Press Release

Announcing the National Geographic Society’s 2021 Award Honorees

Meet the 2021 award recipients. The four individuals will be honored during the virtual 2021 Explorers Festival.

Each year, the National Geographic Society recognizes trailblazers whose commitment to innovation and excellence are making astonishing contributions in the fields of science, conservation, education, technology, and storytelling.

This year’s award recipients have defined some of the critical challenges of our time, driven new knowledge, advanced cutting-edge solutions, and inspired transformative and global change. From protecting wildlife in Kenya and Costa Rica to establishing the most marine protected areas on the planet, our honorees have made and continue to make astonishing contributions to protect our planet and enhance the lives of those who call it home.

The awards will be presented to these individuals this week at the Society’s annual Explorers Festival, which is hosted in partnership with Rolex in the framework of its Perpetual Planet initiative.

We are pleased to introduce you to the four honorees who have tirelessly supported the Society’s mission to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world—all while inspiring the Explorer in each of us.

The Hubbard Medal

The Most prestigious among National Geographic’s awards, the Hubbard Medal is awarded to individuals for the highest distinction in exploration, scientific research, and discovery. The award most often celebrates years of ground-breaking achievements in a particular field or discipline. The 2021 Hubbard Medal awardee is Enric Sala.

Enric Sala is a former university professor who saw himself writing the obituary of ocean life, and quit academia to become a full-time conservationist as a National Geographic Explorer in Residence. He founded and leads National Geographic Pristine Seas, a project that combines exploration, research, and media to inspire country leaders to protect critical areas of the ocean. To date, Pristine Seas has helped to create 23 of the largest marine reserves on the planet, covering an area of more than 6 million square km. He has earned numerous honors for his work, including 2008 World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader, 2013 Explorers Club Lowell Thomas Award, 2013 Environmental Media Association Hero Award, 2016 Russian Geographical Society Award, and 2018 Heinz Award in Public Policy. He is the author of the award-winning book The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Sala earned a B.S. in Biology from the University of Barcelona and a Ph.D. in ecology from Aix-Marseille University, France.

Rolex National Geographic Explorer Of The Year

The Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award is given to an individual whose actions, achievements, and spirit push the boundaries of leadership in exploration, and who shows a commitment to share this knowledge with the world. It recognizes a member of the National Geographic Explorer community who shines a critical light on important issues, discoveries, and challenges facing our planet, and inspires the world to act on behalf of a more sustainable future. The 2021 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of The Year is Paula Kahumbu.

Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect and leads the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign with Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the first lady of the Republic of Kenya. The campaign is widely recognized for its successes in advocacy and the engagement of people in Kenya to support the protection of elephants. She received a special commendation from the United Nations for her critical role in creating awareness and mobilizing action around the crisis facing elephants in Kenya. She is also recognized as a Kenyan conservation ambassador by Brand Kenya and in 2015 received the presidential award and title of Order of the Grand Warrior. Kahumbu received a Ph.D. in ecology at Princeton University where she studied elephants in coastal Kenya.

The National Geographic/Buffett Awards For Leadership In Conservation

The National Geographic/Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation were established in partnership with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to recognize and celebrate unsung conservation heroes. Two awards are presented each year: one for achievement in Africa and the other for achievement in Latin America. These outstanding individuals have demonstrated leadership in managing and protecting the natural resources in their regions and countries, and are inspirational conservation advocates who serve as role models and mentors. The recipients of the 2021 National Geographic/Buffett Awards or Leadership In Conservation are Abdullahi Ali (Africa) and Bernal Rodríguez-Herrera (Latin America).

A Kenyan wildlife biologist, Abdullahi Ali is the founder of the Hirola Conservation Programme, which addresses the silent extinction of the rare and critically endangered hirola antelope in areas along the Kenyan-Somali border. He is a Zoological Society of London EDGE Fellow, a member of the IUCN/SSC Antelope Specialist Group, and a member of Kenya’s Hirola Management Committee and Giraffe Task Force. He also serves as the Kenya chapter president for the Society for Conservation Biology. In recognition of his work, Ali has received a Whitley Fund for Nature Award, EDGE Hero Award, Hornaday Conservation Award, Disney Conservation Hero Award, and Garissa County (Kenya) Conservation Award. He holds a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Wyoming.

Bernal Rodríguez-Herrera is a professor in the University of Costa Rica School of Biology, the first director of the Center for Biodiversity and Tropical Ecology Research, and a National Museum of Costa Rica board member. He was also one of the founding associates and president of the Tirimbina Biological Reserve in Costa Rica, which includes the Tirimbina Wildlife Refuge. As coordinator of the Costa Rica Bat Conservation Program, he was co-founder and general coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for the Conservation of Bats. The author of over 90 scientific articles and two books, he has won a Bernardo Villa Award (North American Society for Bat Research), Whitley Award (Whitley Fund for Nature), and Aldo Leopold Award (American Society of Mammalogists).

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About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 15,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.