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WWF's approach to conservation from its inception to 2006.

by Chris Hails, Conservation Director, WWF International 1994-2006


The development of approaches to nature conservation is explored broadly but with particular reference to the WWF.

Starting from a crisis-driven, opportunistic approach, most organisations developed global strategies to increase the impact of their work and to improve the effectiveness of the resources at their disposal.

For WWF it has meant prioritising large geographical areas known as ecoregions and developing targeted outcomes at a global level.
The World Wildlife Fund was founded in 1961 - the 11 September 1961 to be precise - by a small group of ardent, mostly British naturalists and conservationists such as Peter Scott, Max Nicholson, Guy Mountfort and Julian Huxley.

The latter, Huxley, had published a series of articles in the UK's Observer newspaper on his observations of an environmental crisis in Africa. He received a reaction from the businessman Victor Stolan in December 1960 who proposed the establishment of an international organisation to raise funds for the conservation of wild species. Huxley, Nicholson and companions reacted to this by forming WWF, known then as the World Wildlife Fund, a little under a year later.

All of those founders had connections with other conservation organisations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Fauna Preservation Society, UNESCO, the British Nature Conservancy, etc., and so WWF had a springboard from their knowledge and connections.1

Environmentalism becomes a public issue
Until that time conservation had been largely the domain of scientists and hunters, but WWF moved the agenda out into the public arena for the first time, using publicity and public appeals skilfully.2

In a post-empire world this primarily emotional appeal to ‘help save wildlife’ struck a chord with the public and WWF was able to raise significant funds and donated $1.9 million to projects in Africa, Europe, India and other places in its first 3 years - a considerable sum in the early 1960s.

Why WWF grew big, quickly
What is remarkable is the speed with which WWF was able to become established and grow. This was partly due to the well-connected and influential individuals who were associated with the founders. But it may also have been that the ‘time was right’ for such an organisation. Television was beginning to bring world affairs into people’s homes; the post-war industrial boom had raised sensitivities to matters of pollution and waste disposal; and several years of controversy culminated in Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring which cautioned on the effects of pesticide abuse.3

The 1960s were also a time of pressure on the ‘establishment’, of non-acceptance of the status quo or traditional solutions to problems. Thus a new approach to a now visible wildlife crisis had its attractions to a wide audience. This was also a time when the deeper relationships between humans and nature began to be examined.

The dependence of our ancestors on wildlife stocks to hunt and fish had always been recognised; those days were long gone, but a popular late 1950s feeling that the resources of the sea were limitless was being replaced by mounting suspicion that things were not that simple. Evidence of loss of topsoil, water shortages and pest outbreaks created by industrial-scale farming was giving rise to broader questioning of human relationships with the environment, and it was during this period that James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis was formulated.4

Thus WWF was founded for specific purposes during a period of wide-ranging thought.

Officially life began in Switzerland
It was established as a Swiss Foundation registered in Zurich, and the deed of foundation specified amongst the purposes of the organisation " …the conservation of world fauna, flora, forests, landscape, water, soils and other natural resources…"

This far-reaching vision for WWF is perhaps even more relevant today than it may have been in 1961, because people’s attention was drawn by an emotional argument based upon the preservation of charismatic species.

Reflecting this, WWF's British based appeal was launched with pictures of black rhinos in Africa under the headline "Doomed!".

Meanwhile Peter Scott had taken Gerald Watterson’s sketches of the giant panda Chi-Chi, then residing in London Zoo, and turned it into the logo of the organisation.Chi-chi was the only giant panda residing in the West, had arrived from the mysteries of communist China, and was an evocative species symbol for the challenges facing those concerned with the preservation of wild nature.

So despite some deeper thinking which underpinned it, the early days of WWF were ones which were dominated by a preservationist agenda for species and habitats, based on popular appeal.

This is very much a personal and institutional perspective on approaches to conserving the world’s natural heritage. It reviews the changing perceptions of conservation of the natural world and how WWF has reacted to these. It is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the conservation movement.

