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15 Disney Conservation Heroes Recognized for Efforts to Protect the Planet

Claire Martin

by , Senior Manager, Strategic Philanthropy, Disney Corporate Social Responsibility

Each year the Disney Conservation Fund awards grants to nonprofit organizations leading critical efforts to create a healthier home for people and wildlife. And we know that behind each of these efforts are dedicated individuals going above and beyond to ensure a world in balance.

In 2021, we were pleased to recognize the latest cohort of 15 Disney Conservation Heroes across 13 countries who each demonstrated incredible commitment to working with their communities to care for wildlife and habitats. From individuals who protected their own land as nature reserves to those who found innovative ways to support wildlife while honoring cultural traditions, these Heroes have each taken risks, shown courage, and contributed to an inspiring global story of hope for the future.

We also provided the first-ever Conservation Legacy Awards to Enterprise Social Responsibility Director, Kim Sams (retired), and Disney Imagineer, Joe Rohde (retired). During her 31-year career with Disney, Kim helped to establish the Disney Conservation Fund and helped create the Disney Conservation Hero awards. Each of the more than 220 Heroes recognized to date have been part of the legacy of her work and we are proud to honor her leadership that contributed to the fund’s impactful 25+ year history of more than 1,000 species protected across 120 countries.

Our second Conservation Legacy Award celebrates Joe, whose inspiration and engagement on the Disney’s Animal Kingdom Advisory Board helped make the Disney Conservation Fund possible (more in our book, Carrying Forward a Conservation Legacy). In recognition of Joe’s legacy and his unique contributions to global conservation efforts through creativity and imagination, we recognized an artist, Fernando Ayerbe, as a Disney Conservation Hero for his dedication to using art to advance conservation efforts, honor cultures and inspire others to save wildlife in Colombia.

We hope you will read his story – and those of our other amazing Heroes- below, and join us in celebrating their commendable efforts to ensure a world where people, plants and animals all have a thriving place to call home.

Pedro Viteri
Nominated by Asociación Rescate y Conservación de Vida Silvestre (ARCAS) (Guatemala)

(Recognized posthumously) Pedro lived most of his life on Guatemala’s Pacific slope, passionately managing his family’s farming and ranching operations. Driven by his deep love of nature, he adopted sustainable ranching practices and reserved one-third of his property as a natural oasis for nearly 400 wildlife species in a landscape increasingly threatened by development. Pedro planted and cared for thousands of native trees on his property to serve as homes for wildlife, including his favorite bird- the critically endangered, yellow-naped parrot. Pedro and his family voluntarily joined the COLORES consortium to protect these parrots in key habitats like their farm. Despite growing threats of poachers searching for wildlife on his property, Pedro never carried a gun and preferred to talk calmly to trespassers and persuade them to leave animals alone. Tragically, in Feb. 2021 he was ambushed by poachers and lost his life as he attempted to prevent a yellow-naped parrot nest from disturbance. ARCAS, along with Pedro’s family and friends, are working to establish the family’s protected farmland as a wildlife reserve in Pedro’s honor.

John Aitchison
Nominated by Fauna & Flora International (Scotland)

A wildlife cinematographer and filmmaker by profession, John spends his limited spare time volunteering as lead spokesperson for the Coastal Communities Network Aquaculture Forum representing 14 local organizations who ensure the voices of local communities are included in decision-making about the protection of Scotland’s seas and biodiversity. John is also co-founder and lead coordinator for Friends of the Sound of Jura (FSJ)- a member organization of the Coastal Communities Network focused on helping Scottish communities preserve and enhance their outstanding natural biodiversity while promoting a sustainable local economy.  With John’s leadership, FSJ and three other network groups achieved a Mission Blue “Hope Spot” designation for the Argyll Coast and Islands, the first of its kind within Scotland and mainland UK. This designation helps to safeguard Marine Protected Areas and an important area for basking sharks, Eurasian otters and critically endangered Flapper Skates- the world’s largest skate. John’s humble and respectful nature, tenacity and inclusive approach has empowered communities and led to numerous successes for marine biodiversity.

