Wednesday, 5 January 2005

Indianapolis Zoo Conservation Award

Indianapolis Zoo have just announced a Conservation Prize of $100,000 to be awarded to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the conservation of endangered species. The first Indianapolis Prize will be presented in September 2006 at an "Oscar-like" gala, complete with celebrities, possibly to be televised nationally. "We're hoping that this really can change the world," said Indianapolis Zoo President and CEO Michael Crowther. By focusing attention on someone who has labored and sacrificed for animal conservation, the award can help the issue resonate with the public, Crowther said. "We think their stories need to be told," he said. "The way we can do what we do best is by changing hearts and minds."

But the reality is that Indianapolis Zoo are using the 21st century cult of the celebrity to create publicity for the zoo, first and foremost, while achieving relatively little for conservation. Awards invariably go to the person who is charismatic, a good self-publicist, knows the right people, or who works with charismatic species. For every person who gets an award, there are bound to be dozens of others equally deserving who are ignored. And of course the really effective conservationists are never individuals, they are always team-workers - It is the only way that conservation work is sustainable. Egocentric individuals rarely leave a lasting legacy.

And then there is also the political correctness of awards. An "Oscar-like awards ceremony" will cost more than the $100,000 prize to organize, and could only be justified if it raised several hundred thousand dollars for real conservation.

Myrta Pulliam, chairwoman of the Indianapolis Zoo board of trustees claimed that "There are awards and grants shared by institutions and individuals in the conservation world, but no prize always directed at an individual. We decided to make it unrestricted so they could have the freedom to do whatever they wanted [with the money]. And [she] hopes future award winners will become better known to the general public, maybe even on par with celebrities from the entertainment field who lend their names and time to such efforts. They should know who these people are and what they're doing. . . so we can say, 'Hey, this could be you when you grow up.' "

Actually, this is untrue; there are already significant awards for individuals, and far from achieving their stated objectives, I believe that Indianapolis Zoo's award will simply further the cult of the celebrity and encourage competitiveness -- neither of which are healthy for sustainable conservation. The last thing conservation needs are airheads who are in it because they love the celebrity status or because they are competetive 'alpha-males' (of either sex); there are plenty of the latter already, don't encourage them. If Indianapolis Zoo really wants to help conservation, there are plenty of ways of doing it, but an award like this is not the way. But it's probably a good way of publicising the zoo.

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