Conservation Influencers

Conservation Influencers – overview

Conservation Influencers is a directory of 60 of the most prominent NGOs from the animal activist, environmental and ecological lobby, which analyses their history, mission, methodology, funding and reputation. It assesses their influence on the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the framing of the conservation debate globally. 

Environmental NGOs are like mushrooms; they grow up everywhere at all times. Like mushrooms they feed on manure, but you must be careful, some are good, several are poisonous”.

(Felipe Benavides – 1919/1991, famous Peruvian conservationist, known as ‘father of the vicuña’).

A report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies claims that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in 40 countries ‘represent $2.2 trillion in operating expenditures’, which is ‘larger than the GDP of all but six countries’. The report found that NGOs employ around 56 million full-time equivalent workers. It noted that NGOs are not empowered or appointed by public election. Instead they are responsible at best to their members or, more often than not, to ‘self-perpetuating boards’. 

NGOs consist of diverse bodies including religious institutions, charities and campaign groups. In the West a sizeable proportion of powerful NGOs focus on ecological issues. These organisations are known to the public as ‘conservation’, ‘environmental’, ‘animal rights’ or ‘animal welfare’ campaigns.

Western-based NGO are mostly financed by the same sources: philanthropic funds, the EU, the USA, FAANG stocks, other corporate bodies, miscellaneous billionaires and multi-millionaires. Only a small percentage of the money they raise is actually donated by the general public. Yet these NGOs wrap themselves in the cloak of Civil Society, the public space between the private sphere, the market and government and, thereby, claim to represent the public. That claim is rarely questioned.

But most ecological and animal-activist lobby groups are not grassroots organisations run by volunteers. They are mainly managed by well-paid professionals recruited for their fund-raising abilities or commitment to environmental and animal rights causes. In truth they are mostly top-down, media-savvy bodies that are accountable to nobody but their self-selected boards and their powerful patrons. 

NGOs are masters of the art of raising funds from rich donors to fund new NGOs. In the animal activist and environmental NGO world, this creates an interdependent web of incestuous relationships.

WildAid was an offspring of the Environmental Investigation Agency, the latter being an offspring of Greenpeace. The PEW Charitable Trusts founded Oceana. The Fund for Animals, founded by a WWF member, funded the launch of Sea Shepherd, founded by a founding member of Greenpeace. IUCN and WWF, which was partly established to raise funds for IUCN, launched Traffic to provide CITES with ‘objective’ analytical and wildlife trade monitoring services. Traffic’s Executive Director is a Fellow of WWF UK. 

Yet welcoming NGOs into the fold, both the IWC and CITES grant NGOs speaking rights and access to decision makers. More than that, the IWC and CITES give NGOs a stake in their management, as members of committees, paid advisers and service providers. This open-door, empowering policy gives NGOs a major role in the deliberations, discussions and debates that take place within and around both of these bodies.

Meanwhile, political elites in the USA, EU, UK and other western nations tend to view civil society organisations as if they were tribunes of the people and grant them access to policy-making processes. This sustains a symbiotic relationship, in which the dividing line between policy-makers and environmental NGOs is blurred by bureaucracy. Yet, for the purpose of their public relations, the NGOs continue to pose as outsiders.

In this contorted environment, unaccountable ‘conservation’ and animal activist NGOs act as if their ‘constitutional’ rights and prerogatives are equal to those of national governments. So it is not surprising that IWC and CITES are magnets for the animal activists and ‘conservation’ NGOs, which define themselves as ‘spokespeople’ for the masses and the ‘saviours’ of iconic animals, plants and habitats.

More to come

This publication is Part One of the Conservation Influencers. In the coming months, we shall be posting more entries covering a wider range of NGOs as well as assessing intergovernmental organisations and philanthropic bodies. We intend to publish regular topical articles and opinion pieces about NGO activities and viewpoints. For example, Conservation Influencers will detail and critique NGO lobbying, publications and proposals in the crucial six-month run up to CITES’ CoP-19 in Geneva, Switzerland, in July 2022.

The Conservation Influencers is a publication of IWMC World Conservation Trust.  It may be reproduced provided proper credit is given to IWMC and to the sources.  Nothing printed here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views or policies of IWMC, any of its individual members, or supporting institutions.

About the directory

Conservation Influencers is a searchable directory of the animal activist, environmental and ecological lobby. It examines the history, mission, methodology and reputation of NGOs to assess their impact on the global conservation cause.


Wildlife Conservation Society

In 1906, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) put an African man on display in Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. In 1918, one of WCS’s founding fathers, Madison Grant, published Passing of the Great Race, which Adolf Hitler referred to as his ‘Bible’. Another leading creator and early leader of WCS, Henry Fairfield Osborn Sr, was also a founder of the American Eugenics Society. His son headed WCS from 1940 to 1968, overseeing a series of major initiatives in Africa. There, WCS became one of the architects of the prohibition movement, which put wildlife for consumptive use and vast regions of land out of bounds to humanity. In 2020, WCS distanced itself in public from the racist views of Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn Sr. But it has yet to issue a critical account of the legacy of Fairfield Osborn Jr, even though he led WCS into the modern era while sharing similar politically-inspired ecological goals to his father and Grant. WCS devotes considerable financial resources to influencing outcomes at CITES. WCS’s CEO reportedly earns USD$1,320,978.