The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) dates back to 1895 when it was known as the New York Zoological Society. One of its founders was Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race (1918), which argued for the reservation of America as a ‘civilization preserve’ for the Nordic race. Grant’s book was a worldwide hit, particularly in Nazi Germany. So much so that Adolf Hitler called Grant’s book his ‘Bible’. Later, one of the Nazis accused of causing the Holocaust cited its contents in his defence at the Nuremberg trials. Another core founder of WCS was Henry Fairfield Osborn Sr (its president 1909 to 1925), who wrote the introduction to Grant’s book and, alongside the author, was a founder of the American Eugenics Society in 1926. In 1993, the New York Zoological Society changed its name to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to supposedly better express its widening purpose and work.
According to its website, the Society’s original mandate was to ‘advance wildlife conservation, promote the study of zoology, and to create a first-class zoological park’. To that end in 1899, WCS opened the New York Zoological Park, commonly known as Bronx Zoo, which it still manages. In 1906 Bronx Zoo put an African man on public display in the Monkey House.
In 2020, more than 100 years after The Passing of the Great Race was published, WCS apologised for the very first time for its bigoted actions in the past and for the publication of Grant’s book in particular. Though it failed to mention that there was a coherent ideological continuity at the very top of WCS until at least 1968.
Before the late 1950s, WCS devoted its energies to tackling conservation issues within the USA. However as the 1960s dawned, Fairfield Osborn Jr, whose thinking was compatible with his father’s and with Grant’s, and who was WCS’s President from 1940 to 1968, started to intervene in Africa and Asia. First by conducting wildlife surveys and next by launching projects in Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, as well as Burma, and the Malay peninsula. Most famously, this work led to WCS sponsoring the animal rights activist George Schaller’s influential and respected study of mountain gorillas in the Congo. (see also: The Mountain Gorilla — Ecology and Behavior).
In Kenya in the late 1960s, WCS became one of the major funders and thought leaders behind the creation of the country’s prohibitionist policies and institutional conservation infrastructure. For example, the World Conservation Society financed and helped create the bodies that established Kenya’s wildlife parks, which removed local communities from their homes. The NGO’s power in the region was confirmed in 1997 when it appointed the Kenya-based David Western, former Director of Kenya Wildlife Service and current chairman of African Conservation Centre, to lead WCS’s international operations; WCS had been a long-time funder and supporter of his work in Kenya. (See History of ACP and Nomination by Norman Myers for the Indianapolis Prize 2013 David Western.)
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s strategy is to create ‘a global network of Nature’s Strongholds’ (very much like WWF fortress conservation strategy). As part of this strategy it wants to place at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans in ‘no-take’ marine protection zones by 2030. Another part is directed at preserving forests and protecting 30 percent of the world’s landmass from human activity. Today, according to its website, ‘WCS works in nearly 60 countries and all of the world’s oceans in order to save wildlife and the wild places in which they live’.
In 2017 Survival International criticised WCS work in Africa, accusing it of funding the abuse and the eviction of Bayaka ‘Pygmies’ and other rainforest tribes in the Republic of Congo. (See Revealed: Bronx Zoo organization funds serious human rights abuses.)
In keeping with the prejudices of its founding fathers, many of WCS’s contemporary policies are still rooted in the animal rights and anti-humanist tradition. An example of this was its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of waiting for the causes of the pandemic to become known, WCS recommended ‘stopping all commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption (particularly of birds and mammals) and closing all such markets’. As one critique of WCS’s position put it, banning the wildlife trade would have a ‘severe impact on livelihoods and biodiversity’. This would put tens of millions of people out of work, depriving many millions more of their primary source of food. (See Coronavirus: why a blanket ban on wildlife trade would not be the right response.)
At CITES’ CoPs and committee meetings, WCS has raised its profile significantly in recent years under the leadership of its vice president of International Policy Sue Lieberman (see also Pew Charitable Trusts entry in this directory, which was her previous employer). Lieberman has been particularly vocal in campaigning to close European and Japanese domestic ivory markets and in fighting to block any attempts by Southern African countries to profit from their abundant elephant populations.
Nevertheless, WCS is not opposed to trophy hunting in principle. It believes that ‘when appropriately governed and managed, based on sound science and adaptive management, trophy hunting can potentially be an important conservation tool, providing value and local incentives to maintain wild lands and to conserve often threatened species’. Its six wildlife priorities are elephants, apes, big cats, sharks & rays, whales & dolphins, and tortoises and freshwater turtles.
In May 2022, WCS’s CEO Dr. Cristián Samper announced that he is to leave the NGO later in the year because he had accepted an offer to become the Managing Director and Leader of the three-billion-dollar Nature Solutions at the Bezos Earth Fund.
CEO, Cristián Samper, PhD, whose salary is reportedly USD$1,320,978. Note: Samper has been a Principal Advisor for Nature at the Bezos Earth Fund since 2021.
Alejandro Santo Domingo, Board chair. Ex Officio Trustees includes Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York.
According to its audited accounts, in 2019 its revenues were USD308, 181, 786 and its expenditure was USD318, 845, 95.