Conservation today, the old-fashioned way


Jeremy Hance, Mongabay

Date Published
Part 3 of 4 in a series on conservation by Mongabay.
See link for photos.

In 2002 I took my first — and very impromptu —trip to Africa, at age 22. Alone and breathless with excitement, I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, with hundreds of dollars in cash shoved into my shoe to pay for a two-week safari through the Great Rift Valley and into the Maasai wilderness. Although I had long loved wildlife, I wasn’t studying biology. I was an English major and at the time I could tell you far more about the genius of Shakespeare than the history of conservation.

I never imagined I’d ever make it to the wide plains of Africa, where megafauna roamed like the squirrels in my home state of Minnesota. I spent the trip in a state of giddy wonder over the lions, hippos, elephants, giraffes — and of course the rhinos: massive, armored, stately, gorgeous southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum). Once, our driver took us a little too close to one of these most mega of the megafauna and suddenly it charged us. I shot it — with my camera — as we sped away, but the awe of the animal lingered like an electric charge. To this day I can still feel it.

What I didn’t know then was just how close the white rhino had come to oblivion.

Over a hundred years before I visited Kenya, in 1890, Frederick Selous — British hunter, explorer, and writer — predicted the total extinction of the southern white rhino in Field magazine:

“It was within a mile of this spot…that two years previously… I shot two white rhinoceroses… the last of their kind that have been killed, and perhaps that ever will be killed, by an Englishman… to the best of my belief the great white or square-mouthed rhinoceros… is on the very verge of extinction, and in the next year or two will become absolutely extinct.”

Selous, who accompanied Theodore Roosevelt during the former president’s shooting romp through Africa, described how in recent years he’d heard about Boer and native hunters finishing off the final populations of white rhinos. “The subject of the extinction of this huge quadruped has a melancholy interest for me, who remember that less than twenty years ago it was a common animal over an enormous extent of country in central South Africa,” he wrote.

Little did Selous know, however, that five years after he forecast the rhino’s extermination, a small group of less than 100 animals would be found hiding out in South Africa. They were saved from ruthless hunters like himself by the unlikeliest of heroes: malarial mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Poached to the ends of the Earth, the animals were hiding out in disease-ridden wetlands where no hunters dared tread. Local officials banned hunting and established reserves. And, over several generations, dedicated conservationists turned those 100 rhinos into more than 20,000.

Although southern white rhinos today face a renewed onslaught of poaching, the species wouldn’t be here at all if not for patient and steady work by generations of conservationists. Indeed, without forward-gazing conservationists there would probably not be a single wild rhino of any species on the planet today. Nor would there likely be any leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), tigers (Panthera tigris), or humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), either. For certain, Przewalski’s horses (Equus ferus przewalskii), European bison (Bison bonasus), and California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) would be relegated to history books like the dodo, the thylacine, and the great auk. But the story of the southern white rhino is one of the first tales of successive generations of humans deliberately working over decades to save a species from extinction.

There used to be one way to do good conservation: save a species and protect some land or water. But the world has changed. As the human population has exploded to 7 billion and rising, the atmosphere has heated up, the oceans have acidified, and the economy has globalized, conservation has, not surprisingly, shifted.

Today, traditional conservation — the kind that saved the southern white rhino — itself may well be an endangered species at the world’s biggest conservation groups. In recent decades many of these have turned toward human-focused projects with purported biodiversity benefits. Still, numerous small- and medium-size groups, as well as dedicated individuals, remain solely focused on practicing the old art. These traditional conservationists believe their work is more vital than ever in a time when the threat of mass extinction looms.

But many traditional conservationists face deep challenges, with donors shifting toward more human and economic-focused conservation and a constant pressure to move beyond the species and places that drove conservationists to take up the task in the first place. You need to help local people too, new voices say. You need to mitigate climate change too. You need to boost regional economies too.

Can traditional conservationists survive in an age that is asking them to be all things to all people and creatures?

New and old

Recent decades have brought the rise of a philosophy dubbed “new conservation” that focuses on human needs and economics as they relate to the natural world. And when it comes to burgeoning conservation projects, new conservationists appear to have the wind in their sails. While still setting aside significant tracts of land and working directly with a celebrity cast of charismatic species, once purely traditional conservation giants like the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation International (CI), and the Nature Conservancy (TNC) have also embraced a good portion of new conservation ideas and practices.

