HRH The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) on 11 May 2011 presented one of the world’s top prizes for grassroots nature conservation – a Whitley Award – to Jana Bedek, a biologist and caver from Croatia, for her work to explore, study and raise public awareness of the wildlife-rich caverns, tunnels, rivers and lakes which lie beneath the Dinarides mountains.
Jana Bedek, the president of the Croatian Biospeleological Society (CBSS), received her prize during a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society, London, hosted by The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) – the UK-based charity behind the international awards scheme.
The award includes a project grant of £30,000 for the project Subterranean conservation of the lost cave systems of the Dinaric Arc – donated by The Shears Foundation, an engraved trophy, membership of the influential network of past Whitley Award winners, international recognition and professional development training. Within this project by specific karstic features, known as Cave type localities, key sites can be legally protected as shelters for highly endemic and endangered fauna, helping in turn to establish long-term protection for entire underground landscapes.
It recognizes Jana Bedek’s efforts to increase scientific and public knowledge of the rare and unusual underground habitats and species of the Dinaric Alps, and their economic potential, and her plans to expand the project to the other areas of karst found between Italy and Albania. The team’s work underground can be dangerous, but there are also many challenges above ground. An essential part of the project is the capturing of the local knowledge to help locate cave entrances. Jana worries about this: “One of my fears is that we will not be able to locate some of the very important caves that were mentioned in ancient literature. Since there is today very few people remaining in some rural places we are losing social memory and have failed to find some caves, even with their help!”.
Commenting on Jana Bedek’s success, Georgina Domberger, Director of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “The aim of the Whitley Awards is to identify and applaud inspirational conservation leaders, and give them new funds and skills to enable them to make even greater use of their scientific expertise and local knowledge to deliver real and lasting benefits for people and wildlife and the places both share. In Jana’s case, the judges were particularly impressed by her courageous efforts to improve our understanding of this very special but highly hazardous subterranean world – a refuge for an extraordinary range of extraordinary creatures, some of them so rare they are found nowhere else on Earth.“
The ceremony at which Jana Bedek received her accolade was co-hosted by the author and broadcaster John McCarthy and witnessed by a 350-strong audience which included embassy officials, Whitley Fund for Nature donors, including HBSC and WWF–UK, and many leading environmentalists.
The Whitley Awards scheme is an annual competition, first held in 1994. In the 18 years since the scheme began, it has given grants worth more than £6m to support the work of inspirational conservation leaders in 70 countries and built a network of more than 120 Whitley alumni.