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International Animal Rescue Saving animals from suffering around the world

Karmele Llano Sanchez is Honoured with Prestigious Award

We are delighted to announce that Karmele Llano Sanchez, Program Director of International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia, alongside local authorities, has been honoured with an award from the BBVA Foundation in the 15th edition of their Biodiversity Conservation Awards.

Working with the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry (KLHK) and the National Park Authorities, Bilbao-born veterinarian Karmele Llano Sanchez, received the award for “taking an innovative and integrated approach to protecting the biodiversity of Borneo and the island’s iconic species, among them the orangutan.”

The BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation distinguish nature conservation initiatives based on best scientific knowledge and pursuing outcomes of broad and lasting impact.

Its Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation was awarded to IAR Indonesia, working with the KLHK and the National Park authorities, specifically “for taking an innovative and integrated approach to protecting the biodiversity of Indonesia's Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, in Borneo,” and “various of its iconic species,” among them the orangutan. The jury also lauded IAR Indonesia for its “long-term conservation strategies in an ecosystem.”

The protection of nature is an ongoing priority for the BBVA Foundation, which for over twenty years has supported research in ecology and conservation biology, conservationist projects based on scientific evidence, and the communication of knowledge and mobilising of social awareness around diverse facets of conservation. The runaway decline in biodiversity afflicting our planet means we depend more than ever on the people and organisations working to achieve meaningful, lasting outcomes in the protection of nature, like the winners in the fifteen editions of the BBVA Foundation Biodiversity Conservation Awards.

Established in 2004, until their 12th edition these annual awards were organised into three categories, two of them devoted to projects in Spain and Latin America. Since 2018, this latter category has been replaced by another recognising conservation projects of particular significance and impact undertaken in any country. The third category, finally, recognises endeavours in communicating the best available knowledge and raising awareness on the multidimensional issue that is conservation.

The awards for projects in Spain and worldwide each come with a cash prize of 250,000 euros, while the communication award is funded with 80,000 euros, giving a combined monetary amount that is among the largest of any international prize scheme. The jury deciding the awards is made up of scientists working in the environment field, communicators, experts in areas like environmental law and policymaking, and representatives of conservationist NGOs who bring to the table complementary viewpoints on nature conservation.

“In order to rescue animals, you first have to rescue humans.” This is how Karmele Llano Sanchez (born in Bilbao in 1978) describes the conservation strategy deployed by IAR Indonesia, with particular attention to one of its emblematic, and critically endangered species: the orangutan. “It’s a region with widespread poverty,” says Llano, “where indigenous communities have no access to either healthcare or education.” In awareness of this, IAR, according to the jury granting it the Worldwide Biodiversity Conservation Award, has led a project privileging the “empowerment of local people” as a means to halt the degradation of the ecosystem harbouring Borneo’s orangutan population, “beset by deforestation due to the advance of palm oil cultivation.”

Between 1999 and 2015, over 100,000 of Borneo’s orangutans were lost as a consequence of habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching and wildlife trafficking. Without action to stem the decline, it is reckoned that by 2025, 82% of the population will be extinct. The goal of IAR Indonesia, working in conjunction with the KLHK and the National Park authorities, is to prevent the disappearance of these great apes and other unique species that inhabit Borneo, among them the proboscis monkey and the clouded leopard, through a conservation programme in the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, occupying 200,000 hectares of tropical rainforest of immense conservation value. “This zone is known as the heart of Borneo,” Llano points out. “It is an area supremely rich in biodiversity, with many plants and animals found nowhere else. If they go extinct here, they disappear from the face of our planet.”

After graduating in veterinary medicine from the University of León, Llano, who admits to a lifelong love of “all animals, but especially wildlife,” took the decision in 2003 to move to Indonesia to take part in a volunteer scheme for the rescue and recovery of orangutans. “It was planned to be just a short trip,” she recalls, “but it changed my whole life, as I chose to devote myself completely to the programme.” Three years later, she and her husband Argitoe Ranting – an Indonesian also involved in the protection of these primates – founded a local NGO which in 2007 concluded a collaboration agreement with International Animal Rescue, an international organisation engaged in conservation work with threatened species in several countries. Today, IAR Indonesia, led by Llano, has 250 people working in biodiversity conservation in Borneo.

“Our project uses a holistic approach,” Karmele explains. “Initially we confined ourselves to the rescue and reintroduction of orangutans displaced by habitat loss and fragmentation, but we later realised that these efforts would come to nothing if we didn’t lend support to local communities.”

Since its creation, working with the KLHK and the National Park authorities, IAR Indonesia has restored to the forest 46 rescued orangutans that have successfully readapted to life in the wild. But furthermore, IAR Indonesia have launched a support programme focused on the healthcare, education and employment of local indigenous communities as a way to halt deterioration of the ecosystem that sustains the great apes. “In rich countries,” she explains, “we suffer a disconnect that blinds us to the reality of these communities. They, by contrast, lack even the bare essentials and the conservation of nature is a luxury, because they face hardship on a daily basis and their first priority is to preserve themselves.”

Thanks to her organisation’s efforts, some 70 local people now work for IAR in the rescue and recovery of orangutans.

“These animals never cease to amaze me,” says Llano. The Spanish vet and her team have been privileged to observe orangutan mothers teaching their young in what she calls “the forest school”: proof that these primates have a culture, in the sense that knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation. “The infants learn by imitation what can or cannot be eaten, their mothers or other adults teach them about the dangers of the forest, such as reptiles, and they are even instructed on how to make a bed out of branches and leaves.” For all these reasons, says Llano, “not respecting orangutans is almost like not respecting our own species, because of how close they are to us.”