Claire Fiddian-Green: I’m inspired by this year’s Indianapolis Prize winner

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With many of the challenges we face as a society, it can feel impossible for an individual to make any kind of difference. Recently, at an event celebrating achievement in animal conservation, I was reminded of the power one person can have in changing the fates of so many, and I came away inspired and hopeful about our future.

On Sept. 30 in downtown Indianapolis, I attended a gala celebrating the recipient of the Indianapolis Prize, which is bestowed biennially by the Indianapolis Zoological Society to an animal conservationist chosen from a pool of six finalists working in countries around the globe. Each of the finalists are, to a person, remarkable individuals working tirelessly to save a specific kind of animal in places such as the Caribbean, Indonesia and Uganda. This year’s finalists have focused their efforts on preserving chimpanzees, jaguars, sea turtles, orangutans and mountain gorillas, as well as their natural habitats.

The 2023 Prize winner, Pablo “Popi” Borboroglu, works to conserve penguins, which he referred to during his acceptance speech as “excellent indicators of ocean health.” His love of penguins was inspired by his grandmother’s stories of once visiting vast penguin colonies in Patagonia, and he has devoted his life’s work to “pushing the boundaries of penguin and ocean conservation,” as he said.

Borboroglu recalled that, when he was a young man, 40,000 penguins died annually in Argentina due to oil spills. In 2009, when he founded the Global Penguin Society, there were only six breeding pairs of penguins at the El Pedral colony in Argentina. Through the society’s work to establish a wildlife refuge and reduce human impacts, 14 years later, that number has expanded to 4,000 pairs.

His work has also ensured dozens of other species of animals, birds and invertebrates are protected and allowed to flourish. What’s more, the society’s conservation efforts have helped develop thriving ecotourism sites, leading to higher employment rates for the people living in local communities.

Borboroglu radiated joy and positivity but did not shy away from sharing the sobering reality that our planet’s oceans are in trouble due to damage inflicted by humans. However, he noted this damage is reversible, and “we urgently need more brave individuals unafraid of defending nature against all odds” to make that potential outcome a reality. Borboroglu underscored the strength we can have when we put our minds to a cause. “As humans,” he said, “we possess immense power to reverse the trajectory of our planet, infusing our lives with purpose and leaving an invaluable legacy for future generations.”

What struck me most about Borboroglu’s story was that his work helped reverse a penguin population decline that at one time seemed insurmountable. Fast forward three decades, and the penguin colonies are thriving once more.

We live in a world plagued by challenges but also brimming with possibilities. To make our communities better places where every person can thrive, we need more people like Popi: people who reject apathy, identify issues that matter, and commit their lives to addressing these issues. Only then can we make headway against seemingly intractable problems like poor education, health and employment outcomes.

Congratulations to Borboroglu, the other Indianapolis Prize finalists, and the terrific Indianapolis Zoo team led by Robert Shumaker for an unforgettable event recognizing conservationists from across the globe. Indianapolis is lucky to be home to such an inspirational award and event.•

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Fiddian-Green is president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, whose mission is to advance the vitality of Indianapolis and the well-being of its people. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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