Sir Julian Huxley (left) & Max Nicholson in Coto Doñana, Spain, in 1970. 
Sir Julian Huxley (left) & Max Nicholson in Coto Doñana, Spain, in 1970.
Front page of the Daily Mirror, 9th October 1961. "Shock Issue" brought out after the ... 
© Daily Mirror
Front page of the Daily Mirror, 9th October 1961. "Shock Issue" brought out after the announcement of the establishment of the World Wildlife Fund (on 26.09.1961). No less then 7 pages were devoted to the wildlife emergency, including the front and back pages and the middle spread. The front page article was alerting the international community to the need to protect the world's Rhinos.
© Daily Mirror
The Next Generation
This approach ran successfully through the 1970s while, along with the spread of television (soon to be in colour) and the growth of wildlife documentary films, public awareness of conservation and natural heritage issues grew exponentially.

But with that awareness came the realisation that a rather crisis-driven, spotty approach to conservation was not achieving the long-term solutions that were sought, and that economic development continued to impact heavily upon nature.

Environment meets human development
In 1980, WWF came together with IUCN and the newly formed UNEP to produce the modestly named World Conservation Strategy; at the time this was a landmark document because it linked human activity, human well-being and its dependence upon nature all as one. It stressed the interrelationships between conservation and development and first gave currency to the term sustainable development.5

Conservation had suddenly become much more complicated but much more relevant to the modern world.

Changing focus, changing name
The 1980s were marked by a closer examination of development issues and their relationships to the environment. In 1985 WWF formally re-registered its name as World Wide Fund for Nature, to try and escape the preservation of animal species image and reflect a broader view of the situation.

And in 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) produced Our Common Future and this properly defined sustainable development.6

Most significantly the UN began the planning for a World Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Summit) for 1992. In advance of Rio, and now a decade further on, IUCN/UNEP andWWF once again came together to produce Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living7 which explored from a strategic perspective how the concept of sustainable development could be implemented in practice.

All this activity served to move environment and conservation on to a higher plane. It was no longer the specialised interest of scientists, hunters and animal lovers; there was a realisation that a sound environment was the starting point for all human development and welfare and that our activities were inextricably woven into the milieu in which we live.


Conservation had suddenly become much more complicated but much more relevant to the modern world.

Nils Tellander
Nils Tellander (1918 – 2001)

© Nils Tellander

Nils Tellander was typical of many people who worked hard and used personal connections to help WWF get off the ground in the early 1960s.  Nils was born in the Netherlands, and had served as a volunteer in the British army in India during the Second World War. He was the husband of renowned artist Hubertine Heijermans. Like many renowned conservationists he started out as a hunter and later regretted his actions. Through his family connections he was acquainted with Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (WWF’s Founder President) and assisted in several ways during the period of early construction of WWF.  He then became a volunteer staff member for WWF International until about 1965. He was brought into WWF by the then Director-General Fritz Vollmar. Fritz was a very enthusiastic photographer and had an extensive private collection of natural history photographs which he used to support the work of WWF in those early days. Being fully occupied with the start-up of WWF Fritz did not have the time to properly curate the collection and asked Nils to organise it, catalogue it and manage it for those who requested use of the photos. Nils lived close by the first WWF offices in Morges and so it was relatively convenient for him to undertake the task which he willingly did as a volunteer accepting no remuneration to help a good cause. His work was the seedling of what was later to become the WWF photolibrary. In today’s world the WWF photolibrary is now electronic with all the photos digitised and accessible via the internet. Many notable photographers contribute their materials and generously allow one-off use by WWF to promote our work. With more than 110,000 photographs from more than 5,000 contributors, and it is a truly remarkable resource which all began by the activities of this man who worked each day as a volunteer. 

WWF Living Planet Report
As espoused in Caring for the Earth, WWF began to take a much more strategic approach to its conservation activities, and also wanted to explore the linkages between nature and human activity by looking at the state of nature and how it was changing. Businesses and economies had their own barometers of change in the form of the Dow Jones, CAC40 and FTSE indices. These could be used to see how the world of commerce was changing; would it be possible to do the same for nature?