Maurits Kafiar
Nominated by Fauna & Flora International (Indonesia)

While growing up as part of an indigenous tribe in central Papua, Maurtis’ insatiable appetite to learn about Indonesia’s landscape and wildlife led him to become one of the leading birdwatching guides in West Papua and join Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) staff as a biodiversity and livelihood officer. Maurits has been an influential pioneer in the development of Raja Ampat’s terrestrial ecotourism programs and community-based conservation initiatives that both preserve species and respect local wisdom. His infectious curiosity, friendly personality and natural storytelling skills make him a respected teacher, while his caring and inclusive approach to problem-solving minimizes friction and finds win-win solutions for everyone. Since 2016, he has helped FFI reduce bird hunting in the Waigeo Island-Raja Ampat Nature Reserve by more than 80 percent, gain support from 22 local villages to protect forests and prohibit bird poaching, facilitate sustainable development plans together with communities and even inspire bird hunters to become bird protectors.

Luis Soto
Nominated by Fundación Proyecto Tití (Colombia)

In 1991 after graduating from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Luis (or Soto, as his team knows him) learned about a job opportunity studying cotton-top tamarin monkeys with Proyecto Tití. In the 30 years that followed, Soto truly became a hero to his team and to wildlife. He recorded some of the first long-term data on cotton-tops that explained factors influencing social groups, territories, development and diet. His knowledge of the species and ability to influence people to support conservation allowed the team to lead the most extensive and accurate population surveys ever conducted for the species – resulting in their recognition as a critically endangered primate. Soto helped Proyecto Tití expand to new research sites, helped secure protected forest reserves for wildlife, trained new biologists, developed new research techniques and authored more than 30 publications. His charm, charisma and sense of humor have been an integral part of Proyecto Tití’s success; he is a gifted storyteller, an inspiration to members of his community, and a role model that continually inspires his team to reach beyond what they believe is possible. 

La Réserve des Gorilles de Tayna Team
Nominated by Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, Inc. (Democratic Republic of Congo)

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the members of La Reserve Réserve des Gorillaes (RGT) are creating a brighter future for critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas. This locally-elected community team manages the Tayna Nature Reserve, a protected area of land donated by 21 families of traditional landowners to benefit the future of wildlife, culture and people. In 2020, RGT members partnered with the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center for a milestone moment: despite challenges and delays caused by political instability, insecurity and disease outbreaks, the team trained community members to lead the first-ever great ape survey throughout the entire 900 square kilometer reserve. The results of this survey show hope for the future- Grauer’s gorillas and eastern chimpanzees are still present in the forest, and because of the RGT’s commitment, a large team of passionate community members are now trained and ready to continue this conservation success story.

Enkhburen (Buren) Nyam
Nominated by International Snow Leopard Trust (Mongolia)

Buren and his team of community rangers have spent their lives practicing traditional livestock herding in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains. In 2009, Buren became the voice of his herder community, skillfully managing a community livestock insurance and conservation program supported by Snow Leopard Trust to compensate families for livestock losses from snow leopards. And, a few years later, against overwhelming odds, Buren and the Tost community helped establish the Tost Mountains as a federally protected nature reserve. In collaboration with rangers, Buren and his team members – one from each of the seven Tost communities that live within the reserve – collectively patrol most of the 8,965 km2 reserve for illegal activity, and also collect data on wildlife. With unflinching dedication, the team ensures year-round patrolling and wildlife monitoring, using motorcycles to travel across vast and harsh landscapes. Once considering snow leopards a threat to his family’s livelihood, Buren is now a snow leopard advocate. He and his team are invaluable ambassadors for this threatened species, sharing good practices in patrolling and wildlife monitoring with rangers from other Mongolian protected areas.   

