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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Too often, women’s impact in conservation—and beyond—has been overlooked. But the truth is, conservation is not possible without women—from different walks of life and different parts of the world. So, for this issue of our magazine, we asked 11 WWF women staff members to interview* or write odes to women conservationists who inspire them. We have a lot of work to do to achieve gender parity in our field, but we wanted to take this moment to share how far we’ve come.
*Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Nancy Takahashi is an associate professor emeritus and former chair of the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Virginia. Her projects, which often focus on underserved communities, include First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House kitchen garden, designed to help inner-city children learn about nutrition. She is currently working with a team of architecture students and colleagues to explore issues of sustainability in a coastal city in Ghana.
I had an opportunity to travel to Ghana, and I came upon a city called Winneba with a rich cultural history and vibrant university. I have been using that as a case study to think about the future of the West Africa coastal environment in the face of climate change, and a city’s relationship to the landscape surrounding it.
After touring the coast of Ghana, I found myself intrigued with Winneba, which is situated next to a beautiful lagoon. Muni Lagoon is a Ramsar site—designated as an internationally important wetland. The very founding of the city was grounded in its relationship to the lagoon.
In that part of Ghana there are huge demands due to population growth—demands for food, housing, resources. All of that is really threatening the future of Muni, and so our project is working with stakeholders to try to bring attention to this incredible resource.
Well, the quantity and size of fish caught in the lagoon have been decreasing, and people are pretty aware of that. Water quality is also notably on the decline. An important part of our work is in exploring economic opportunities in new industries like aquaculture, mangrove cultivation, and recreational tourism that will benefit both lagoon and community.
We are working with the Ghana Forestry Commission, which oversees the lagoon, on water quality monitoring and education. The site manager there has a very important role in working with the community, with students in the public schools, talking to them about what’s happening there and their role as future stewards of this place.
It really has to do with educating the public about not only this specific lagoon but about the degraded threatened environment that’s around them. To support these efforts, we are working with the university and the Wildlife Commission to build an education and research center on the lagoon.
As an educator, I taught students to really see the place where they’re living and understand the ecosystem around them, and then explore how design can respond to that. In many ways, this is what we’re doing in Ghana.
Sustainability lies at the heart of everything we do in the US. And I sense the younger generation is aware and eager to engage in sustainable practices in Africa.
I keep going back to education. I see great potential in the young people there.
Interviewed by Katy Lai
Special Assistant to the President and CEO
Mariuxi Farías represents WWF-Ecuador in the Galápagos Islands. She works with other international organizations, local communities, Ecuadorian government entities, and tourism operators to design, implement, and monitor sustainable tourism in protected areas and to strengthen community enterprises. She was closely involved in developing a new tourism model for the Galápagos that was implemented in 2010.
I supervise our projects. WWF focuses on Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Marine Reserve, working to conserve these ecosystems and benefit local communities. The Galápagos includes four populated islands, and we, the residents, have the great responsibility of guarding humanity’s natural heritage.
WWF aims to strengthen local capabilities, and we make strategic alliances with partners such as research organizations that generate information decision-makers can use to improve the management of protected areas, sustainable tourism, sustainable fisheries, and waste management.
I lead several projects working with the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Tourism, and other organizations. For example, we wanted to know the impact that scuba divers had and developed a best practice diving toolkit with the Charles Darwin Foundation after studying the issue.
Yes. That’s quite important. The Tourism Observatory is this dynamic platform where all data related to tourism information is posted. For example, in the Observatory, you can find the number of visitors arriving in the Galápagos each year as well as information about tourism services, hotels, restaurants, etc. This information is available online to anyone. Crucial data is provided by naturalist guides, who upload their observations at the end of each trip they guide, such as species’ behavior, garbage presence, migratory species, invasive species, etc. We have 600 to 700 naturalist guides who are trained and qualified to monitor protected areas.
We believe tourism can be a conservation tool, but it must be well planned. It’s important to guarantee the conservation of the ecosystems and also ensure that visitors leave satisfied and local communities benefit from tourism activities. It’s a triangle that needs to be complete in order to work.
I came here very young, attracted by nature. Having just graduated from university, I was looking for a place to start practicing my profession, and I found it! I learned a lot about Galápagos, and it has helped me to replicate these experiences in other coastal communities in Ecuador.
I would say you don’t need to have studied ecology or biology. You have a voice, and you can use it to shape the future.
Interviewed by Mónica Echeverria
Deputy Director, Media and External Affairs
Martinez is placing communities at the center of environmental policies.
Cecilia Martinez has spent her life focused on one mission: ensuring that all communities have the right to a healthy environment.
Racial inequity and poverty have an adverse impact on public health and the environment. Numerous studies have shown that communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and low-income communities suffer a heavier burden than others from air pollution and lack of access to healthy foods and green spaces. For instance, a study published in Science Advances this year showed that fine-particle pollution—the most harmful form of air pollution—disproportionately affects the health of people of color in the US.
First as an academic, and later as the cofounder of the environmental justice nonprofit the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy, Martinez has fought against industrial policies that are damaging to the most vulnerable among us.
Now, as senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, she is leading the charge in placing communities at the center of the government’s environmental policies—where they always should have been.
