Cynthia Wigren chosen finalist for international award

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Cynthia Wigren chosen finalist for international award

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Originally published in Cape Cod Today.

Recognized for community engagement in conservation

Cynthia Wigren of North Chatham has been selected by the non-profit organization Ecology Project International (EPI) as a finalist for the John Denham Award for Community Engagement in Conservation. The six finalists represent a wide array of scientists, philanthropists, and NGO leaders from around the world who share EPI’s belief that lasting conservation depends on local community engagement in the cause. The winner of this award will also receive a 5-day, 4-night stay for two at Pacuare Reserve, a biodiversity hotspot on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Legacy of John Denham

The John Denham Award honors the legacy of John Denham, who, in the late 1980s worked tirelessly to secure and protect a 4-mile stretch of Costa Rican coastline and the thousands of acres of tropical rainforest that surround it. At the time, more than 80% of endangered sea turtle nests in the area were being destroyed by poachers and natural predators. John brought in scientists, researchers, and volunteers, ultimately establishing Pacuare Reserve in 1989.

In 2000, EPI led 61 Costa Rican students to the Reserve to study leatherback sea turtles and engage in hands-on science and conservation. Many of those first students lived within five miles of the Reserve and had even eaten turtle eggs, but none had ever seen a live sea turtle or understood its importance in the ecosystem.

That first course launched a 16-year partnership between EPI, Pacuare, and the local community, and the results have been dramatic. Thanks to this partnership and ever-growing community support, the predation rate of nesting sites in the area has dropped from the staggering 80% in 1989 to less than 2% today.

EPI and Denham’s shared vision for local community support, preservation of natural habitat, and youth engagement in conservation led Denham to EPI when looking for the next stewards of Pacuare. In early 2016, Denham gifted the Reserve to EPI, and in his honor, the John Denham Award was created to celebrate individuals and organizations achieving positive impact through community engagement in local conservation efforts.

Founder of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

As founder of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC), Cynthia Wigren used her passion for shark conservation to engage the public in supporting scientific research, public safety, and shark protection. But as she reached out to the conservation and science communities with this message, she often met young girls who had been discouraged from pursuing conservation and who were often told that shark science is “only for boys.”

So, in 2014, she started the Gills Club as part of AWSC’s STEM-based education initiative. Gills Club is dedicated to connecting girls with female scientists from around the world, allowing them to share knowledge and engage in projects focused on making a significant impact on the public perception of sharks.

The Gills Club is comprised of an all-volunteer group of leading female shark and ray researchers and conservationists and has brought Q&A sessions, notes from the field, live events at local aquariums, and educational lectures to youth in order to help jump-start girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects, ultimately boosting their chances of entering careers in STEM.

The 2017 John Denham Award winner will be announced on January 31, and 2018 award applications will be accepted beginning in June. For more information on EPI or on how to apply or nominate someone for next year’s John Denham Award, visit

Ecology Project International is a conservation education non-profit like no other. They involve young people from the U.S. and Latin America in hands-on science and conservation projects that protect species and habitat in five countries. Nearly 30,000 students have participated in their field programs since 2000, with more than 70% of those participants being under-served local youth living in communities adjacent to the project site. Their impact is profound on both local and visiting students, establishing a lifelong commitment to conservation and empowering the next generation of conservation leaders.