"ndianapolis Prize focuses international spotlight

Two years ago, the Indianapolis Zoo announced a biennial award to recognize “significant strides in conservation efforts involving an animal species.” In August, an international nominating committee and an award jury consisting of top conservation experts selected the first recipient: George Archibald, Ph.D.

With Eli Lilly & Company Foundation providing $1 million in start-up funding (as well as the Lilly Medal, awarded to the winner), the $100,000 unrestricted Indianapolis Prize stands as the largest international monetary award bestowed upon an individual for conservation of an animal species.

“It’s a natural evolution of what the zoo is all about,” explains Michael Crowther, Indianapolis Zoo president and CEO. “Our mission is to inspire local and global communities to protect animals.” His dual strategy for achieving that objective includes maintaining a physical campus — namely, the zoo — and using every technique available to direct attention to the needs and challenges of animals. One of those techniques is embodied by the Indianapolis Prize.

The prize itself serves two purposes: to reward and recognize individuals making a difference in animal conservation, and to tell their stories. “Animal conservationists in the field are horribly underpaid,” Crowther declares. The $100,000 award will allow the winner to continue working for the benefit of animals.

Archibald intends to divide his prize money among five projects: studying the illegal crane trade in Africa; establishing an education center at the Lumbini Crane Sanctuary in Nepal; funding newsletters in China and the former republics of the Soviet Union about cranes; searching for solutions to crop damage done by sandhill cranes; and supporting the first private nature preserve in Russia.

Beyond financial support, Crowther believes that reporting the work being done by individual conservationists will help people identify with them and inspire change. “We want to build a connection through storytelling, letting the conservationists function as a bridge to the esoteric world. Until I met George [Archibald], I didn’t realize why he’s been so effective, but he really embodies his personal mission. He’s not just a scientist; he has a creative spirit. He has literally changed the world for many species.”

Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., pioneered many techniques for raising cranes in captivity for eventual release into the wild, such as having handlers wear crane costumes to avoid human imprinting and using ultra-light airplanes to lead cranes in migration from Wisconsin to Florida. Although his work has helped many crane species rebound from the brink of extinction (most notably the whooping crane), the Canadian is best known for his work with Tex, a female whooping crane who refused to mate because of human imprinting. As reported in Life magazine and on The Tonight Show, Archibald donned a crane suit and did mating dances, essentially conducting a crane courtship ritual. Artificially inseminated, Tex finally laid eggs, with one hatchling — a male named Gee Whiz — surviving.

It’s precisely that kind of touching personal story that Crowther believes will generate attention for conservation efforts. Already he sees a “cheerleading effect” on the conservation community, thanks to a little spotlight on their efforts, courtesy of the Indianapolis Prize. It’s a spotlight Crowther is careful to keep off the zoo. “We intentionally named it the ‘Indianapolis Prize,’ not the ‘Indianapolis Zoo Prize.’ It’s not about ‘Look how great we are!’ It’s not about doing something for the zoo. It’s about the zoo doing something for the world. By putting Indianapolis in the name, it shows what a community can do, and we encourage other communities to try their own programs.”

Jim Maddy, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, understands the challenge being issued. In a statement, he praised the prize as an “outstanding addition to the cause of preserving the world’s endangered animals,” and called it a “prime example of a single zoo’s ability to increase awareness of and spur action toward conservation of the natural world.”

Crowther hopes it encourages people to think twice about preserving habitats for animals, and to re-examine their priorities: “The biggest issue is that we’re losing species. That impoverishes and diminishes our planet, and ultimately impacts our own sustainability. We may have to endure some short-term pain for long-term sustainability. We need to turn over to the future a world animals and people would choose to live in. We must create that world; we must invest in it now. We can’t keep acting like kids. It’s important to look beyond what’s right in front of us this minute.”




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