A report on the state of the planet
In 1998 the first WWF Living Planet Report (LPR) was published,8 containing estimates of the changing state of nature based on changing populations of vertebrate animals; it also contained an estimate of human pressure on the planet.

8 years later the LPR is now a bi-annual publication; the LPR 2006 has grown to contain the Living Planet Index, a composite of data from 3,600 species populations, and also the ecological footprint - an index of the area of the planet needed to sustain human activity.

These 2 indices show that, roughly over the past 30 years, the natural world has lost approximately 30% of its health as indicated by declining populations of wild species, whilst at the same time human activity has caused our ecological foot-print to more than double during the same period.

The causal relationship between the two is not difficult to deduce.

We need more than we have

In reviewing the ecological footprint we can learn even more, because it shows that some time in the mid-1980s human activity passed the point that the planet can sustain and that we now exceed it by about 25%. In other words the human population requires 1.25 planets to sustain present levels of consumption.

At the moment the human population of the planet can live on more than is available, because we continue to ‘mine’ the accumulated capital of such things as stocks of timber from forests, or fish from the sea, and we also take the products of past millennia from the ground in the form of fossil fuels. This can be likened to spending more money than one earns each month by draining savings from the bank account.

However, this cannot continue and humankind continues to degrade the planet.
The Challenge
Given a new understanding of the relationships between economic development and its impact and its dependency upon the environment, what should be the best approach for a private conservation organisation such as WWF?

Although of significant size (WWF will spend nearly $500m on conservation in 2005-2006), the total amount of activity even with this large sum is seemingly trivial when compared with the total economic activity of the world... global GDP in 2005 was of the order of $60 trillion.

Thus the challenge: how to influence the rate of degradation of our natural heritage and to influence development paths on to a more sustainable trajectory?

The work to be done falls into 3 main areas:
  1. Direct biodiversity conservation: like the good mechanic dismantling an engine,this involves ‘keeping all the pieces’ - ensuring that species are not lost or ecosystems irretrievably damaged by the threats.
  2. Reversing the threats: this involves tackling the immediate cause of environmental decline - those threats which are direct such as over-fishing, deforestation, or illegal wildlife trade, and those which may be more indirect such as climate changeor toxic pollution.
  3. Creating favourable or ‘enabling’ conditions: many of the threats to natural heritage security exist because of fundamental failures in the policy frameworks and decision-making processes that influence economic trends and development paths. Influencing those so that they encourage environmentally sound behaviour is essential to cure the underlying disease causing environmental decay.
Rising to the Challenge
During this period of more sophisticated understanding of environmental challenges, over the past 20 years there has also been significant growth in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) addressing conservation issues, especially at an international scale.

In some instances this was reflected in the growth of existing institutions; WWF grew from about 25 major offices in the mid-1980s to nearly 60 by the end of the 1990s and with activities in more than 100 countries.

Long-established NGOs such as the US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began to migrate from traditional land-owning US-based conservation to increasing engagement in developing countries; a move also reflected by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) a conservation research and extension activity of the Bronx Zoo. In other instances whole new organisations developed such as Conservation International which started in the late 1980s with an international mandate from its inception.

How to produce bigger, better results
In all of these organisations there was a growing frustration that we were winning many small battles but still losing the war; on what scale we were losing was only properly realised when WWF produced its first Living Planet Index in 1998. But each in their own way was struggling to produce bigger and better results with the resources at their disposal.

Some institutions focused on particular themes- thus the World Resources Institute (WRI) Forest Frontiers programme began; others focused upon the danger of extinction of species - Conservation International expanded upon the Norman Myers hotspots approach.

In WWF and TNC this meant working on a larger geographic scale and the concept of Ecoregion Conservation was developed.

