Five decades of innovation for conservation

Posted on 20 April 2011

From communities to governments to multinational corporations, we’ve helped transform people’s attitudes and approaches to conservation – including our own.
From communities to governments to multinational corporations, we’ve helped transform people’s attitudes and approaches to conservation – including our own.

Today, world leaders make high level commitments to conserve wildlife, and governments have environment ministers as a matter of course. Corporations have whole departments devoted to reducing their environmental impact. Billions of dollars are spent on projects to conserve, protect and restore natural habitats.

Scientific research into the state of the environment makes headlines around the world. Every day, millions of people like you are doing what they can to reduce their impact on the planet.

When WWF was founded, none of this was the case. Over the last 50 years, we’ve contributed to the change in the way people think about the world. We continue to pioneer actions that really make a difference. And we’re constantly learning from our own experience to improve the way we do things.

What’s at stake?

In the 1990s, we set ourselves an ambitious mission: to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. 

But, despite our many successes, the scale of the challenge continues to grow. Some 85% of the world’s fisheries are exploited to the limit, or beyond. Each year, 13 million hectares of forests are lost. Rivers are running dry. Species are in decline and going extinct. The impacts of climate change are already being felt.
To rise to these challenges, we need conservation to become more ambitious, far-reaching and effective than ever before.

The story so far

Our approach to conservation has come a long way in the last 50 years. Some of the things we’re doing include:

Influencing governments
Through campaigns and debate, we’ve convinced governments across the world to take conservation seriously.

When WWF was founded, ministers responsible for the natural environment were an extremely rare species. We lobbied governments in many countries to establish these positions; today, environment ministries are found throughout the world. 

In recent years, we’ve helped bring together heads of state to launch ambitious conservation plans – to conserve the forests of the Congo Basin and Borneo, to safeguard the marine life of the Coral Triangle in the Indo-Pacific, to save the tiger

Sustainable development
In 1980 we published the World Conservation Strategy together with IUCN and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This pioneering publication highlighted the importance of using natural resources sustainably and the benefits of conservation to people. The UN Secretary General endorsed the strategy, and more than 50 countries created their own national conservation strategies based on its recommendations

The report’s ideas gave birth to the concept of sustainable development – which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – as adopted and promoted by the UN. Ever since, whether lobbying governments or working in communities, we’ve striven to put this into practice.

Business and the environment
We’ve worked with leading companies to show that profitable businesses need to look after the environment they depend on.

Working with industry is essential if we’re to manage our natural resources in a sustainable way. We’ve set standards that have massively improved standard operating procedures in key industries – for example, by establishing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Financing conservation: We’ve become a world leader in finding ways of financing conservation over the long term.

In the early 1980s, we devised debt-for-nature swaps – agreements that allow developing countries to reduce their foreign debt by investing in conservation projects. Debt-for-nature swaps WWF arranged have funded work to conserve the Amazon and Congo basin rainforests, unique species in Madagascar and the peat forests of Sumatra, among others.

We’ve helped create more than 55 conservation trust funds worldwide, worth more than US$1 billion, for investing in ways to manage natural resources sustainably. With UN agencies and the World Bank for example, we created a fund to restore and support fisheries in Africa.

Living Planet Report
Governments, businesses and individuals are increasingly aware of the impact human activities have on the environment – and how this affects human well-being. We’ve provided the evidence with our Living Planet Report, which we produce every two years, developed along with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network.

The latest report shows that biodiversity has declined by 30% since 1970. At the same time, our use of renewable natural resources such as forests, water and fisheries has increased – we now use 50% more than the Earth can supply, while many people in industrialized nations live as though they have the resources of three or four planets at their disposal. We’re working with governments around the world to promote the idea the idea of a “one planet” economy.

The Global 200
Faced with limited time and resources, we’ve had to carefully prioritize what we do.  We developed the Global 200 – a science-based ranking of the most outstanding regions, representing the full diversity of life on Earth. By focusing on these regions, which are crucial for maintaining biodiversity and natural processes, we’re making sure our conservation work has the biggest impact.

Did you know?

More than a third of Asia-Pacific CEOs and over half of Latin American CEOs say they’re concerned about how biodiversity loss will affect their business – compared to less than a fifth of Western European CEOs.

Facts and stats

  • 44,515 sq km – area of rainforest Colombia will protect as the result of a debt-for-nature swap with the United States
  • 55 – conservation trust funds throughout the world
  • 1/8 – proportion of the world’s seafood certified by the MSC

What next?

Some might think global corporations that buy and produce things like paper, palm oil, beef, cotton and soy are the enemies of conservation. Our aim is to make them the biggest allies.

Our Market Transformation Initiative is targeting 100 of the companies that can have the biggest influence on the way key commodities are produced, particularly in important places like the tropical forests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Indonesia.

We’ve already developed partnerships with 23 of the top 100 companies, and are in discussions with 44 of the remainder. Sustainably produced wood products (through the FSC) and seafood (through the MSC) already have a significant market share. And we’re starting to make progress in other areas, like responsible palm oil and better cotton.

Our aim is to push the markets for each of our priority commodities to a tipping point where sustainable trade becomes the norm.

What you can do

Join the myWWF Action Center
Be part of a global community of activists ready to take simple online actions that can help save wildlife and people. Sign up today!


From coal to clean. Wind and solar power generation provides a clean alternative for future generations. Sydney, Australia.
© Adam Oswell / WWF
Jim Leape, CEOs Club Dinner, Istanbul, Turkey.
© WWF / Elma Okic
Woman, Bio gas village, Chitwan, Nepal.
© Simon de TREY-WHITE / WWF-UK