Stephano Asecheka
Nominated by Lion Landscapes (Tanzania)

Part of a community that has been known to be resistant to engaging with governments and organizations, Stephano was the first of the Barabaig community to agree to work with lion conservationists to reduce retaliatory hunting in and around his community and help to protect lions. Despite a lack of access to formal education, Stephano has shown immense dedication and commitment to conservation programs while learning a wide variety of skills including numeracy, literacy, computer fluency, and mastery of Swahili. Stephano has stayed with the project through ups and downs, and played a key role in achieving a dramatic and measurable decrease in traditional and retaliatory lion hunting in the Ruaha landscape in Tanzania; serving as a role model for local youth. When faced with angry young men who feel they will lose benefits without killing lions, or elders who worry culture is being abandoned, he works hard to allow stakeholders to understand the benefits of engaging with Lion Landscapes and working out innovative culture-inclusive solutions.

Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya
Nominated by Osa Conservation (Peru)

Ruthmery is a trilingual field biologist and role model Quecha woman supporting conservation efforts across the Americas, especially for the iconic Andean spectacled bear. After growing up on a small farm in Peru surrounded by Andean highland landscapes, she has dedicated her career to protecting wildlife and rainforests. In Peru, Ruthmery is helping to build a restoration and rewilding program to address habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict threatening Andean bears. And in Costa Rica, her botanical expertise and project leadership enabled her team to help prevent the extinction of a rare and critically endangered plant species in the cinnamon family that has only been known to scientists since 1998. Her team has carefully collected seeds from the only four mature plants found in the wild, propagated and planted them to grow the wild population of this species. She continues to advise on tree conservation efforts to protect threatened species in the Osa Peninsula.

Yolanda Rodriguez
Nominated by Osa Conservation (Costa Rica)

Yolanda is a conservation leader in her small community of Rancho Quemado on the Osa Peninsula- a biodiversity hotspot in southern Costa Rica. An entrepreneur and active member of her community, she started a family business to raise and care for native butterflies while teaching local people and visitors about the environment. She also serves on community committees to advance education, natural resource protection and make nature accessible for people with disabilities. Yolanda led the Rancho Quemado Community Biological Monitoring Group in taking on a new project to monitor and protect local herds of peccaries to protect them from hunting and deforestation in one of their last key habitats. Thanks to her leadership and dedication, the team is raising awareness and appreciation for this species through community workshops and events like the first White-lipped Peccary Festival, held in 2019. Yolanda also supported the first annual Peccary Brigade that year, engaging community members to spend 24 days tracking herds of more than 100 peccaries as they migrated to help inform conservation strategies.

Ana Beatriz Cordeiro
Nominated Posthumously by Save the Golden Lion Tamarin (Brazil)

(Recognized posthumously) Ana Beatriz dreamed that her municipality, Silva Jardim, in Rio De Janeiro state, Brazil, would one day thrive as a center for sustainable agriculture and nature conservation. She and her husband served as models for the region by sustainably managing their 500-hectare family farm and establishing two private reserves to protect wildlife including endangered golden lion tamarin monkeys. They hosted hundreds of visitors annually while teaching about sustainable agriculture, leading nature hikes, serving farm-to-table meals and inspiring a love of nature in all who visited. Ana Beatriz became a key partner to Associação Mico-Leão Dourado and Save the Golden Lion Tamarin when she learned to propagate native tree seedlings at the farm to support restoration efforts. Trees from her farm now grow throughout the region, including across Brazil’s first forested overpass that is helping golden lion tamarins safely cross an interstate highway. A genuine, loving, caring person, and the cornerstone of the sustainable development movement in Silva Jardim, Ana Beatriz led by example to inspire local people to earn forest-friendly incomes while enjoying the benefits of rural living. 

Edgar Coulson and Adonis Coulson
Nominated by WIDECAST (San Juan de Nicaragua)
Cousins Edgar and Adonis Coulson are a formidable team in protecting sea turtles along the southeastern coast of Nicaragua, an important nesting area for critically endangered hawksbill, leatherback and green sea turtles. For more than 10 years, through long, hot hikes to difficult-to-access areas of beach, broken-down vehicles and significant personal health challenges, they have remained dedicated to supporting sea turtle conservation in the region. Recognizing that local people depend on sea turtles and their eggs as an important food source to feed their families, the cousins launched a food incentive program to provide food staples to local people in exchange for protecting sea turtle nests. Participation in the program continues to increase, while turtle poaching numbers have declined. Their eagerness to take on responsibility, their ingenuity in the face of challenges and ability to engage and build relationships with community members have been invaluable, and their commitment to leading research has provided critical information to ensure El Cocal remains a healthy nesting beach for sea turtles.

