Silver award: Misool Eco Resort, Indonesia
In just over 10 years, two people made a marine miracle happen. After scuba diving around southern Raja Ampat, Indonesia in 2005 and being stunned by its reef rich beauty, Marit and Andrew Miners were also devastated by the evidence of the shark finning industry on a nearby beach. And so, unlike others who might just swim away and shrug it off as someone else's problem, they decided to stay and turn the tide. This resulted in a world renowned ecotourism and diving resort on this same beach on Batbitim Island, overlooking 91,000 hectares of protected No-Take Zone (NTZ), where fishing and collection of marine organisms is not permitted and which they helped create. These guys certainly don't let the sea grass grow under their feet.
Indeed, this is grassroots conservation tourism at its finest - a diving resort run by conservationists, supporting and supported by the local community. Not just a win win, but a win win win. Because Marit and Andrew have always recognised that it is only by giving local people a feeling of genuine empowerment through better lifestyles and income levels, as well as seeing how much visitors endorse a pride of place, that one can turn around the impacts of human intervention in nature.
Most of the staff comes from Yellu, the village from which they have leased the island, and many have worked with the resort since its nascence. They have all worked together, watching Misool take its first environmental steps, not only through the growth of the NTZ, but also seeing the reduction of illegal fishing by over 80 percent, increase of fish biomass by over 250 percent, the creation of a full time ranger patrol fleet to monitor the reef, and the formation of Indonesian Charitable Foundation, Misool Baseftin to raise more and more money for conservation.
As Misool heads towards its teenage years, there are no signs of wayward behaviour either. The complete opposite in fact, as Misool has created manta and shark sanctuaries across Indonesia including a hugely successful project in Lamakera to stop over exploitation of the marine environment. This baby certainly continues to thrive, inspire and protect.
Silver award: East African Safari and Touring Company (EASTCO), Tanzania
At first glance it seems as if every private safari company in Africa is wholly committed to wildlife conservation. Some are, but of course many aren't. However, with the simple fact that the East African Safari and Touring Company, located on lands that buffer Tanzania's Tarangire National Park, has the fastest growing population of elephants in Africa, you have to take your hat off to them. And the Tanzanian government has done just that, formally designating their land as the Randilen Wildlife Management Area. Read more.
The development of the Randilen Wildlife Management Area has been a 20-year-long learning and co-working process between this private company and seven Maasai communities living in the region to put a stop to poaching, farming and hunting in important wildlife habitats, particularly for elephants.
EASTCO has always recognised that you can't just protect wildlife living inside the national parks. It is the lands all around that proffer some of the most important wildlife habitats, but these are also homes to indigenous Maasai people who have been stewards of these lands for generations. So, working together is the only way, something many safari companies turn a blind eye to. And this hasn't just involved zoning of land, but bringing the communities in as share holders in the business and making sure that they gain a decent income from wildlife tourism. In particular, elephant tourism, in a country where poaching these great mammals is still a significant issue.
So, the fact that this new Radilen Wildlife Management Area consists of 571 km2 of land now off limits to hunting, grazing and permanent human settlement, in agreement with everyone living here, is a great result. The wildlife statistics are the proof. But the ambience and ambition of all parties that is tangible at EASTCO is also what sets them apart, all emanating from a shared direction, shared management decisions and a shared commitment to wildlife survival.
Silver award: Burj Al Arab Aquarium, United Arab Emirates
Possibly the world's most photographed and iconic hotel, the famously luxurious Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai has hidden depths in terms of responsible tourism. Indeed, large, multinational hotel chains aren't usually top of the wildlife loving list these days, with a few rare exceptions. Jumeirah's funding of the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) as part of its aquarium is an exquisite exception too, having rescued, nurtured and released over a thousand sea turtles since it was founded in 2004.
Although the stunning aquarium at Burj Al Arab looks like it is all for show, flanking glamorous restaurants and hotel environs, it was set up in conjunction with the UK's National Marine Aquarium and has a strong conservation ethos. The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation project (DTRP) is part of that ethos and is based at both Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah, a sister property. It is also run in conjunction with Dubai's Wildlife Protection Office. Although the luxury hotel chain doesn't shout about it to its guests, and most of its conservation goes on quietly behind the scenes, they are busy rescuing sea turtles that have been injured or harmed in some way. Most importantly, DTRP provides space that acts as a natural foraging area as well as an artificial reef where they can be nourished and start to thrive again, before being released back into the wild, with an impressive record of 1,000 turtles being sent back into the ocean to date. If you are lucky enough to be there for a release day, then you will have timed your visit well.
Another vital part of the conservation work fully supported by Jumeirah is the electronic tagging of sea turtles, which has enabled scientists to monitor their progress and famously long journeys across our oceans. This is invaluable data monitoring particularly for the critically endangered hawksbill turtles, many of which end up being helped by the project. So, although Burj Al Arab Jumeirah may be the tallest hotel ever built on an island, hopefully it won't remain alone in its decision to commit to wildlife conservation. Instead, we hope it will create a ripple effect throughout other hotel chains poised not to profit from precious habitats but to protect them.