Since 1994 the Whitley Awards have been awarded annually. They are one of the largest nature conservation awards available, recognizing outstanding efforts by leading local conservationists whose work is based on sound science and which fully involves local communities.
Dr. Karen Aghababyan’s research on the white stork is focused in the Ararat Valley, home to agriculture for thousands of years. During the Soviet years the wetland areas were reduced by Government draining and although they are slowly recovering a new threat has emerged – Armenia has been granted $200 million for infrastructure development, including draining the Ararat wetlands at the base of Mount Ararat, for conversion to agriculture. For centuries the White Stork has been regarded with great affection in Europe. Although they were once prolific, the intensification of agriculture and draining of wetlands has resulted in a decline in the populations. Traditionally storks like to keep their feet wet feeding in wetlands ditches or ponds where they catch frogs, lizards and small rodents. Although many Armenians feel indifferently towards wetlands, White Storks are seen as a cultural icon. They are seldom persecuted and when storks nest close to people, on anything from telegraph poles to roofs, it is a sign of good luck. Dr. Aghababyan has made birds popular in Armenia, teaching bird identification courses in English, Russian and Armenian. Using the White Stork as a flagship species, Dr. Aghababyan launched ‘Nest Neighbors’; working with farmers and villagers, to increase public understanding of storks and their habitat. By becoming involved in wetland conservation, Armenians are starting to take notice of what is being decided for natural resource use at local, national and international levels. Now, over 500 families are involved in ‘Nest Neighbors’ and regularly monitor the stork population.
HRH The Princess Royal and Sir David Attenborough (not pictured) presented the Whitley Award to Dr. Karen Aghababyan in 2007 at London’s Royal Geographical Society. It was the first time anyone from Armenia has won the Award.