Battle to save Black Sea wetlands honoured with Whitley Award for conservation


A conservationist committed to protecting critical wintering grounds for migratory birds in Bulgaria has been honoured with a prestigious Whitley Award by HRH the Princess Royal tonight (1 May). Nikolai Petkov, Coordinator of the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB)’s programme for the conservation of the red-breasted Goose is working to preserve these enigmatic rust-coloured geese as a flagship for the Black Sea wetlands.

For centuries, the coastal wetlands of the Black Sea have been a safe haven for migrating water-birds coming from Northern Europe who take shelter during the winter months. In colder winters, the coastal lakes of Shabla and Durankulak harbour almost 100% of the global population of red-breasted geese, numbering some 50,000 birds, as well as providing a critical habitat for 260 other bird species.

For the last 15 years, Nikolai and his team have worked to champion and protect this habitat from the ever-growing demands of economic development. Currently the biggest threat is the imminent adoption of the Shabla municipality Master Plan, which would see infrastructure and windfarm development in the area, displacing wintering flocks. Coupled with increased hunting and disturbance by illegal fishing activity, red-breasted geese are at risk.
Although BSPB has faced some resistance from local people who contest conservation activities, Nikolai and his team are making progress. Working alongside institutions they have improved understanding and enforcement of environmental legislation and are ensuring that conservation values and sustainable alternatives are considered in the municipality development plan.

Nikolai has successfully engaged farmers to develop an agro-environment payment scheme to reduce conflict with geese due to crop damage. Using his Whitley Award, Nikolai will ensure nature conservation is mainstreamed into development planning and is viewed by communities as an opportunity for sustainable economic development, including bird-watching ecotourism. This project will act as a model that could be applied in other areas, where wetland habitat and human expansion are in conflict.

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “Nikolai’s work in Bulgaria is benefitting some of the most important stop-over sites for this strikingly coloured goose along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. He shows how collaborative working can have successful outcomes against the odds, and demonstrates the need to integrate wildlife conservation into future development planning.”

Whitley Award winners each receive £40,000 in funding to support their work to conserve some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular natural habitats. The prize is accompanied by a boost in profile, helping winners to leverage new connections and further funding.

Nikolai plans to build upon his team’s success and expand their initiative, saying: “Now, we want to replicate this work and find similar solutions to this in other countries along the flyway.”


This year’s Whitley Gold Award honours Prof Jon Paul Rodríguez of Venezuela who co-founded his NGO, Provita, 30 years ago to conserve the country’s threatened wildlife, including the nationally Endangered yellow-shouldered parrot. After receiving his Whitley Award in 2003, today the parrot is on the road to recovery in Jon Paul’s project site – with record numbers of parrots flying the nest in 2018. Elsewhere however, populations continue to fall due to heavy poaching of this pretty polly for the pet trade. With his Whitley Gold Award, Jon Paul will scale up his work by developing a multi-country strategy to protect the yellow-shouldered parrot across its entire range, working in collaboration with other Whitley Award winners. Jon Paul is Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, an internationally influential role in conservation which makes him uniquely positioned to deliver this project.

The 2019 Whitley Award winners are:

• Caleb Ofori-Boateng – Critical refuge for the Togo slippery frog, Ghana
• Nikolai Petkov – Wetlands on the brink: conserving the red-breasted goose, Bulgaria
• Vatosoa Rakotondrazafy – MIHARI: a civil society movement to safeguard marine resources, Madagascar • José Sarasola – The Chaco eagle: a flagship for semiarid wildlife conservation, Argentina
• Wendi Tamariska – Protecting orangutans and rainforests through sustainable livelihoods, Indonesia (Borneo)
• Ilena Zanella – Strengthened sanctuary for the scalloped hammerhead shark, Costa Rica
The 2019 Whitley Gold Award winner is:
• Jon Paul Rodríguez – A range-wide plan for the yellow-shouldered parrot

 Watch a video about Nikolai and his work.