West African conservationist Iroro Tanshi has received the 2023 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. She was honored during a ceremony at UCLA’s Hershey Hall on Oct. 26.

Tanshi won the award for her work conserving the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and Cross River National Park, West Africa’s last two primary forests that have survived since the last ice age.

“This is not just for me this is for all of us and for the nominees,” Tanshi said, adding that “nature” was the biggest winner.

The Pritzker Award, which is presented annually, carries a prize of $100,000 that is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators in their early career — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Tanshi implemented an effective wildfire prevention program, informed by ecology research and community input, to warn people against dangerous burning activities on high fire risk days. Like many places around the world, West African forests are threatened by wildfires that are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change. Logging and poaching pose additional threats to the forest ecosystems.

Tanshi is co-director of the Small Mammal Conservation Organization, a community-led program that safeguards local livelihoods while protecting at-risk species such as drill monkeys and the short-tailed roundleaf bat.

Having grown up in a small oil town in southern Nigeria, she witnessed firsthand the destructive effects of the petroleum industry on the Niger Delta. She found a passion for ecology and bat conservation before shifting her focus to conserving the broader ecosystems in West Africa. She hopes to expand her efforts further across the continent by working with other community-oriented conservation and research organizations.

“My team has moved from just one or two staff to 75 people” in the past five years, Tanshi said. “This army of people staffing the field will work together to change firescapes, which is what they are, back to forest-scapes.”

Tanshi was nominated by Timothy Watkins Sr., president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life of South Los Angeles residents.

The other two finalists for the award were Juan Carlos Monterrey Gómez, executive director of environmental nonprofit Geoversity, and Hana Raza, chairperson of Leopards Beyond Borders.  

The panel of judges who chose Tanshi as this year’s winner was made up of Antonio Bernardo, dean of UCLA Anderson School of Management; Darnell Hunt, UCLA executive vice chancellor and provost; Jeanne Holm, deputy mayor of finance and innovation for the city of Los Angeles; Hans Mehn, a partner at Generation Investment Management; and Abel Valenzuela Jr., interim dean of social sciences and a professor at UCLA.

Tanshi received the Pritzker Award from UCLA Dean of Physical Sciences Miguel Garcia-Garibay. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who was also in attendance, noted the importance of the moment to the university in his remarks.

“One of our university’s great roles is to act as a convener — bringing together brilliant minds from diverse backgrounds to better understand and address the world’s pressing challenges,” Block said. “This award is a perfect example of that.”