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Viewpoint: Together Again

  • Saturday, January 1, 2000

Preserving the remarkable wildlife of Africa depends upon many hundreds, indeed thousands, of acts of charity from individuals and support from foundations and governments.

Such help is the lifeblood that enables groups like AWF to act, and every gift and every grant is important. Thus it is with some trepidation that I single out one particular contribution of the last year for the lesson it contains. This modest grant, from the U.S. Agency for International Development, supports a project known mainly by its acronym: ABCG (the African Biodiversity Collaborative Group).

What makes ABCG noteworthy is its composition: the African Wildlife Foundation (the host organization), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Biodiversity Support Program (BSP), World Conservation Union and World Resources Institute. We believe that by meeting regularly, ABCG can coordinate field activities and undertake joint initiatives. We believe we can be more effective in protecting Africa's natural resources by acting collectively than alone.

What makes such cooperation so unusual? When I began my career in international conservation about 25 years ago, we all helped each other. The Nature Conservancy's international program, which I then headed, consisted of two people; WWF had a staff of a half dozen in the United States. AWF, where I sought advice from its experienced president Rob McIlvaine, the former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, operated with a handful of staff members. Surprisingly, limited staffing and scarce funds did not breed competitiveness but cooperation. Those years battling in and for the wilderness forged friendships that have stood the test of time and the stress of subsequent institutional tensions.

During the late 1980s the world conservation community finally captured the public imagination with high-profile international campaigns to end whaling, ban elephant ivory sales and save the rainforests. Ironically and sadly, growing organizations began to jockey for credit in an unseemly fashion. While collaboration in the field continued, it seemed the competition for credit and public attention required each organization to claim that it alone was saving the world's wildlife.

Although each group has special, unique strengths and expertise, these differences blurred as public messages were shaped increasingly by what focus-group findings said would resonate with potential supporters. Despite the real and important distinctions between conservation organizations, how could you, our supporters, tell one from another in the avalanche of appeals spilling from your mailbox?

The fact is that even during those dark days of organizational competition, people cooperated to get the work done. AWF has a particularly strong record as a partner. In Africa we have always collaborated with communities, other nongovernmental organizations, private-sector businesses and governments. And we work closely with other American and European groups. The International Gorilla Conservation Program, for example, has been the joint effort of three organizations for more than 20 years. AWF has worked with WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Biodiversity Support Program on training needs of Africa's protected-area agencies. AWF, WWF and WCS often discuss strategy together when the ivory trade issue emerges every three years at CITES meetings. And recently we have been talking with The Nature Conservancy on large-landscape conservation methods that might be applied to our African Heartlands.

Even with good will, legitimate differences over priorities and the best approach to conservation will remain and are healthy. But I am heartened by the ABCG project. ABCG heralds the return to an earlier time when conservation organizations worked closely to meet the most extraordinary challenges facing the natural world. With growing human populations and increased consumption, the wild lands and wildlife of Africa in the next century will be under pressure as never before. The continent is vast, the danger is imminent, and we can ill afford the indulgence of institutional exclusivity or the distractions of competition.

It is fitting that we are renewing our links to other organizations at this time. As you will see in this issue's report on the year's highlights, AWF has embarked upon an exciting new journey in conservation. And as president of AWF, I gladly commit this organization to even greater cooperation with our colleagues within the United States, Europe and Africa as we move ahead. I believe our supporters expect it, and the challenges before us demand it.

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