The United Nations honored the National Geographic Society on Sunday with its highest environmental award.
The recipients of the U.N. Environment Program’s 2015 “Champions of the Earth” award were chosen for their work in a wide range of environmental pursuits—from creating sustainable business practices to informing the public about challenges facing the natural world, and from foiling rhinoceros poaching to protecting human populations from climate change.
Also honored were the prime minister of Bangladesh, a Brazilian cosmetics company, a corporate CEO, and a South African anti-poaching group.
UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner told the 300 guests attending the awards dinner in Manhattan that the recipients were doing vital work to help solve complex problems that threaten the environment.
Gary Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, said the 127-year-old society is committed to continuing its work in scientific research, exploration, and storytelling. “The planet has so many issues and needs all of us now more than ever,” he said during his acceptance speech.
Knell cited research showing increases in greenhouse gases, flooding, drought, and toxins in the world’s water.
“That would be completely depressing if we didn’t believe that there was something we could do about it,” he said. “At National Geographic, we have always had the attitude...worry, yes, but wonder about possibilities.”
The National Geographic Society has supported many ground-breaking explorations including the first group of explorers to document a trip to the North Pole and the discovery of Machu Picchu—a lost mountaintop city of the Inca in the Peruvian Andes. It also supported Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research in Tanzania's Gombe Stream Park and Dian Fossey’s mountain gorilla research in Rwanda.
The society and 21st Century Fox recently announced that they will expand their long-running partnership by forming a new media company, National Geographic Partners. Science and exploration will continue to be funded by the National Geographic Society, which will remain a separate nonprofit organization. The partnership will roughly double the society's endowment, which funds research, to nearly $1 billion.
Fighting Poaching and Climate Change
H.E. Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, was honored for putting in place national policies to bolster environmental sustainability in a country that has suffered many natural disasters, including a devastating cyclone in 2009.
In her speech, the prime minister dedicated the award to “the resilience of my people in fighting climate change.”
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics company, were honored for their environmentally sustainable business practices.
Natura was cited for establishing a sustainable supply chain for its ingredients, using recyclable packing, and instituting initiatives to curb deforestation in the Amazon. Polman was praised for “challenging business norms to show that sustainable, equitable and environmentally-conscious business is smart business.”
The final honoree was the Black Mamba APU, an anti-poaching unit made up mainly of women that protects the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa. Two of its members attended the dinner, wearing their camouflage uniforms.
Cited for their “inspiration and action,” members of the anti-poaching group were praised for their bravery in patrolling the savannah to stop the poaching of endangered rhinos. Steiner said the group was at the “frontlines of an unprecedented attack” on wildlife.
He called the Mambas the “the rock stars of this year’s Champion awards” for the way people were drawn to their story.