For WWF this was based upon an analysis of the global distribution of biodiversity resulting in a map now known as the Global 200.
The Global 200
The Global 200 began with WWF asking the question: "if we wish to conserve biodiversity, where should we be investing our precious conservation funds?"

It was an exercise in prioritisation, recognising that if the available resources were spread too thinly they could not achieve the desired result; then how should they be focused?

WWF scientists gathered published data on the way in which species were distributed across the planet. Those distributions coalesced into patterns they called ecoregions - an ecoregion is defined as a large area of land or water that contains a geographically distinct assemblage of natural communities that
  • share a large majority of their species and ecological dynamics,
  • share similar environmental conditions, and
  • interact ecologically in ways that are critical for their long-term persistence.9

These ecoregions had reasonably well-defined boundaries and could be plotted on a map. To turn this into data which could help determine conservation priorities, WWF selected the approximately 200 ecoregions (in the end it turned out to be 238) which best represented the distribution of biodiversity on a global scale, and so resulted the Global 200.

This analysis recognised for the first time that it was not only coral reefs and rain forests that were important, but that deserts, Mediterranean regions, and the tundra contained unique species which, if lost, could never be replaced.10

This mapping approach clearly indicated where the work should begin. But it created a new problem: each ecoregion demanded working at a scale which conservationists had never tried to work at before, but which in fact was probably in better relation to the threats they were facing. So a new challenge now resulted: how to work at an ecoregional scale.

The Global 200 (G200) ecoregions. 
The world's "200" most important ecoregions.
Ecoregion Conservation
At the same time that WWF was identifying the Global 200, a sister organisation - TNC - was also examining how to work at a large geographical scale. Between the two of us they invented a new approach which we called Ecoregion-based Conservation.

This was quite an exciting period as conservationists had not developed a new tool for their problems for some years, and here was a new and ambitious approach in the run-up to the new millennium. Ecoregion conservation basically involves standing back, as if from space, and asking "what needs to change to secure the long-term conservation of this ecoregion?"

The approach is based upon 4 fundamental principles of biodiversity conservation:
  1. representation of all native habitats;
  2. maintenance of viable populations of all native species;
  3. maintenance of essential ecological processes;
  4. maintaining resilience to ecological change.

By viewing these needs from a distance the observer is forced into thinking about the fundamental changes that are required to achieve them and the challenge creates questions that begin to give the clues as to the work which is required:
  • What are the current trends of environmental change within the ecoregion and who is affected by them, both positively and negatively?
  • What current processes are taking place within the ecoregion, especially related to development, and how might they be impinging upon the environment? This usually entails a host of issues such as landscape change for agriculture, industrial development, city expansion, port construction, change in drainage patterns through dams, irrigation channels or other hydrological change. What can be done to mitigate the impact of these?
  • What are the fundamental forces driving those changes which may be damaging? This may be economic pressures from inside the ecoregion or outside the ecoregion (e.g. structural adjustment loans, or perverse subsidies driving change),demographic issues, internal political issues.
  • Who are the players concerned with the environment and what are their capacities to deal with the challenges? This involves looking at both government and non-government institutions and their strengths and weaknesses.
  • What are the key landscapes and habitats in the ecoregion and do they have adequate protection currently? If not, what should be added to a protected areas system?
By standing back and answering far-reaching questions like these, ecoregion conservation forces the questioner to think broadly and creatively, to look at the wider picture,to examine fundamental drivers rather than immediate symptoms.

It requires that not only the systems for protecting nature (national parks and protected areas) be adequately addressed, but that policies influencing them and the land area which connects them are also sound. These policies may be those of governments inside the ecoregion (e.g. land-use policies, water-quality policies, transport plans, inter-ministerial relationships, etc.), or they may be policies stemming from institutions outside the ecoregion - the impact of World Bank structural adjustment loans, EU agricultural subsidies and how they influence agriculture in developing countries, foreign direct investment and how it impacts poverty-alleviation programmes and trade in various commodities.

All these may be of fundamental importance to environmental security within an ecoregion, but may require work in centres well away from the specific ecoregion.

