Virginia McKenna and Will Travers walking in front of a mountain

McKenna-Travers Award for Compassionate Conservation

Compassionate Conservation puts the welfare of individual animals at the heart of effective conservation actions. Our prestigious award recognises outstanding conservationists who prioritise animal welfare in their work.

The McKenna-Travers Award for Compassionate Conservation (MTA) is named in honour of Virginia McKenna DBE, her late husband Bill Travers MBE, and their eldest son, Will Travers OBE, who co-founded the charity that became Born Free in 1984.

The £15,000 prize fund provides support and recognition for outstanding individual conservationists who place a high priority on individual animal welfare while carrying out their conservation work.

The Award will not only raise the professional profile of the winner but confers a substantial project grant worth £10,000 over one year to help the winner implement their compassionate conservation agenda, while the recipient of the People’s Choice award will receive £5,000 for their project.

Applications are currently closed – please check this page for updates on when applications will open for the 2024 grant.

You can read more about previous winners below.

I hope this award will recognise, inspire and support outstanding individual conservationists, researchers and practitioners who place a very high priority on animal welfare while undertaking field conservation of species under threat.

Virginia McKenna DBE


Born Free is delighted to announce six recipients of grants as part of our coveted McKenna-Travers Award for Compassionate Conservation 2022, including our new People’s Choice Award, voted for by you.

Letícia Benavalli bending down at a camera trap

McKenna-Travers Award winner: Letícia Benavalli

“I believe that conservation of wildlife and natural resources is the easiest way to improve the welfare of both animals and people in a changing world. This award inspires me even more and reassures that is possible to make others support and truly believe in this lifetime commitment.”

You may well have never heard of the Cerrado but it is the largest savannah region in South America and is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. In the Cerrado, characterised by grasslands and shrubbery akin to African savannahs, the Brazilian tapir, maned wolf, ocelot, giant anteater, giant armadillo and a host of wonderous species roam.

The jaguar is just one of many inhabitants. But these creatures, large and small, live in one of the most threatened and over-exploited regions in Brazil. The jaguar population has been splintered by people carving up the land and converting natural vegetation for pastures and agriculture. This leaves jaguar populations vulnerable to extinction and they are now considered highly threatened.

Letícia Benavalli’s project aims to turnaround the predicament jaguars face by working with local communities to empower them to conserve the Cerrado habitat on private lands, securing water sources, promoting eco-tourism and mitigation conflicts between jaguars and people.

An important part of this project is determining the number of jaguars and other threatened species in two protected areas of the Cerrado. Restoration and expansion of Cerrado habitat near protected area boundaries is the next critical step to ensure that isolated jaguar populations can join up. The scale of the restoration is vast, which is why volunteers and schools will take part in planting 3,000 native tree species in important riparian habitats.

For private landowners who agree to take part in restoration efforts, sustainable eco-tourism ventures can be developed. Similar to many other Born Free conservation projects, Letícia Benavalli’s project aims to mitigate conflict between jaguars and people by training landowners on how to use effective methods such as night enclosures and guard dogs to protect their livestock. A key component of the project is the empowerment of local women by involving them in research and eco-tourism opportunities.


Getachew Assefa Takele in the mountainsPeople’s Choice Award winner: Getachew Assefa Takele

Congratulations to Getachew Assefa Takele, the winner of the 2022 People’s Choice Award for his crucial work in fostering coexistence with Ethiopian wolves, the world’s most threatened canid.

This year’s People’s Choice Award received a total of 6,503 votes, with almost half the voters choosing Getachew.

Getachew was born near the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, home to Ethiopian wolves and has dedicated much of his life to working to conserve the species. Ethiopian wolves are the worlds most threatened canid, with only around 500 individuals remaining.

With a team of Wolf Monitors and Ambassadors, Getachew carefully watches over the wolves that roam Simien Mountains National Park. The Simien Mountains National Park is one of the most important protected areas of Ethiopia, set aside to conserve its exceptional scenery and unique flora and fauna.

The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), supported by Born Free since 1995, has implemented conservation activities including vaccination programmes, grassland conservation and wolf monitoring across Ethiopian wolf ranges for over 25 years. While these activities created high levels of awareness across communities, awareness did not necessary result in meaningful changes in specific behaviours leading to human-wildlife conflict.

With MTA funding the local EWCP team can identify these threats, learn and integrate new approaches, and engage our partners in Simien to affect behavioural change on the local communities and visitors.

This is important because the wolf population in Simien is one of the most disturbed: these wolves tend to avoid people and livestock, affecting their foraging patterns, are difficult to observe and are not breeding as well as in other populations. If we can reduce these sources of disturbances, the wolves of Simien will live longer and better lives.

“I have always felt a special interest for the Ethiopian wolves and I am dedicated for the conservation of wildlife.”