Today, the work of conservationists on the ground is as often about documenting how the environment benefits humans economically (via a concept called ecosystem services) as it is about a protecting a wetland or campaigning against another forest being razed. They are as likely to be busy developing an anti-poverty program as they are to be penning an action plan for a critically endangered species. Although big conservation groups still use charismatic mammals to raise bundles of cash, they may be just as likely to spend their funds helping multinational corporations mitigate their environmental footprints or supporting new certification schemes that push greener commodities in sectors like seafood or palm oil.

Born during the deregulation craze of the 1980s and 90s — and the rise of neoliberalism — new conservation seeks to conserve nature for humanity’s sake rather than because of an ethical or intrinsic need to do so. While traditional conservation focused on establishing protected areas, directly working with endangered species and studying biodiversity, new conservation seeks to tackle the drivers of environmental destruction by convincing industry and governments that it’s cheaper in the long run to save nature than to wreck it.

But numerous sources contacted for this series contended that new conservationists have lost their way, that they have created programs that are difficult if not impossible to measure for efficacy, that they are unable to respond agilely to crises because they attempt to have every stakeholder on board, and that they’ve taken their eye off the ball when it comes to saving species in the midst of a mass extinction crisis.

“[N]ew conservation, if implemented, would hasten ecological collapse globally, eradicating thousands of kinds of plants and animals and causing inestimable harm to humankind in the long run,” wrote biologist Michael Soulé, one of the upstart philosophy’s most heated critics, in Conservation Biology in 2013.

Traditionalists like Soulé contend that the old ways — protected areas and targeted conservation programs for endangered species — are still the best shot for preserving a significant portion of Earth’s biodiversity.

Traditionalists and innovators

One group that remains largely committed to traditional conservation methods is the Rainforest Trust, a Virginia-based group that puts all its resources into protecting swathes of tropical forest that are home to some of the rarest species on Earth.

“Our philosophy is absolutely we want to protect the most important sites for biodiversity while we can,” said Paul Salaman, the Rainforest Trust’s CEO. “The majority of natural habitat that is still standing remains unprotected and if those areas are not protected there is an extraordinary higher probability that they will not be intact in the future.”

The Rainforest Trust raises funds to purchase select sites for new parks that have mega-biodiversity and vanishing species. They choose sites that house super rare species — many of which are not household names — such as the El Oro parakeet (Pyrrhura orcesi) in Ecuadorean cloud forests or the Palawan horned frog (Megophrys ligayae) in the Philippines. To accomplish their mission they often team up with domestic NGOs and conservationists on the ground.

Founded in 1988, the group has gone through a lot of name changes in its lifespan: first the World Parks Endowment, then the World Land Trust – U.S when the group was affiliated with the UK’s World Land Trust. Today it spends a lot of energy determining the best spots to focus on saving biodiversity and willingly sets aside even very small plots of land if it means ensuring a species won’t go extinct.

“We don’t want to protect everywhere. We don’t need to protect everything. But we want to be strategic and protect those species that exist nowhere else,” said Salaman.

He added that conservationists already know where to find these species. “The science has been done, we don’t need to spend another 20 years studying things. We just need to start implementing actions to protect these sites.”

While the Rainforest Trust focuses specifically on land protection, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust represents the other side of traditional conservation by pulling out all the stops to save select species from extinction, even if it means rearing them in captivity.

“Our approach to conservation is to focus on the species and in particular over-looked and most threatened species. Many of our species are single-site endemics about which little is known,” Andrew Terry, Durrell’s head of conservation programs, told me. “So many species are slipping away while organizations focus on the more charismatic groups.”

Durrell’s focus on species that are wholly unknown to the general public makes the organization unique even among traditional conservation groups. For example, if you’ve ever heard of the Mauritius fody (Foudia rubra), the Malagasy giant jumping rat (Hypogeomys antimena), or the pygmy hog (Porcula salvania), you’re probably in the minority.