By asking who is involved, who are the environmental stakeholders, an ecoregion approach also encourages the formation of partnerships to work together on a conservation programme.

This latter point is critical as normally a single organisation on its own cannot cover the whole range of activities which are needed; it is usually essential to reach out to others with different skills, interests and needs.

Some of the most important conservation breakthroughs of recent years have resulted from the joint activities of non-traditional partners, both of which may have had an interest in a sound environment but perhaps for different reasons.
Drifting ice in the Arctic. 
The Arctic: an ecoregion
The Shipibo-Konibo living along the Ucayali River in the Peruvian Amazon are today managing their ... 
The Amazon: an ecoregion
Mountain fynbos endemic vegetation of the Cape floral kingdom Cape Peninsula National Park, Western ... 
© WWF / Martin HARVEY
Fynbos, South Africa: an ecoregion
© WWF / Martin HARVEY
Flood plain forest along the Olenek river. Siberian Taiga, Republic of Yakutia (Sakha), Russian ... 
© WWF / Hartmut JUNGIUS
Siberian Taiga: an ecoregion
© WWF / Hartmut JUNGIUS
<I>Agavaceae</I> plant, Chihuahuan Desert, Mexico. 
© WWF / Edward Parker
Chihuahuan Desert: an ecoregion
© WWF / Edward Parker
Thinking Globally
The Global 200 and Ecoregion Conservation enabled WWF to focus its attention on some of the most globally significant parts of the planet and to address environmental change in an holistic manner. However, a purely geographical approach would have missed some of the important global processes underway during more than a decade of globalising economies and the weakening of international boundaries.

Impact of globalisation
Starting in the early 1990s an increasing permeability of international borders resulted from a variety of factors including increasing liberalisation of trade, high-speed communications in the Internet age, a burgeoning of (especially multinational) corporate power and a weakening of government authority, in a bundle of symptoms loosely described as globalisation.

Whilst this process of globalisation stimulated trade and commerce, and brought increasing wealth to millions, not all of this activity was of benefit to the environment.

Increasing commercial activity brought growth in resource consumption, not only to provide raw materials but also to meet the demands of the beneficiaries who now had greater buying power. It also brought a widening gap between those caught up in commercial prosperity and those not so engaged.

The world's response
This widening gap between rich and poor culminated at the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals, which set an agenda for lifting people out of poverty.

Clearly the marketplace had not only done insufficient for the poor and disenfranchised, but as we can now see from the LPR it has also failed the environment.

The 2006 LPR contains a graph which shows the relationship between the ecological foot-print and the UN Human Development Index. This shows that the development trajectory of most countries bypasses the criteria for sustainability. This then presents yet another challenge for those concerned with the conservation of the world’s natural heritage: how do we turn the juggernaut of the world economy into a direction that favours the environment?

Globalisation and world trade is not some-thing that one can be ‘for’ or ‘against’, it is a fact of life, an inevitable force which we need to direct towards sustainability.

WWF recognised this some years ago and has been establishing various mechanisms which could lead to a marketplace move to sustainable behaviour. The most successful to date has been relating to the timber trade.

Forests and trade
Forests worldwide are in decline as a result of the over-harvesting of timber. The wealth-driven growth of the construction and furniture industry and the growing demand for pulp and paper have put enormous strains upon supplies from forests. In the temperate zones of Europe this has been recognised and some modest increase in forest areas has resulted from the establishment of large plantation schemes (but only after most of Europe’s forests had already been destroyed).

However, in some temper-ate forests (e.g. the Pacific coasts of Canada and the USA), and broadly in tropical areas, the battles between various forest interests have sometimes been fierce.

Labeling wood as good
In the early1990s the concept of third-party certification for sustainable timber production was established under the name of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC was established as an accreditation agency which could verify country-specific certification systems following the FSC standards and criteria for environmentally and socially sustainable forest management systems. A piece of timber carrying the FSC logo could carry with it the assurance of sustainability- a ‘light footprint’ in the language of the LPR.

