In 1960, British biologist and first Director General of UNESCO, Sir Julian Huxley, went to East Africa to advise UNESCO on wildlife conservation in the area. He was appalled at what he saw. On his return to London, he wrote 3 articles for The Observer newspaper in which he warned the British public that habitat was being destroyed and animals hunted at such a rate that much of the region's wildlife could disappear within the next 20 years.
The articles hit home. They alerted readers to the fact that nature conservation was a serious issue. Huxley received a number of letters from concerned members of the public. Among these was a letter from businessman Victor Stolan, who pointed out the urgent need for an international organization to raise funds for conservation.
But Stolan stressed that he was not in a position to launch such an organization himself. Huxley therefore contacted ornithologist Max Nicholson, Director General of Britain's Nature Conservancy, who took up the challenge with enthusiasm.
By spring 1961, Nicholson had gathered together a group of scientists and advertising and public relations experts, all committed to establishing an organization of the kind Stolan had suggested. Prominent among those experts was another ornithologist Peter Scott, a vice-president of IUCN, who was later to become the new organization's first chairman.
The group decided to base its operations in neutral Switzerland, where IUCN had already transferred its headquarters to a villa in the small town of Morges on the northern shores of Lake Geneva.
On the 29th April 1961 they produced the Morges Manifesto (PDF 750kb). The founding document which signaled the very beginning of WWF as we know it today.
IUCN welcomed this fledgling organization:
"Together," both parties agreed, "we will harness public opinion and educate the world about the necessity for conservation."
Meanwhile, Chi-Chi the panda had arrived at London Zoo. Aware of the need for a strong, recognizable symbol that would overcome all language barriers, the group agreed that the big, furry animal with her appealing, black-patched eyes, would make an excellent logo. The black and white panda has since come to stand as a symbol for the conservation movement as a whole.
WWF was registered as a charity on 11 September 1961 and so the international fund-raising mission could formally begin.
The founders decided that the most efficient approach would be to set up offices in different countries. They therefore launched National Appeals, which would send up to two-thirds of the funds raised to the international secretariat in Morges (now known as WWF International), and keep the remainder to spend on conservation projects of their own choice.
WWF planned to work, wherever possible, with existing non-governmental organizations, and base its grants on the best scientific knowledge available a policy which has been adhered to ever since. Its first grants went to IUCN, the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP, now Birdlife International), the International Waterfowl Research Bureau, and the International Youth Federation for the Study and Conservation of Nature.
The first National Appeal, with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh as President, was launched in the United Kingdom on 23 November 1961. On 1 December, it was followed by the United States, and a few days later, Switzerland.
Since then, WWF has grown considerably.
National Appeals are now known as National Organizations. Twenty-four of these are affiliated to WWF International, while five organizations which operate under a different name are associated with WWF. Each National Organization is a separate legal entity, responsible to its own Board and accountable to its donors. WWF International itself is accountable to the National Organizations, donors, and the Swiss authorities. Most of the members of WWF International's Board and committees are drawn from the Boards and Chief Executive Officers of the National Organizations. WWF also has programme offices throughout the world and representatives in many countries.
In its first three years, WWF raised and donated almost US$1.9 million to conservation projects. Much of this money was given by individuals, moved by newspaper articles such as a seven-page feature on the organization in the Daily Mirror newspaper which provoked the British public to send in £60,000 within a week of its publication.
Some of the early grants, such as those to IUCN and ICBP, were large. Another substantial donation went to the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galápagos Islands. WWF still funds projects in the Galápagos, and has helped the Ecuadorean government to establish the Galápagos National Park, control introduced species which threaten the islands' rare indigenous plants and animals, and set up research training and education programmes. The Galápagos Islands could now stand as an example of the way low-impact tourism can be integrated with research, development, and conservation initiatives.
Many grants, however, were small. In 1962, WWF gave US$131 "to enable Mr E P Gee of Upper Shillong, Assam, to visit the Rann of Kutch to ascertain the total numbers and present trends of the population of Indian wild ass." Mr Gee found 870. By 1975, numbers had dropped to 400 and the wild ass seemed to be on the verge of extinction. So a rescue mission was launched, a wild ass sanctuary established, and by the mid-1980s, the population had risen to an impressive total of well over 2,000.
Other early grants went to provide a road grader and rotary mower for Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve; to fund a survey of Costa Rica's few remaining white bearded spider monkeys; and to enable Professor Kim Hon Kyu, chairman of the Korean Section of the ICBP to go to an ICBP conference in New York and attend the first ever World Conference on National Parks in Seattle.
In 1969, WWF joined forces with the Spanish government to purchase a section of the Guadalquivir Delta marshes and establish the Coto Doñana National Park. This important wetland area, one of the last refuges of the Spanish imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx, is constantly threatened by schemes to increase local agricultural output and tourism. WWF still supports Coto Doñana, and is fighting proposals to drain the marshes and syphon off water to irrigate agricultural land along the coast and to expand tourist facilities.