Founded in 1963, the group was initially called Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust but was renamed in 1999 to honor its charismatic founder, zoologist and writer Gerald Durrell. The group runs conservation projects around the world, but has a penchant for working with island species. It also runs a small zoo and conservation center on Jersey Island, the self-governing British Crown dependency off France, where it has long studied captive breeding and animal husbandry.

“We are a relatively specialist organization and we know that we will never have a wide following, but we aim to be highly effective at what we do and demonstrate the broad relevance of focusing on species conservation,” said Terry.

Traditional conservation groups like the Rainforest Trust and Durrell face plenty of criticism, as well.

“[M]isanthropic…anti-growth, anti-technology, purist, exclusive, romantic pastoralism, and a stop sign for everything,” is how Peter Kareiva, one of the current leaders of the new conservation movement, previously with TNC and now the director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, characterized the traditional movement in a 2011 online lecture.

Basically, traditional conservation, according to Kareiva and other critics, is deeply stuck in the past and has not taken the lessons of climate change, globalization, economics, or overpopulation to heart.

Yet innovation is still happening at wildlife-centric groups — albeit in different ways than new conservationists desire — including new fundraising strategies such as crowd-funding, new technologies for on-the ground monitoring (think camera traps) and cutting-edge reproductive technologies for breeding.

One particularly innovative group is the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN). This San Francisco-based NGO is distinct because it doesn’t run any conservation programs of its own. Instead it supports proven conservationists, many of them working on a single species while partnering with locals, and allows them a large degree of independence to get their jobs done.

“We invest in independent field conservationists who are innovating the future of wildlife,” Jeffrey ‘Jefe’ Parrish, Vice President for Conservation at WCN, told me. “We vet passionate conservationists and nonprofits rigorously, and when we find those gems, we commit to their sustainability and the scalability of their vision.”

The group provides support with fundraising, marketing, and developing new skills for on-the-ground conservationists, allowing them to focus on what they do best — protecting species. Parrish said the group acts “more like a venture capital firm” than a traditional non-profit. Currently, all the conservationists WCN supports work with land mammals — and most of these decidedly charismatic. But Parrish said the group is planning to expand to birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish in the next ten years.

Measuring success

A common refrain among traditional conservationists is how difficult it is to measure the success of programs under the new conservation banner, such as certification schemes or payment for ecosystem services programs, which attempt to leverage the market or convince governments to pay for services provided by nature, such as water filtration and carbon sequestration. Sources told me that it was sometimes unclear what exactly success would even look like and what metrics to use to measure outcomes. Moreover, because of the scale and ambition of some new conservation ideas, success by nature will arrive on a far longer timescale than for traditional approaches. And, according to critics, in some cases projects begin and vanish with little attention paid to outcomes.

It’s difficult, however, to debate the relative success of either Durrell or the Rainforest Trust. They may not have stemmed mass extinction, but both seem to be succeeding at the more modest goals they set themselves.

A recent paper by researchers both inside and outside of Durrell found that over its more than 50 years, the small conservation group has made an outsized difference in saving endangered species from extinction, including species ignored by most other groups. To date, only 63 birds, mammals, and amphibians have been down-listed on the IUCN Red List due to conservation actions — out of more than 16,000 species the global group has evaluated. Eight of these species have recovered, at least in part, due to the work of Durrell. In other words, Durrell is responsible for 12 percent of the species that have recovered thanks to conservationists in recent times.

“While we think that for a small organization this really demonstrates the effectiveness of our approach, it also masks a lot of our work because many of the species we are working with have not been assessed [by the IUCN] or not frequently enough for this analysis,” said Terry.

The IUCN Red List is notorious for updating species’ statuses irregularly. In fact, some species don’t see updates for over a decade, but Durrell’s staff is currently working on updating the IUCN statuses of many of the species the group targets.

Terry said he is particularly proud of his group’s work with the Madagascar pochard (Aythya innotata), a diving duck with a distinct slate-blue bill. The species had been thought extinct, but in 2006 conservationists discovered a population of just 22 birds at a remote site. Durrell quickly got to work by setting up a captive breeding program on site. Since then, it has more than quadrupled the population to around 100 birds (25 in the wild and 75 in captivity) and is now working on restoring historic habitat for reintroducing the birds.

