goal was to have an eventual population of thousands, then a bigger habitat, isolated and free of predators, was required, and it became the driving force of his career.

Nonsuch Island proved the perfect site, and in 1962 Dr. Wingate set about ridding the newly designated Nature Reserve of predators and inappropriate vegetation, and restoring the terrestrial ecosystem of his 'living museum' to as close to Bermuda's pre-colonial context as possible. In time, he would also build artificial, underground burrows in which the birds could nest.

"It took 40 years to restore Nonsuch Island Nature Reserve as the cahow's home, so the key thing for which I think I am being recognised is that I looked ahead to a long-term restoration goal," he said of his Indianapolis Prize nomination.

Today, there is no doubt that Dr. Wingate's work – and that of Government Conservationist Jeremy Madeiros, who succeeded him – has made a major contribution to the survival of the cahows, and Nonsuch Nature Reserve has gradually attained international recognition as a leading example of restoration ecology.

"We started with 18 pairs in 1961; after 20 years it was up to 36 pairs, and after the next 20 years it was up to 80 pairs, which is where we are now, so for the same amount of time the increase is much more rapid," Dr. Wingate said.

The Indianapolis Prize was first awarded in 2006 to Dr. George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, who, through his decades of work, has contributed significantly to the preservation of the world's 15 surviving species of cranes.

"While the task of selecting the finalists, and ultimately a winner of the Indianapolis Prize, will be challenging, we are pleased with the calibre of the nominees," Michael Crowther, CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, the organisation responsible for initiating the conservation award, said. "All have shown tremendous dedication to preserving and protecting fragile species, some of which owe their continued existence to these extraordinary conservationists."

The Indianapolis Prize was initiated by the Indianapolis Zoo as a significant component of its mission to inspire local and global communities to celebrate, protect, and preserve our natural world through conservation, education and research. The biennial award brings the world's attention to the cause of animal conservation and the brave, talented and dedicated men and women who spend their lives saving the Earth's endangered animal species.

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