However, for a market mechanism to be effective there has to be demand as well as supply. Thus, by creating a momentum through public and consumer education and awareness programmes, WWF created a new demand for wood with the FSC logo, and groups of timber traders became committed to trading in sustainably produced timber. These timber companies came to realise that continuing environmental decline would inevitably lead to stricter regulations, public demand for action, and difficulties with supplies.

Their change in behaviour was not entirely altruistic - although the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has now emerged -but also made good business sense for them as well.

Approaching the end of 2006 there are over 70 million ha of production forests certified under the FSC scheme with activities in 72 countries. The growth of FSC is interesting from a natural heritage conservation point of view: it is a long way removed from the traditional approaches to conservation, it is deeply rooted in international commerce, yet its success could have far-reaching consequences for forest integrity and biodiversity conservation.

What is more important, although WWF was a major player in the development and launching of the idea in the first instance, it has now become a self-sustaining force related to the timber industry- a new way of doing business which no longer requires the strong intervention of an NGO.

For a conservation organisation this is important.

Referring back to earlier comments on the impossibility of tackling all the environmental needs of the world, it is vital that conservation NGOs find ways of instigating sound practices that can then become self-sustaining, so that the organisation can move their limited resources to a new challenge.

World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)in Johannesburg. August/September 2002 WWF protest ... 
© WWF / Chris MARAIS
World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)in Johannesburg. August/September 2002 WWF protest theatre just outside the Sandton Conference Centre where the WSSD delegates gathered every day, showing world leaders asleep on the job of safeguarding the world. Republic of South Africa
© WWF / Chris MARAIS
(<a ... 
(Enlarge this image) The Ecological Footprint and Human Development Index. An Ecological Footprint of 1.8 global hectares or less is within the per capita biocapacity of the planet; a Human Development Index of 0.8 or greater is considered to be ‘high development’ (UNDP). Most countries with high development have already exceeded the per capita biocapacity and cannot be considered as sustainable. (Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2006.)
An FSC certified seedling from an FSC certified nursery in Sweden.
FSC logo on a felled log.
The Changing Role of Commerce
Moving forward with these ideas WWF has then applied them to the sea.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) told us many years ago that 75% of the world’s fisheries were either depleted or over-fished. Fishing effort was continuing to rise whilst catches were stable or declining. Not only this but species were crashing as populations passed the threshold of sustainable off-take - cod in the North Atlantic, for example, whilst new and strange species were appearing in our shops such as hoki and pollack, as previous commercial species became rarer and more expensive for the average consumer.

Into this arena WWF introduced the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) - the fish equivalent of the FSC.

Importance of business partnerships
Interestingly, when WWF launched the MSC it did not do so alone, but with strong support from and close co-operation with a major multinational company (Unilever) which at that time was one of the world’s largest manufaturers of fish derived products. In the 1970s and1980s such a company would have been perceived as the enemy of the conservationists, but was now a vital part of the solution.

This is a good demonstration of the importance of partnerships between stakeholders who may have quite different reasons for achieving a common result; it is equally applicable on a global scale as it is on an ecoregional scale. If a company or institution has a business interest in a particular resource for the processes it is involved in, then it can be moved from being an exploiter depleting that resource to a user protecting its supplies.

This change can be seen in many areas beyond timber and fish; agricultural operations that recognise natural enclaves help keep pests off their land; or drinks companies that need to defend clean water supplies; also as environmental perturbations increase we are seeing insurance companies and financial institutions increasingly concerned with the risks associated with global climate change - probably the biggest single challenge the conservation community faces.

In these ways there now opens up a multiplicity of new avenues of co-operation to the benefit of the world’s natural heritage, with sometimes rather unusual bed-fellows working together for a common result.
Man with fishing rod - postcard (2sided) 
Man with fishing rod - postcard (2sided)
The MSC eco-label helps assure consumers that their seafood product was caught in an ... 
The MSC eco-label helps assure consumers that their seafood product was caught in an environmentally sustainable and responsible manner - helping to solve, not contribute to, crises facing the world’s fisheries.
A Strategy for Natural Heritage Conservation
A sound institutional strategy is essential to mobilising a global network such as WWF, in the face of apparently insurmountable challenges.

