Sharon Matola Nominated for 2012 Indianapolis Prize

Why I Nominated Sharon Matola for the 2012 Indianapolis Prize

By Marsha W. Johnston

Not many people outside the world of wildlife protection and zoology have ever heard of the Indianapolis Prize, given to the individual judged by their peers to have done the most to “advance the sustainability of an animal species or group of species.”

True, the Prize has only been around since 2004, and is only given every other year by the Indianapolis Zoo with a bequest by the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation. Still, the unrestricted $100,000 gift represents the largest monetary award for animal conservation in the world. So far, it has honored three wildlife protection giants: Dr. George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation (2006), who is credited with contributing significantly to the preservation of the world’s 15 surviving species of cranes, including the whooping crane in North America; Dr. George Schaller, vice president of Panthera and senior conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (2008) and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, president and CEO of Save the Elephants, the premier group working to preserve the African elephant.

Next March, the Indianapolis Prize Committee will announce six finalists, out of a couple of dozen nominees that include Belize Zoo Director Sharon Matola, who I nominated.

I am not a wildlife conservation professional, though I often wish I were; it is one of my great passions in life. I remember being stunned and thrilled to discover that anyone could submit a nomination, and I knew I wanted to participate. More precisely, I was keen to see if the Prize committee would agree that Sharon’s nearly 30-year campaign for the animals of Belize and Central America was as worthy of reward as I and so many others do.

Sharon’s record of heroic work was easy to document, and so Hollywood-enviable dramatic, the application essay practically wrote itself: starting a “zoo” as a naturalized citizen with a handful of animals from a documentary and no money, teaming up with a US-based environmental group to fight Belize’s utility to a standoff in London High Court over the Chalillo Dam.

But I had to include letters of support from people who knew her work best, and I knew that the more prestigious they were, the better. I started with Omar Figueroa, Belizean Senator and jaguar conservationist, whom I had met and interviewed. Only too happy to help, he provided the scientist’s view on the importance of Sharon’s conservation work. I then turned to Bruce Barcott, author of Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, the book about Sharon and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s fight to stop the dam. Bruce wrote that he told her story because “Sharon Matola was—and remains—the most courageous person I’ve ever met. The fact that she wields that courage on behalf of the wildlife of Central America—well, that’s why we’re asking you to consider her nomination”. By the deadline, I had also secured a nomination letter from the Hon. Gaspar Vega, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment!

The full list of nominees should be announced by the end of the year, on http://indianapolisprize.org/SitePages/TheHeros/TheNominees.aspx . No doubt the list will include many formidable animal protectors from around the world, as it has for past prizes, but we will all be rooting for Sharon!

[Note: Marsha W. Johnston is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in RenewableEnergyWorld, EnviroWonk, E/The Environment Magazine, Kennedy Information/MCI]

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