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Interview took place in November 2005
Ex-Director General of WWF International
  • If you had US$10 million to spend on a conservation project - what would you spend it on?
  • How did you get involved in Conservation?
  • What advice would you give to someone wanting to work for you?
  • If you had US$ 10 million to spend now on a conservation project – what would you spend it on?
    The topic of the environment is on the decline – it has largely disappeared from the news headlines as compared to the early 90s. Too often the environment is only relevant to the media when it is related to money, rather than because of the issues per se.

    My conviction is to therefore build media capacity – to invest such money in resurrecting a new class of good environmental journalists and editors, by supporting relevant courses and or organisations. We only stand a chance to save the world if many more people are convinced of the need to do so – and for this we need the media, we need the people who report the stories that we all listen to. This is a matter that is close to my heart.

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    How did you get involved in conservation? What path did you take?
    I am a biologist, and as such I have always been interested in life. This probably stems from my curiosity as a child. You see, I was fortunate that my mother encouraged my curiosity – never complaining when I returned home with my pockets full of rain worms and snails, and complaining of the mud on my shoes.

    Most biologists will talk of the emotional roots that started them off, and these roots are founded in curiosity. As such I believe parents should further the natural curiosity that exists in every single human being.

    So, this curiosity led me to do an MSc in Biology, in Zurich, and, with a passion for wanting to see the world, I met a lecturer who told me about this species of deer in central India, of which only 50 were left.

    So off I went, with an income that was barely enough to feed myself, living in a little hut for 2 years while studying the barasingha deer (Cervus duvaucelii) and finding out why its numbers had declined to such a perilous state. On the basis of my findings after those 2 years, they changed the management regime for the whole of the central Indian forests region where the deer still existed. And their numbers started to rise.

    After that, I went to West Africa to manage a National Park in Ghana. It was here that I became deeply involved in tropical forestry, and on which I subsequently wrote a book.

    This is also where I got my management experience, as I had to get involved in a form of colonial bureaucracy which the Africans had subsequently “refined” – it was a great learning experience.

    When I returned to Europe, I became CEO of WWF Switzerland, but I kept my hand in Africa, helping WWF International set up the Madagascar programme, and performing evaluations for country programmes such as Cameroon.

    Towards the late 80s, environmental issues became globalized as climate change debates began in the US congress over concerns that the drought in the mid-west at that time, and other phenomena, may be caused by man’s influence on the climate.

    This globalization of issues had a clear impact on NGOs like WWF. We realised we had to get involved in policy work, not just field work. So I joined a little group of CEOs and we formed WWFs modern mission, which took us more in the direction of making links between policy and biodiversity issues. Following this, I was asked to become CEO of WWF International itself.

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    What advice would you give to someone who wanted to work for your organization?
    My advice would be this – try and get some sort of an experience, or exposure in the real world, in developing countries. It will be hard, but it will change your life forever. You will have a completely different but essential perspective of the realities of life. And you will make yourself more employable to a profession such as ours.

    There are organizations which can provide you with such volunteer places. I am also committed to developing a volunteer scheme for people who have the passion and the motivation. I am deeply convinced of the need to create and allow committed people the chance to develop themselves, and work for this world. I would never have been sent to India if I had graduated in today’s world, because I didn’t have the experience we now tend to ask for. But if you have the motivation, passion and persistence, and add to this a little bit of experience, then if you really want to do this type of work, you will find a way.

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