In WWF a strategy was built around the concept of the Global 200 ecoregions providing a geographical focus and on-the-ground experience of what it takes to deliver environmental solutions, along with a set of global issues such as the FSC and MSC described above.

These came together as a set of priorities for the organisation for which specific targets were established, and measurement systems put in place to monitor progress towards those targets.

These became the guiding lights for all the branches of the organisation, enabling each branch to engage in a global effort that could create change for the better.

Global, yet local
Each set of activities was rooted in a national context so that the solutions could be delivered in a locally appropriate manner, which greatly increased their uptake and probability of success. This helped to build teamwork on a global scale.

However, this should not be regarded as a ‘blueprint’ or perfect solution for the world’s environmental challenges. Conservation is too much a high-risk business to assume that there is one perfect answer.

Constantly adapting
Just as the world is dynamic so conservation organisations too have to be dynamic, constantly looking for new opportunities and new solutions, reacting to change in the way the world operates, engaging that change and adapting strategies accordingly.


Conservation is too much a high-risk business to assume that there is one perfect answer.

Conservation Organisations as a Facet of Civil Society
The inception, development and impact of organisations such as WWF are a reflection of the relationship between people and nature. Its very existence is a symptom of concern amongst certain sectors of society, driven by the apparent lack of concern by others.

Human societies contain an almost endless variety of values, and for many of these values to involve nature is not surprising.

For millennia nature shaped human culture
The forces of nature shaped the evolution of Homo sapiens to what we are today. Those same forces also shaped human society.

The mastery of centralised agriculture gave human societies the luxury of organising social structures by releasing certain individuals from the need to be food providers.

But it was nature that provided the wild species for domestication, and it was nature that maintained soil structure and fertility, that provided water, and until recent years predictable seasonal climates for crops to grow.

It was also nature that provided the diseases that damaged domestic produce and killed people.

It is thus hardly surprising that many rites, rituals, taboos and traditional belief systems are related to both the positive and negative forces of nature in the hopes that appeasement will create a benign result. Some of these traditions are aimed specifically at prevention of over-exploitation of resources. In this way nature has determined many aspects of our culture.

Ironically, as human understanding of the environment grew, and as we became more skilled at managing certain aspects of nature, then so grew a new belief, in the20th century, that nature could no longer set the limits for human societies.

Culture now began to shape nature
Thus businesses, agriculture, forestry and modern ‘hunting’ in the form of commercial fishing began to push to the limits our relationships with natural cycles and nature’s production. This was aided by artificial nutrients and chemical inputs which improved the response of many species and supported the idea that there were no limits to our exploitation of nature.

Thus our culture began to shape nature. We now know that this was not the end of the story; whilst nature lost the battle with culture for a while, the impact was felt.

The LPR quantifies this, and our experiences with extreme weather events, with rivers that no longer reach the sea, with crashing fish stocks, and forests that once never burned now doing so on an annual basis, all cause us to live the environmental consequences of the maverick approach that certain sectors of our society adopted.

This being the case, it is probably quite normal that the part of our society that is concerned by these experiences should invent and maintain an environmental ethic and activist movement, of which WWF is one manifestation.

Culture once again responded to nature.

The nature of WWF
The interest of people in nature is also reflected in the structure of WWF as an organisation. Although it has one name and one ‘brand’ and all the consistency of the corporate world that goes with such things, WWF also has several million members spread around the world, and its very composition is one of semi-autonomous organisations which can build a strong local identity and reach out and tap into the way conservation is best manifested in each country.

This is important as, for the reasons already mentioned, relationships with nature involve strong cultural ties, and the way concern is expressed is in the form determined by the culture of the country.