Highly Commended:

Our Awards Committee were so impressed by the quality of the entrants, they decided to award two additional prizes of £1,000 to our highly commended nominees. These were awarded to Suzanne Asha Stone, who works with ranchers to help wolves and other predators by implementing nonlethal coexistence tools in one of the USA’s largest sheep grazing regions on national forest lands; and Kevin Newell, founder of the Scottish Gull Project, which aims to stop the steep decline of Red and Amber listed gull species across Scotland.


Fanny Minesi head shot


Fanny Minesi, General Director of Friends of Bonobos of the Congo, was awarded the main prize in 2021, for her work to protect bonobos and their rainforest home in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Led by Fanny Minesi, Friends of Bonobos are on a mission to save bonobos and their rainforest home. They do this through rescue, sanctuary, and rewilding, and working with local people to tackle root issues that threaten bonobos’ survival.

Friends of Bonobos rescue individual bonobos orphaned by the illegal trade in wildlife. They give these rare apes essential care and sanctuary, releasing them back to the rainforest when possible.

Born Free is proud to support their mission – some of the most effective and comprehensive bonobo conservation work on the planet.


Olivier Nsengimana pointing a camera at a landscapeDR OLIVIER NSENGIMANA

Dr Olivier Nsengimana was awarded the MTA in 2020 for his work to combat the illegal trade in grey crowned cranes, which are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List.

Dr Olivier Nsengimana is Founder & Executive Director of the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA), a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing sustainable solutions to critical wildlife conservation issues in Rwanda and the East African region using a holistic and multi-disciplinary ‘One Health Approach.’

Led by his determination to make a difference for his country, having witnessed the horrors of the 1994 genocide as a nine-year-old boy, Nsengimana set out to stop individual animal suffering and save and protect his country’s grey crowned cranes.



Dr Jamartin Sihite on a hikeDR JAMARTIN SIHITE

Dr Jamartin Sihite was awarded the MTA in 2019 for his tireless work to protect the Bornean orangutan and its habitat. As CEO of the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation in Indonesia, Dr Sihite manages three orangutan reintroduction forests in Borneo, a 309,000-hectare peat swamp forest in Central Kalimantan which provides habitat to over 2,500 wild orangutans, a network of orangutan pre-release islands, a long-term orangutan sanctuary at Salat Island and two rescue and rehabilitation centres.

Virginia McKenna said: “For more than 12 years Dr Jamartin Sihite has worked tirelessly for protection of the orangutans in Borneo and their fragile forest homes. Over 800 animals have been rescued and cared for, and now half of these have been introduced back to the wild.”



shivani bhalla receiving a certificateSHIVANI BHALLA

Shivani Bhalla of the Ewaso Lions Project was awarded the first MTA in 2012. Shivani was selected to receive the award for her work with local communities to conserve lions and other large carnivores in northern Kenya by reducing conflict and helping them understand the importance of lions and other wildlife.

Virginia McKenna said: “I could not be happier that Shivani and the Ewaso Lions Project are the first recipients of this award. She and her team face many challenges, but they are true champions of lions and their survival in Kenya. I send my warmest congratulations and feel sure they will be an inspiration to many.”



Anna Nekaris with Virginia McKennaPROFESSOR ANNA NEKARIS

Professor Anna Nekaris of Oxford Brookes University and the Little Fireface Project was awarded the MTA in 2013. Professor Nekaris was selected to receive the award for her work in exposing the cruel and destructive trade in slow lorises as pets in South East Asia, and for raising awareness of their plight through academia, media and field work.

Virginia McKenna said: “I am so delighted that Anna has won this award. I think her work has brought international attention to this little-understood species and her commitment to the individuals she encounters is exactly what Compassionate Conservation is all about.”




The third MTA was awarded to the Mad Dog Initiative, a project aiming to protect Madagascar’s rare and endemic wildlife through a targeted, compassionate programme to control domestic and feral dogs in and around Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar.

Virginia McKenna said: “I am so pleased that the Mad Dog Initiative has won this award. It embodies so much of what we regard as central to Compassionate Conservation. What I particularly admire about this project is that it is inclusive. It benefits wild animals, domestic dogs and people, and I hope will be an inspiration for others to follow.”



Neotropical primates sitting in a lineNEOTROPICAL PRIMATE CONSERVATION

Neotropical Primate Conservation (NPC) was the 2016 winner of the MTA. Since it was set up in 2007, NPC has targeted Peru’s illegal trade in wildlife by partnering with wildlife authorities, police, public prosecutors and grassroots organisations.

Virginia McKenna said: “The environment, its vulnerable wild inhabitants and the world’s burgeoning human population, are all part of life on Earth, and NPC treats them with understanding and sensitivity. I hope that NPC and Born Free will spread our joint philosophy of Compassionate Conservation around the world – a world which needs it as never before.”



Jackson Mbeke stood in front of a fenceJACKSON MBEKE

Jackson Mbeke, Director of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE), won the sixth MTA for Compassionate Conservation.

Virginia McKenna said: “Jackson’s unswerving dedication should be an inspiration to all. Together with everyone at Born Free, I am determined that by supporting outstanding individuals such as Jackson and his team – with both recognition and resources – we can help make the natural world a more compassionate and safer place.”