Theophilus Taylor
Nominated by WIDECAST (Saint Kitts and Nevis)

Once a fisher catching 60+ sea turtles each season, today Theo volunteers as a research assistant to the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network and for the past decade has been a dedicated conservationist. A stalwart trainer, researcher and educator, he voluntarily teaches kids at Sea Turtle Camp each year, leads tours, assists with turtle rehabilitation and release, and monitors multiple species of sea turtles by shifting his personal schedule throughout the year to match their nesting seasons. He willingly takes on daunting work speaking against sea turtle fishing and illegal activities while also building strong relationships, trust and credibility among his community. Theo has not missed a week of sea turtle monitoring in the last ten years. His dedication enabled expansion of critical night patrol and anti-poaching efforts in St. Kitts and has raised awareness among kids and families about the importance of sea turtles. He meets every opportunity with a positive attitude and strong work ethic, serves as an example for children and adults, alike, and is a positive force for sea turtle protection.

Swann Htet Naing Aung
Nominated by Wildlife Conservation Society (Myanmar)

Raised at the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary in Myanmar where both his father and aunt had long, impactful careers, Swann followed in his family’s footsteps to dedicate his life to protecting wildlife. His stellar performance and unbridled enthusiasm throughout schooling and training secured him a research assistant position with Wildlife Conservation Society and Turtle Survival Alliance, and later a promotion to oversee the Burmese Star Tortoise reintroduction and conservation program at the sanctuary. Already an exceptional and dedicated leader, Swann’s selfless devotion shone after the outbreak of Covid-19 in Myanmar and the political unrest that followed, when he and his team voluntarily elected to remain in the field caring for captive tortoises, monitoring reintroduced tortoises and conducting anti-poaching patrols to ensure the program continued and the world’s most critically-endangered turtle species remained protected. Their presence enabled nearly 1,000 captive-bred tortoises to be returned to the wild during the pandemic, leading to an overall total of more than 2,000 tortoises reintroduced under Swann’s leadership to date.

William Ferrufino
Nominated by Wildlife Conservation Society (Bolivia)

William grew up surrounded by nature, forests, and bird songs in Bolivia – his favorite was the song of the endangered Palkachupa cotinga, and he learned to imitate it and recognize all the birds’ favorite nesting trees. He became an invaluable naturalist partner to organizations like Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as Armonia, a key player in establishing the Palkachupa Nature Reserve, and was also an effective park guard for Madidi National Park, the world’s most biologically diverse protected area. He has been a critical bridge between the Lecos Indigenous People and protected lands, promoting joint efforts for the benefit of all, and engaging ranchers and communities to conserve forest patches for wildlife including species like the Andean bear, Geoffroy’s woolly monkey and military macaw. William helped establish an artisan association to support local livelihoods and recycle discarded wood into wooden utensils that are provided to nearby communities. He has also been instrumental in the identification and promotion of sustainable ecotourism, scientific research and respect for indigenous cultural identity and ancestral knowledge.

Fernando Ayerbe
Nominated by Wildlife Conservation Society (Colombia)

In honor of retired Walt Disney Imagineer and Disney Conservation Fund champion Joe Rohde, Fernando is recognized as a Disney Conservation Hero this year for his dedication to using art to advance conservation efforts, honor cultures and inspire others to save wildlife. As a university student studying biology, Fernando recognized the power of scientific illustrations to support conservation decision making and cultural cohesion in both urban and rural towns. While working with various biodiversity conservation projects in Colombia, he taught himself how to draw birds and began to contribute to and author bird guides. He spent six years extensively researching to develop 3,035 illustrations for his Avifauna Colombiana (2018) bird guide, which includes all the known species of birds in Colombia. His personal quest and dedication led him to become one of the most important wildlife illustrators in Colombia. Today he uses his talent to encourage more people to learn about nature, raising awareness not only through his books, but also through his participation in congresses, workshops, projects, press, radio, television and social networks.