A WCS marine biologist from Belize has taken the gold in one of the world’s most prestigious awards ceremonies for grassroots nature conservation.

Dr Rachel T. Graham, director of WCS’s Gulf and Caribbean sharks and rays program and a member of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, received the Whitley Gold Award from HRH The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) at the Royal Geographical Society, London. The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN), a UK-based charity, hosts this annual ceremony. As part of the award, which includes project funding, Dr. Graham will receive professional development training.

The same ceremony also saw the presentation of Whitley Awards to six other conservation leaders from Argentina, Croatia, India, Indonesian Borneo, Russia and Uzbekistan.

With last year’s Gold Award having gone to Angela Maldonado of Colombia and the 2009 prize to Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Uganda, Dr. Graham is the third women conservationist in as many years to win the top Whitley prize. The award recognizes her work to implement a national action plan for sharks and get more local people actively involved in protecting ocean wildlife and coastal biodiversity, contributing to the protection of local livelihoods and Belize’s economically important tourism industry.

It also honors Dr. Graham’s efforts to reverse the rapid decline of sharks in Belizean waters, caused mainly by overfishing by foreign fishing fleets supplying white fish meat to Latin America and shark fins to Asia.

"Belize’s marine life has a tireless champion in Rachel Graham,” said Steven Sanderson, WCS President and CEO. “Her 20 years of conservation work is turning the tide for sharks and drawing needed attention to protect these magnificent marine predators.”

John Robinson, WCS Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science, said, “Rachel is a huge asset to WCS’s conservation efforts to protect marine ecosystems around the world. Her work benefits one of the most pristine marine regions in the Western Hemisphere.”

The 2011 Whitley ceremony was co-hosted by author and broadcaster John McCarthy and witnessed by an audience of 350 people, comprising embassy officials, leading life scientists and environmentalists, corporate donors, WFN supporters and members of the media. In the 18 years since the Whitley Awards began, the group has given grants worth more than £6m (approximately $9.7 million) to support the work of inspirational conservation leaders in 70 countries and built a network of more than 120 Whitley alumni.