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Kent student receives UNESCO award for great ape conservation

Inogwabini Bila-Isia, a PhD student in Biodiversity Management at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), University of Kent, has won a UNESCO Young Scientist of the Year Award 2006 to continue his study of endangered great apes in his native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Bila’s research is focused on a large and recently discovered population of pygmy chimpanzees or bonobos (Pan paniscus) – the least known of the six species of great ape, all of which are listed as critically endangered – living in swamp forest in the Lac Tumba landscape. This area supports a high density of bonobos, which live among some indigenous groups who revere bonobos as holding the spirits of their ancestors.

Inogwabini Bila-Isia said, ‘I am honoured that UNESCO has recognised my contribution to great ape conservation with this award. I am also eternally grateful for the opportunities that my generous sponsors have offered me to study at DICE.’

Bila first came to Kent in 1996-1997 to read for an MSc in Conservation Biology as a Darwin Initiative Scholar. That year his family faced untold tensions, as civil war in the then Zaire saw his country change to DRC. Nevertheless, Bila remained focused on his studies and later won the Maurice Swingland Prize, awarded to the best Masters student of his year in DICE.

After graduation, Bila returned home to work on conservation projects for a range of organisations on species such as elephants and bonobos. However, he always harboured ambitions to continue his studies for a PhD and these were realised when he won a Beinecke African Scholarship from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which he took up in 2004. He has since also won a Charlotte Program Fellowship from the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) in 2006.

Professor Nigel Leader-Williams, Director of DICE and Bila’s PhD supervisor was among the first to offer congratulations. ‘I am delighted that Inogwabini’s work has been recognised by UNESCO,’ he said. ‘He had already joined an increasing number of young and emerging African conservationists who have been awarded prestigious fellowships from conservation organisations such as WCS, AWF and the World Wildlife Fund to study for their PhDs at DICE. Inogwabini’s UNESCO award further helps stress the importance of DICE’s mission to build capacity, thereby helping African conservationists to play an increasing role in saving their continent’s endangered species.’

Bonobos were only described to science in 1928 and have a limited distribution in a large curve of the Congo River.

Karen Baxter | alfa
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