Ocean Community News

The Whitley Awards Winner: Sammy the Sea Turtle Saviour

The conservationist leading communities in coastal stewardship of Kenya’s delicate marine ecosystem

Along Kenya’s coast, the future of life above and below water relies on sustainable management by communities. Conservationist Sammy Safari has received a prestigious Whitley Award for turning the tide for fishers, mangroves and turtles in East Africa’s oldest marine reserve.

The Whitley Awards are presented annually to individuals from the Global South by UK-based charity the Whitley Fund for Nature. Sammy is one of six conservationists to be recognised in 2021 for their commitment to conserving some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular natural habitats. During a virtual celebration last night (12th May), they received messages of support from charity Patron HRH The Princess Royal and Trustee, Sir David Attenborough.

Sir David Attenborough, WFN Trustee, said “Whitley Award winners are local environmental heroes, harnessing the best available science and leading projects with passion. I admire their courage, their commitment, and their ability to affect change. There are few jobs more important.”


Coastal Watamu in the Malindi Watamu Marine National Park and Reserves is home to over 600 species of fish across its reef and seagrass habitat, as well as all seven species of marine turtle. Their migratory routes pass through its stunning lagoon, bordered by the widest range of mangrove species on East Africa’s coast.

Without sea turtles, marine ecosystems in the National Park would be significantly affected. They play an important role in maintaining the ecosystems by sustaining healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs - a key habitat and nursery ground for other marine life - helping to balance marine food webs, replenish fish stocks, capture carbon and facilitate nutrient cycling from water to land.


This previously small fishing community experienced a tourism boom accounting for up to 50% of income. COVID-19, however, has caused hotels and businesses to close and unemployment is now widespread in an already impoverished area. Pressures on natural resources are mounting with a surge in illegal fishing, a high risk of mangrove cutting, and endangered turtles exposed to poaching – a major concern for the area.


Sammy, Anti-Poaching Manager of the Local Ocean Conservation project, has dedicated more than 20 years of his life to protecting sea turtles and their delicate marine habitats. The organisation leads practical conservation, community involvement, education, and research. Since it began, it has protected and monitored more than 1,000 nests and seen more than 75,800 successful hatchlings. Additionally, it has engaged a total of 1,949 fishers and fishmongers to change their ideology on poaching, leading to an average of 1,500 bycatch rescues annually.

Through his anti-poaching team and extensive network of informers, Sammy will use his Whitley Award to ramp-up efforts in response to COVID-19. He will improve governance of the marine park by developing compliance guidelines with local communities. He also plans to minimise community reliance on extractive marine practices by supporting a community food garden, which will improve inclusive and sustainable livelihoods. Red worm farming will also be introduced to halt wild bait digging, which hinders mangrove regeneration.

Whitley Award winner, Sammy Safari said: “Over the past two years, I have been working hard to increase the capacity, skills and efforts of our anti-poaching efforts and we have seen direct results from these positive steps. I now want to continue this, and the Whitley Award will be fundamental in helping me to show local people the benefit of sustainable practices and how this in turn will help improve their livelihoods.

“I grew up under the guidance of my father who taught me how important it is to protect nature and all that it offers. I now have children of my own and hope they will one day follow in my footsteps and create a lasting legacy.”

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “Sammy’s inspirational commitment to protecting the future of sea turtles and educating his community about marine conservation reflects his passion and understanding of this fragile ecosystem. He has successfully worked to change the mindset of poachers to recognise that they can benefit economically from conservation within this critical turtle nesting site. It is because of this that he is being recognised with a Whitley Award.”

This year’s Whitley Gold Award, worth £100,000 GBP, honours Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu for her outstanding work securing justice for wildlife and citizens. Paula is pioneering a new approach, that protects the country’s wildlife and habitats while recognising Kenyans’ legitimate aspirations for economic development. CEO of WildlifeDirect, her Whitley Gold Award will enable her to expand her efforts, empowering concerned citizens through the first ever Environmental Justice Desk, educating field rangers in the collection of evidence admissible in court, and defending iconic habitats from unchecked development by powerful interest groups that override environmental concerns with impunity. Paula will foster a culture of public participation in environmental decisions and promote African leadership of wildlife conservation across the continent.

Whitley Gold Award winner, Paula Kahumbu, said: “I want to see a global shift in the narrative where Africans are the storytellers about African wildlife and assume the lead in efforts to protect it”.

Click here to find out more.

The 2021 Whitley Award winners are:

  • Lucy Kemp, South Africa: A community-based approach to conserve the Southern Ground-hornbill
  • Nuklu Phom, India: Establishing a Biodiversity Peace Corridor in Nagaland
  • Iroro Tanshi, Nigeria: Bats from the brink – participatory action to save the short-tailed roundleaf bat
  • Kini Roesler, Argentina: Hooded Grebe – guardian of the Patagonian steppe
  • Sammy Safari, Kenya: Transforming the future of sea turtles through coastal stewardship
  • Pedro Fruet, Brazil: Building bridges to encourage coexistence with the Lahille’s bottlenose dolphin

The 2021 Whitley Gold Award winner is:

  • Paula Kahumbu, Kenya: Justice for people and wildlife

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