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Virginia McKenna Award for Compassionate Conservation – winner announced

Virginia McKenna OBE, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, has presented a prestigious  award to Jackson Mbeke, Director of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE). in recognition of his outstanding contribution to conservation.

The Virginia McKenna Award for Compassionate Conservation, now in its sixth year, is awarded to individuals and carers who place a high priority on animal welfare. The award also includes £15000 to support the protection of species under threat and to continue environmental education programmes around the world.

GRACE, established in 2009, is the world’s only sanctuary for critically endangered eastern lowland gorillas – one of the most endangered primates in the world, with only 3,800 remaining. The rehabilitation centre currently cares for 14 orphaned gorillas, rescued from poachers, with plans to return them to the wild.  GRACE also maintains 39 acres of forest for the gorillas while working with local communities on education and conservation initiatives.

As the DRC Director of GRACE, Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke manages a team of 33 Congolese who operate the award-winning gorilla sanctuary. Next year, Jackson will lead the first census in over a decade to get an accurate estimate of the number of great ape individuals that remain in one of the last strongholds.

Jackson Mbeke working in the community

Born Free Foundation Co-Founder and Trustee Virginia McKenna OBE said:

“I am delighted that Jackson Mbeke, and his life-saving work on behalf of the endangered Grauer’s gorilla, has won this award. His unswerving dedication to the conservation of these highly threatened animals, the forests they inhabit, and the communities who share those same forests, should be an inspiration to all. Together with everyone at Born Free, I am determined that by supporting outstanding individuals such as Jackson and his team – with both recognition and resources – we can help make the natural world a more compassionate and safer place.”

On winning the award, Jackson commented:

“I am honoured to receive the Virginia McKenna Award and to be recognised for the work GRACE is doing for the gorillas. Life in the DRC can be hard; for many months I could not sleep because I was worrying about the safety of our team and gorillas, but I had to take courage because the gorillas depend on us and we refuse to give up on them. This award means so much to me, the team, and the local communities we partner. I cannot thank Born Free enough. This has boosted our spirits, and we will work to multiply our efforts for gorillas.”

Dr Sonya Kahlenberg, GRACE’s Executive Director, concluded:

“Jackson has led the GRACE DRC team through a very difficult period, navigating the major challenges of armed conflict and now Ebola. But he never once considered giving up. Instead, he took things a day at a time and kept everyone focused on the important work of caring for gorillas. Truly nobody loves GRACE more than Jackson does, and I am thrilled that his outstanding dedication to gorillas and courage are being recognized by this award.”

Past winners of the prestigious Virginia McKenna Award for Compassionate Conservation include:

  • Shivani Bhalla, of the Ewaso Lions Project, for her work on human/lion conflict
  • Professor Anna Nekaris, of Oxford Brookes University and the Little Fireface Project, for her work on slow loris conservation and welfare
  • The Mad Dog Initiative, a project which aims to deliver conservation benefits to endangered species by humanely controlling domestic and feral dogs in and around Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar
  • Neotropical Primate Conservation in Peru, tackling illegal wildlife trade by partnering with wildlife authorities, police, public prosecutors and grassroots organisations.

For more information about the work of Born Free go to

Jackson Mbeke


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