Conservation charity honors campaign to save Costa Rica’s hammerhead sharks from illegal fishing

Nine years of research by Ilena, Co-founder of Misión Tiburón, has proven the further significance of the site as key nursery habitat for juvenile scalloped hammerhead sharks.


A conservationist striving to protect hammerhead sharks in Costa Rica has been honored with a prestigious Whitley Award* by HRH The Princess Royal on May 1.

Ilena Zanella, Co-founder of marine conservation organization Misión Tiburón (Shark Mission), is working to protect scalloped hammerhead sharks from illegal fishing.


Her work is based in the Golfo Dulce, located at the South of the Province of Puntarenas. one of the only four tropical fjords in the world where the nutrient cycle means its waters teem with wildlife, including whales and dolphins.

Following nine years of research and shark tagging in the area, Ilena proved the site is a crucial nursery habitat for young scalloped hammerhead sharks. The site was declared a Scalloped Hammerhead Shark Sanctuary in May 2018 due to her research, including a 4,000-hectare “no-take” zone – this is the first shark sanctuary in Costa Rica.

Sharks are under constant threat from illegal fishing in the coastal wetlands of Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce. Young sharks are vulnerable to a variety of nets, while in oceanic waters, adults are captured by longlines.

The GOLFO DULCE is one of only four tropical fjords in the world. The unique nutrient cycling at this site means its waters are teeming with life.

With her Whitley Award, Ilena will work with local communities to reduce the use of juvenile scalloped hammerheads as fishing bait and improve detection of illegal fishing activity. She aims to strengthen relationships between coastguards and fishers to halve illegal catch of hammerheads, and plans to establish an Education Station to engage students in conservation.

“During my early work I visited many fishing communities, and in almost every community I visited, I found dead juvenile hammerhead sharks. This alarmed me a lot and, since then, I started to work on the identification and protection of hammerhead nursery areas. With my Whitley Award, I hope to engage communities in the protection of the scalloped hammerhead shark and I would like the local people to feel proud of the new Golfo Dulce sanctuary,” said Ilena.

Ilena collaborates with other Whitley Award winners to strengthen protection for hammerheads throughout their life across the Eastern Tropical Pacific corridor – a swim-way which connects migratory shark populations in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama.

“The conservation of marine life has been a popular topic in the media thanks to programmes like Blue Planet II. We’re especially honored to be supporting Ilena and her organization, which is committed to protecting sharks from the beginning of their life, ensuring safe natural habitats for them to grow and develop, in collaboration with other Whitley Award winners in Latin America,” said Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature.

Whitley Award winners each receive £40,000 (US$52,000 dollars) in funding to support their work to conserve some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular natural habitats.

The prize is accompanied by a boost in profile, helping winners to leverage new connections and further funding.

This year’s Whitley Gold Award honors Prof Jon Paul Rodríguez of Venezuela who co-founded his NGO, Provita, 30 years ago to conserve the country’s threatened wildlife, including the nationally Endangered yellow-shouldered parrot.

After receiving his Whitley Award in 2003, today the parrot is on the road to recovery in Jon Paul’s project site – with record numbers of parrots flying the nest in 2018. Elsewhere, however, populations continue to fall due to heavy poaching of this pretty polly for the pet trade.

With his Whitley Gold Award, Jon Paul will scale up his work by developing a multi-country strategy to protect the yellow-shouldered parrot across its entire range, working in collaboration with other Whitley Award winners. Jon Paul is Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, an internationally influential role in conservation which makes him uniquely positioned to deliver this project.

The 2019 Whitley Award winners are:

  • Caleb Ofori-Boateng – Critical refuge for the Togo slippery frog, Ghana
  • Nikolai Petkov –  Wetlands on the brink: conserving the red-breasted goose, Bulgaria
  • Vatosoa Rakotondrazafy – MIHARI: a civil society movement to safeguard marine resources, Madagascar
  • José  Sarasola – The Chaco eagle: a flagship for semiarid wildlife conservation, Argentina
  • Wendi Tamariska – Protecting orangutans and rainforests through sustainable livelihoods, Indonesia (Borneo)
  • Ilena Zanella – Strengthened sanctuary for the scalloped hammerhead shark, Costa Rica

The 2019 Whitley Gold Award winner is:

  • Jon Paul Rodríguez – A range-wide plan for the yellow-shouldered parrot


*The Whitley Awards – also known as Green Oscars – are prestigious international prizes presented to individuals in recognition of their achievements in nature conservation. Each Award Winner receives a prize worth £40,000 in project funding over one year. The charity’s Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, presents the Awards annually at a special ceremony in London.

Whitley Fund for Nature

The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK-registered charity that champions outstanding grassroots leaders in nature conservation across the Global South.

Since its founding in 1993, the Whitley Fund for Nature has given nearly £16 million (US$21 million dollars) to support the work of over 200 conservation leaders benefiting wildlife and communities in over 80 countries.

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