Impact of the internet
This ‘people’s network’ approach has gained strength in recent years through the Internet age. In 2006 more than 10 million people visited WWF’s websites around the world  to learn immediately what is happening in the world.

The same medium has enabled more than a million people to take direct action online to lobby decision makers to move in the right direction, and to congratulate those that already had.  It is remarkable that this modern technology has enabled individuals in our modern society to have even greater engagement than ever before.

In an iterative process our culture will continue to shape our attitudes to nature, just as nature’s response to our attitudes will continue to shape our culture.


many rites, rituals, taboos and traditional belief systems are related to both the positive and negative forces of nature

Looking to the Future
As time advances the world will inevitably look more closely at the natural environment, we will begin to talk less about conservation of species and habitats and more about environmental security.

Those species and habitats are the very fabric within which our own human lives are woven.

For thousands of years anthropologists have shown us how human societies close to nature have recognised their interdependence and have evolved cultural practices and taboos that were kind to nature and ensured the sustainability of their lives, long before the word ‘sustainable’ was invented.

In our modern, over-engineered society we have lost sight of that interdependence and the fabric is beginning to fray. But out of this and the associated problems the cycle is slowly turning.

Climate-induced disasters are making us realise that we are unable to control our environment, but that we must live within its constraints. The year 2005 gave the world the Kyoto protocol - the first small step in the international effort to combat the worst of the threats to our security.

The same year also gave us hurricane Katrina which, far from being the most powerful hurricane we have seen, demonstrated most aptly that we cannot engineer the natural world and that if we assume too much then our cities run the risk of being laid waste.

The future is not gloomy, however
The solutions exist, and for the few that don’t we are an incredibly creative species.

The political will is often lacking, but democratic processes can create that also. The commercial world has learned that it cannot simply take ad infinitum.

With creativity, understanding and co-operation it will be possible in future to enjoy a secure environment and a high-quality lifestyle both at the same time.

The ultimate goal of WWF is to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature; a long time ago this was the case.

Will we ever get back there again?

Perhaps not, but there will always be an active sector of human society which will try to regain the lost ground.
Local woman in traditional dress in Rhoku village, by a tributary of the Bensbach River. Her ... 
© Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK
Local woman in traditional dress in Rhoku village, by a tributary of the Bensbach River. Her headdress is made from the feathers of the Cassowary - Papua New Guinea's largest bird, and she is adorned with white palm cockatoo feathers. Western Province, Papua New Guinea. December 2004
© Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK
WWF urges Russian President Putin to stop sleeping on the Kyoto Protocol.<BR> 
2004: WWF urges Russian President Putin to stop sleeping on the Kyoto Protocol.

[1] Holdgate, The Green Web; Pearce, Treading Lightly, 40.
[2] Adams, Against Extinction, 311.
[3] Carson, Silent Spring.
[4] Lovelock, Gaia.
[5] IUCN/UNEP/WWF, World Conservation Strategy.
[6] WCED, Our Common Future, 400.
[7] IUCN/UNEP/WWF, Caring for the Earth, 228.
[8] WWF, Living Planet Report 2006, 40.
[9] Dinerstein et al., A Workbook for Conducting Biological Assessments and Developing Biodiversity Visions for Ecoregion-based Conservation.
[10] Olson and Dinerstein, ‘The Global 200’.


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  • Carson, R. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
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  • Holdgate, M. The Green Web: A Union for World Conservation. London: Earthscan, 1999.
    - World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for SustainableDevelopment. Gland: IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1980.
    - Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living. Gland: IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991.
  • Lovelock, J. E. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Olson, D. M. and E. Dinerstein. ‘The Global 200: A Representation Approach to Conserving the Earth’s Most Biological Valuable Ecoregions’. Conservation Biology 12, no. 3 (1998): 502–15.
  • Pearce, F. Treading Lightly: The Origins and Evolution of  WWF. Banson, 2004.
  • WCED. Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • WWF. Living Planet Report 2006. Edited by C. J. Hails. Banson, 2006.