The sixth edition of the Nat Award is honouring Itsaso Vélez del Burgo, a primatologist and the technical director of the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Centre (LPRC) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for her primate conservation work, which she combines with humanitarian work in a country ravaged by war, famine and persecution.
The award ceremony was held at the Natural Sciences Museum of Barcelona, where Itsaso Vélez del Burgo gave the lecture titled “Challenges for the conservation of the great apes in the Democratic Republic of Congo”.
The Nat Award was created in 2018 in commemoration of the Museum’s 140th anniversary. This prize, consisting of €5,000, aims to honour individuals or institutions that offer a new approach to promoting public awareness of the natural sciences, contributing to the creation of new vocations in science and nature conservation. The Nat Award is presented annually to local or international individuals or institutions.
The Nat Award Jury is made up of:
- Mònica Artigas, a journalist and the Deputy Director of the Magazine Area at National Geographic
- Carlota Bruna, an influencer and environmental and animal rights activist
- David Bueno, Head of the Chair of Neuroeducation at the University of Barcelona
- Carles Lalueza, Director of the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona and researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology of Barcelona.
- Gemma Marfany, Tenured Professor of Genetics at the University of Barcelona.
- Juli Peretó, Tenured Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Valencia.
Itsaso Vélez del Burgo
The winner of the 2023 Nat Award, Itsaso Vélez del Burgo, currently serves as the technical director of the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Centre (LPRC), located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She first came to the centre in 2014 to spend six months as a volunteer, and 9 years later, she continues to work at the institution, which houses 127 chimpanzees and 126 monkeys of 16 different species, as well as parrots, tortoises and porcupines.
Itsaso Vélez del Burgo earned her university degree in environmental sciences at the University of Barcelona and went on to complete a master’s degree in primatology in the School of Psychology of the same university. Her keen sensitivity for all types of animals can be seen as far back as her early childhood: she often went looking for insects in distress that she could save; and she dreamed of one day working with animals as an adult. She found them all interesting. After completing her studies in Barcelona, she went to work at the Tropical Research Centre of the University of Veracruz, Mexico, to research howler monkeys (2011-2012). Later, her career would lead her to the Nimba Mountains in the Republic of Guinea, where she would study the behaviour of wild chimpanzees (2012-2013) for the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute (KUPRI).
The Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Centre is located in the east of the Republic of Congo, just 4 kilometres from Kahuzi-Biega National Park. While this park is one of the most important places in the world for the protection of the eastern chimpanzee, it is also one of the most violent and conflict-ridden areas on the planet, due to the Second Congo War. That conflict (1998-2004) gave rise to the proliferation of weapons and poverty in an enormous zone. The government’s consequential failure to safeguard the region’s protected natural areas created an ideal setting for poaching and illegal pet trafficking. To address this issue, the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Centre (LPRC) was founded in 2002 by two Congolese institutions: the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles (CRSN).
The life stories of the chimpanzees and other primates that make their way to the LPRC are all very similar: the poachers kill the adults for their meat and the offspring are trafficked on the international market, where they are used in the entertainment industry, laboratories, zoos or as pets.
Vélez del Burgo monitors the primates’ behaviour, participates in different research projects, raises funds for the sanctuary, handles the centre’s economic management and outreach, and manages the centre’s staff of 55 people, only three of whom are ex-pats. The centre has created a human development programme for the conservation of the great apes because, as stated on the LPRC website, it is impossible to look after the animals without looking after the local human community, which is plagued by violence and poverty. For example, women who have been victims of rape have managed to overcome their trauma by caring for the primate babies, who, like human babies, require a mother’s care 24 hours a day during the first years of life. This exchange is portrayed in the documentary film Mama, which was created at the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Centre and which received the Goya Award for Best Documentary Short Film in 2022. The same year, National Geographic magazine published an in-depth report on the important work of the LPRC in giving a second chance at life to both the animals and the local people.