WASHINGTON (June 10, 2015)—On Thursday, June 11, an extraordinary group of individuals will be honored by the National Geographic Society at the 2015 Explorer Awards, presented by Rolex.
Emmanuel de Merode and Innocent Mburanumwe will accept the Rolex National Geographic Explorers of the Year award on behalf of the rangers of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in recognition of the rangers’ tireless efforts to halt illegal wildlife trafficking. George Schaller, legendary conservation biologist, will receive the Hubbard Medal, National Geographic Society’s highest honor, for his unwavering commitment to the well-being of the world’s most endangered species. Polish kayaker Aleksander Doba, who was named National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year earlier this year, will be recognized for his solo, unsupported transatlantic expedition.
“Our honorees are true leaders in research, conservation and exploration,” said Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic. “They embody National Geographic’s goal of inspiring and educating people to be global citizens and stewards of the planet. We salute their efforts, and we are privileged to share their stories and experiences with our worldwide audiences.”
EXPLORERS OF THE YEAR
The Explorers of the Year award is bestowed on individuals whose actions, achievements and spirit personify leadership in exploration and reflect a commitment to the Society’s purpose to inspire, illuminate and teach. Knell and Stewart Wicht, president and CEO of Rolex Watch USA, will recognize the Virunga National Park rangers’ profound courage and continued commitment to protecting their country’s natural treasures. De Merode and Mburanumwe will accept the award on behalf of the rangers.
Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park and a World Heritage site. It is home to all of the DRC’s critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as important populations of chimpanzees, elephants and other wildlife. Virunga has been at the center of the DRC’s civil wars for decades, threatened by armed militias and foreign corporate interests intent on destroying the park for profit. The ongoing conflict decimated the mountain gorilla population and caused serious economic damage to the park’s surrounding communities. Virunga is now in the midst of a resurgence, thanks to the park’s committed force of rangers. Today, there are about 880 mountain gorillas because of the efforts of the rangers, over 140 of whom have died while on duty protecting the park’s wildlife.
De Merode is director and chief warden of Virunga National Park. In 2008, the year de Merode became director, armed militia controlled the southern portion of Virunga. De Merode negotiated with militia leaders to allow park rangers to return. Threats continued, including illegal trafficking of the park’s natural resources, militia activity and foreign oil interests, and, in 2012, the park was temporarily closed to tourism. By early 2014, Virunga, led by de Merode, reopened to tourists seeking to see the DRC’s mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. De Merode has a Ph.D. in anthropology from University College London.
Mburanumwe is the Southern Sector warden of Virunga National Park. His 15-year career has focused on protecting the DRC’s mountain gorillas, ending forest destruction for charcoal and patrolling against militias. Mburanumwe knows every habituated gorilla in the park individually, enabling him to detect the slightest change in the gorillas’ behavior that could signify disease or other forms of stress. Mburanumwe is considered the DRC’s foremost expert on mountain gorillas. His work is the key to the success of protecting these animals that, in addition to being a critical species, are crucial to the economic stability of the region. Mburanumwe is a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.
THE HUBBARD MEDAL
The Hubbard Medal is named for the National Geographic Society’s first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, and is given in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in exploration, discovery and research. Spending most of his time in the field over the past six decades in Asia, Africa and South America, George Schaller has helped protect some of the planet’s most endangered species, from jaguars to giant pandas to mountain gorillas. He has written 16 books and hundreds of articles and has been instrumental in establishing more than 15 protected areas worldwide. Schaller is vice president of Panthera and a senior conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Schaller, who has received multiple grants from National Geographic for his conservation work, was honored in 2006 with National Geographic Adventure magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
PEOPLE’S CHOICE ADVENTURER OF THE YEAR
The National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year is selected from a group of innovative adventurers whose extraordinary achievements in exploration, conservation, humanitarianism and adventure sports distinguished them over the past year. This year, a record number of votes — more than 521,000 — were cast on the National Geographic Adventure website, and Aleksander Doba was chosen as the winner. At the age of 67, Doba padded 7,716 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to complete the longest unsupported open-water kayak expedition ever made. The journey, which began in October 2013 in Lisbon, Portugal, and ended in April 2014 in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, took two months and almost 2,000 miles longer than expected after storms and equipment failure stranded Doba for weeks in the Bermuda Triangle. It was his second transatlantic expedition by kayak — his first crossing was between Africa and South America in 2010-11.
The National Geographic Explorer Awards celebration is the culmination of this year’s National Geographic Explorers Week, an annual event at which National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, Fellows, Emerging Explorers, grantees and others affiliated with the National Geographic Society highlight findings from their research and fieldwork. Each year during Explorers Week, the Society presents its new class of Emerging Explorers, the next generation of scientists, innovators and storytellers pushing the boundaries of discovery, adventure and global problem-solving.
About the National Geographic Society
National Geographic is a global nonprofit membership organization driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world. Each year, we fund hundreds of research, conservation and education programs around the globe. Every month, we reach more than 700 million people through our media platforms, products and events. Our work to inspire, illuminate and teach through scientific expeditions, award-winning journalism and education initiatives is supported through donations, purchases and memberships. For more information, visit www.nationalgeographic.com and find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.
Editor’s note: For photos of the award recipients and Thursday evening’s event, visit http://Bit.ly/ExplorerAwards2015.