Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s not even Superman. It’s The Penguin Protector.

Argentine conservationist Dr Pablo Borboroglu, dubbed ‘The Penguin Protector’ because of his work to conserve the world’s 18 species of the flightless bird, has today been awarded the 2023 Indianapolis Prize, known as the Nobel prize of the conservation world.

“This is a dream,” Borboroglu told BBC Science Focus. “I was so thrilled just to be nominated. Then when I got into the final, it was mind-blowing to be recognised for all the work that I've done.”

Over three decades, Borboroglu has become an internationally recognised expert on penguin ecology and conservation. He founded the Global Penguin Society in 2009 and currently serves as its president, and also co-founded the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Penguin Specialist Group. Through this work, Borboroglu has helped to protect over two and a half million penguins worldwide.

Borboroglu is the first Indianapolis Prize winner from South America, selected from a group of finalists from five different countries around the world.

He is “an extraordinary example of someone who has positively impacted the survival of a species,” Dr Robert Shumaker, President of Indianpolis Zoo, told BBC Science Focus. “His accomplishments fit perfectly for what we have always looked for and what we desire when it comes to the person who receives the Indianapolis Prize.”

Borboroglu has used his winner's platform to explain that our future is tied to penguins: “We suffer the same problems that penguins are facing – we are under threat as well.”

Penguins are excellent indicators of ocean health, including threats from climate change, plastic pollution, oil extraction, and fisheries, according to Borboroglu. Because of the vast distances of land and sea that they live in and travel across, “when you protect their habitat, you're protecting hundreds of other species that coexist with the penguins.”

Awarded by the Indianapolis Zoological Society, the winner of the prize receives $250,000 (just under £200,000): the largest monetary for conservationists award in the world. The prize aims to recognise, reward and celebrate exceptional individuals who have made a dramatic difference to a species or group of species.

“The funds will be really instrumental in speeding up a lot of conservation efforts,” Borboroglu said. As soon as he returns to Argentina after accepting the prize in London this week, he will begin a project to protect a 600,000 acre area in Patagonia.

But what is Borboroglu’s favourite species? Although he says it’s like forcing a parent to pick their favourite child, he does have a soft spot for the yellow-eyed penguin, of which there are only around 1,500 pairs left on the planet.

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About our expert

Dr Pablo Borboroglu is the founder and President of the Global Penguin Society and is the Co-Chair of the IUCN Penguin Specialist Group. In addition to the 2023 Indianapolis Prize, he won the Whitley Award in 2010 and the Segre/WFN Partnership Award in 2014.

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Noa LeachNews editor, BBC Science Focus

Noa Leach is the News editor at BBC Science Focus. With an MPhil degree in Criticism & Culture from the University of Cambridge, Noa has studied cultural responses to the climate crisis, wildlife, and toxicity. Before joining BBC Science Focus, Noa was the Editor of The Wildlife Trust BCN’s magazine Local Wildlife. Her writing has been shortlisted for the Future Places Environmental Essay Prize.