Yet despite being a big player in measurably staving off extinctions, Durrell’s income (around $11.7 million in 2014) was just 1.5 percent of WWF-International’s income the same year. The group’s recognition is also far below that of other wealthier groups, such WWF, CI, or the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The Rainforest Trust’s accomplishments are also relatively easy to measure. In the last 28 years, the group says it has helped to preserve some 11 million acres of rainforest and other tropical ecosystems across 20 countries.

In contrast, TNC has preserved some 120 million acres since 1951 — about ten times that of the Rainforest Trust. Yet TNC, the world’s wealthiest conservation group, brought in more than 200 times more money in 2014 than Rainforest Trust ($949 million compared to $4.6 million) — and has assets worth upwards of $5 billion. The land juggernaut has also been protecting places more than 30 years longer, but also working on interventions beyond straight land acquisition.

Part of the Rainforest Trust’s relative success lies in its focus on easily measured goals and transparency. The non-profit Charity Navigator gave the group a score of 100 out of 100 for “Transparency and Accountability.”

“[Our appeals] are very specific at how many acres we’re aiming to protect, exactly how much it costs, how much we’ve raised, what it’s doing, what it’s protecting, a map of exactly where it is. I don’t know that you can get any better than that,” explained Salaman. “This isn’t a project where, ‘Well, we’re gonna save Borneo’…or ‘We’re gonna save Sumatra or the Sumatran elephant.’ This is really tangible stuff and I feel that this is something that a lot more organizations could do.”

Last year the group helped land its biggest fish yet: the Sierra del Divisor National Park in Peru. Dozens of groups worked for over 20 years to establish the park, beginning with TNC. But to seal the deal, the Rainforest Trust partnered with a little-known local group called CEDIA to set aside 5.9 million acres in a national park and an adjacent indigenous reserve. Salaman said the victory really belongs to CEDIA, describing the group as “phenomenal” and noting that it has helped protect over 25 million acres of the Peruvian Amazon.

Collaborations with partners like CEDIA are one of the Rainforest Trust’s greatest strengths, according to Salaman. The group provides its knowledgeable, hard-working, but often unheralded partners with the support, infrastructure, and finance to protect extra-special places.

New and old compete for funds

Despite the rise of new conservation, there are probably still more groups by number focused on traditional conservation than new. But most of these groups are quite small and poorly known; many are local NGOs that focus on either a single species or a single place. At the same time, traditional conservationists often say they feel increasingly pinched when it comes to raising money for their work.

“Funding remains our chief challenge,” Terry with Durrell said. “A few years ago there were more and larger funds focused on species conservation. However, this has changed.”

Indeed, he and other traditional conservationists I spoke to for this series said that foundations and donors are more and more looking to fund programs that employ new conservation ideas, including alleviating poverty or setting up payment for ecosystem services programs instead of just focusing on wildlife. Some conservation groups appear to have adopted these goals in order to tap into much larger resource pools, given than only a small share of philanthropic money goes to animals and conservation.

Durrell has responded by diversifying its fundraising efforts. “It’s not easy,” Terry admitted.

John Payne, Executive Director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, agreed. He told me his group is working to save the last Bornean rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) — a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino — from extinction via the “goal of boosting rhino births by any means possible.” At this point that means very expensive reproductive technology, since the population is down to less than 20 individuals.

Payne, who worked at and with WWF-Malaysia for nearly 30 years before heading the Borneo Rhino Alliance, noted that his group has been shunned by international donors and is currently only funded by companies and groups inside Malaysia.

“It is a brave donor that will agree to funding preservation of a species in the absence of some form of human community benefit,” he said. Numerous sources agreed that they felt pressure by donors, governments, and even other conservation groups to shift their mission and methods in order to incorporate poverty alleviation or other human benefits, even if such undertakings aren’t their expertise or even at all relevant to the work in question.

Donors today also hesitate to fund projects with a high risk of failure, such as the recovery of the Bornean rhino, Payne added.

Fear of failure — which in this case means extinction — was “a point that did not trouble the founders of WWF,” Payne contended. In its earlier days, according to Payne, WWF was less hampered by hierarchy and PR concerns and thereby more willing to take risks on a species that may end up extinct in the end anyway. He said his organization may not survive beyond this year without additional funding — and the Bornean rhino could vanish without all possible means taken to save it.

