Compassionate Conservation puts the welfare of individual animals at the heart of effective conservation actions.

The Virginia McKenna Award for Compassionate Conservation (VMA) is named in honour of Virginia McKenna OBE, the actress and campaigner who co-founded Born Free in 1984, along with her late husband Bill Travers and her eldest son Will Travers.

Virginia McKenna said: “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, conservation policy or environmental education.”

The award not only raises the professional profile of the winner but confers a substantial project grant worth up to £15,000 provided over one year to help the winner implement their Compassionate Conservation agenda.



Dr Jamartin Sihite was awarded the top prize 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.

Since 2012, he has reintroduced over 400 rescued orangutans back to their natural habitat, personally overseeing almost every relocation and undertaking community support, habitat protection activities, and post-release monitoring. 

The £15,000 will allow Dr Sihite and his team release at least 24 ex-captive, rehabilitated orangutans into their established reintroduction sites.

Virginia McKenna OBE, Born Free’s Co-Founder 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 – thanks to the unflinching dedicated efforts of Dr Sihite, supported by his team. I really hope that this award will enable Dr Sihite to continue his vital work to give the beautiful orangutans a second chance to live as nature intended.”

A runner’s up grant of £5,000 was also awarded to Jason Moody for his indigenous-led, welfare-focused approaches to reduce grizzly bear-human conflict in Nuxalk, Canada.



Shivani Bhalla of the Ewaso Lions Project was awarded the first VMA 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 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.”




Professor Anna Nekaris of Oxford Brookes University and the Little Fireface Project was awarded the VMA 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 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 3rd VMA 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 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 Primate Conservation (NPC) was the 2016 winner of the VMA. 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 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, Director of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE), won the sixth Virginia McKenna Award for Compassionate Conservation. 

Virginia 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."


The deadline for applications for the VAM 2019 has closed. If you have any questions, please email


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