But Parrish with WCN said that it’s time conservationists look at fundraising differently. WCN is a small group, as well, bringing in $9.5 million in 2013.

“Worldwide, nonprofits defend themselves and defame each other, compete amongst each other, and fight for the scraps of resources from the same big donors,” Parrish said of conservation and environmental NGOs, both big and small.

But he said WCN sees a different future. “We believe there are far more resources to be harnessed for conservation if we reach out to new constituencies with visionaries with visionary ideas. Rather than a culture of scarcity and competition, we believe in a culture of abundance and collaboration.”

Instead of keeping hard-working conservationists and donors apart, WCN holds several events a year — including an annual expo in October with attendance of over 1,000 people — where donors meet conservationists in person and hear their inspiring stories. It also doesn’t hurt that WCN is located in San Francisco, home to a lot of big donors.

Today, much of the world’s on-the-ground conservation is being done by passionate individuals who focus on a single animal; many of these conservationists work under the public radar and survive on small grants.

Anna Nekaris’s animal of choice is the slow loris, a tropical primate family that includes nine species. Nekaris has described four new slow loris species and worked hard to curb the illegal pet trade of these vanishing nocturnal animals. As director of the Little Fireface Project and a professor at Oxford Brookes University in England, Nekaris told me she gets most of her funding from individuals, small charities, and zoos, which are an increasingly important source of small, but vital, conservation grants.

As a professor Nekaris said she sees how challenging it is for young conservationists to get a job “that will allow them to do more then pay the basic expenses.”

For her project, however, she said fundraising has become “better now” than a decade ago — but only after years of hard work by her and her small team in getting the word out about the plight of slow lorises.

“Ten years ago I got ridiculed for studying such a noncharismatic species,” she said.

Yet most of the world’s endangered species are just that: uncharismatic. And few donors are willing to spend money on a species they never heard of, or one that isn’t classically charismatic, no matter how close that species is to extinction or how distinct it may be. The same goes for many of the world’s big conservation groups, which largely focus on large mammals and birds. This is probably why groups like WCN still focus almost solely on big, cuddly, or astounding mammals. In reality, only a small percentage of endangered species receive any targeted conservation or research attention. Most still live and die in total obscurity.

Still, Nekaris said that there really should be ample funding for both new and traditional approaches to conservation.

“There are so many people who want to contribute to conservation, there should be no reason why large projects looking at the big picture cannot happen side by side with those filling in the important details,” she said.


Things change. This is not only a maxim of evolution, but one of human endeavor. Just as species adapt, we adapt our behavior. But change is also hard — and sometimes misdirected.

It appears clear that without more targeted conservation programs, especially for uncharismatic species, many of the world’s species are likely to go extinct. Traditional conservation remains important.

“Care for a particular species or group of species does not mean thinking about those species in isolation or to the exclusion of everything else,” said Terry. “That’s why it’s a bit of a misnomer to characterize it as old conservation. But it does have a purity of purpose that speaks to the reason why a lot of people became conservationists in the first place.”

At the same time, threats to species — and places — have globalized and institutionalized in a way that conservationists of the twentieth century might have imagined impossible. Without tackling these issues, many species are also likely to go extinct. But new conservationists and traditionalists remain divided on the best way forward in this new age, this Anthropocene.

“Many people in the field feel that while their ‘head’ understands the benefits of business and finance based initiatives, their ‘hearts’ are left cold by it,” Terry told me.

Traditionalists worry about the specter of rising irrelevance in a world where children in the west spend little time outside and many millions of children in the developing world still live in squalor. They worry that current trends — more difficulty raising funds, fewer self-identified environmentalists, a greater disconnect from the natural world — will only worsen. For their part, new conservationists worry about dismissal by conservation’s old guard; they worry their ideas will not be allowed the time needed to mature and pay off.

Of course, when it comes to the big picture both sides are really working toward the same thing: a world that remains home to saolas, to lions, to Zarciadero web-footed salamanders and blue whales, to poweshiek skipperlings and chimpanzees, and to loulu trees. And, yes, to southern white rhinos, too.