It’s outrageous that the size of your wallet or the color of your skin determines whether your child grows up in a polluted environment. I admire Martinez’s tireless advocacy—from academia to the halls of power—and I especially hope that the concept of environmental justice is integrated into policy-making. It is, after all, a movement to ensure a basic fairness: a healthy world for all.
By Helen Belmont
Senior Director, Communications, Private Sector Engagement
Julia Rouhi has spent the past 13 years supporting WWF’s mission in a variety of roles and departments, from marketing to fundraising to financial management to information technology.
I like to use the analogy of Mother Teresa. She ran a hospital and did amazing things. But there was a nun nobody knew in the back office ordering the bandages. There was another sweeping the floor, another doing the laundry. I think of myself as that nun ordering bandages, paying the bills. That’s my role. Somebody has to care about the financial systems. There are a lot of us who support conservation work without being on the front lines.
That project was incredible. We had a core group of women who just bonded, like a sisterhood. We were all helping each other and pushing each other to do better. Ultimately, it made the project stronger, and I’m really proud of what we were able to develop for WWF. You always hear about how women are super competitive with each other at work, but you never hear stories about how they support each other.
A few years ago, I developed a training session about how I had managed my career at WWF as a woman. It resonated with people, and I ended up repeating it a handful of times.
I demonstrated the methods I used to objectively measure my achievements and position myself to work on projects that led to further opportunities. I gave concrete examples of how I had talked with my supervisors about my career, and I gave advice about how to be intentional with those conversations, to lay the groundwork for advancement. I talked candidly about the double standards that women face and how my family, faith, and mental health have impacted some of my career decisions.
I continue to mentor women on how to advocate for themselves, and it is hands down the most rewarding thing I do at WWF.
One, the work I’ve done mentoring other women. Because it’s exponential. I know that all the women I have worked with are paying it forward themselves.
Two, the financial management project. We thoughtfully took existing systems and asked, “What do we need in order for WWF to be bigger, better, more efficient, and more nimble?” In the end, the systems we put in place are going to support all sorts of conservation work, from preventing zoonotic diseases to protecting the Amazon.
Interviewed by Giavanna Grein
Senior Program Officer, Wildlife Conservation
Her leadership has informed my own way of approaching activism.
Dolores Huerta witnessed the effects of dangerous chemicals that not only contaminated the earth and produce in US farm fields, but also poisoned the Mexican and Filipino men, women, and children laboring in those fields.
These workers had little to no protection, which ignited Huerta’s lifelong fight for better labor conditions, increased wages, stricter environmental regulations, and landmark labor policies. In 1962, she and César Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America.
When Huerta received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama—whose presidential campaign had been invigorated by the rallying cry “¡Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”) coined by Huerta in the early 1970s—she said, “The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action.”
When male farm workers and leaders dominated power structures, not only did Huerta make sure her own voice was heard, but she also empowered other Latina workers to make themselves heard. When mostly white faces led the feminist movement, Huerta worked with Gloria Steinem to champion justice for non-white women. When workers faced environmental hazards in the fields, she fought to regulate pesticides.
Her leadership has informed my own way of approaching activism and connecting with people, and I continue to learn from her as I move through my career.
By Grace Lee
Senior Specialist, Activism and Outreach
Alice Ruhweza leads over 500 WWF staff working in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to joining WWF in 2019, she was vice president of programs and partnerships for Africa at Conservation International. Ruhweza is a development economist whose background includes work for the United Nations Development Programme, the nonprofit Forest Trends, Sprint Telecommunications, and Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority.
First, my dream was to finish school and find a good job. This is never a given in Africa, where we still have very high levels of unemployment. Over 90 million girls are not in school. Both my parents grew up at a time when girls didn’t even go to school, and they had seen the pitfalls firsthand. They were, therefore, determined to ensure my sisters and I went to school.
After graduation, I became a teacher of English and economics in a rural secondary school. But a career as a teacher, though very rewarding, was really not my dream.
I kept looking for the right opportunity, and four years later I won a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in economics in the US, which led to a chance to work in the corporate sector there. That was a turning point for me.
My father was the chief game warden in the National Game Department, overseeing wildlife and protected and conserved area management across Uganda. He was a passionate wildlife biologist, and he often told me and my sisters facts and stories about wildlife and their habitat. During the holidays, he would take us with him to the national parks, where we would see animals roaming in the wild and learn about their interactions with the communities living alongside them. The experiences with my father shaped my passion for wildlife and conservation.
WWF has been in Africa for 60 years. I find our footprint in almost every conservation story across the continent. In Central Africa—where there’s been war and where countries still have challenges with rule of law—WWF has been there for decades. We carry out scientific research, advise local and national governments on environmental policy, and work with communities to advocate for their rights. Sometimes we are criticized, but we’re not giving up, and I’m proud of that. I am also excited about our expansive and holistic agenda, which includes food, forests, freshwater, climate and energy, oceans, and of course wildlife.
People are not [just] beneficiaries; they are partners. The way we work has to have people at the center of it. We know we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t engage society.
Seventy-six percent of people in Africa are below the age of 25. And what I find most encouraging is that they are already aware and engaged. Recently, my 14-year old daughter’s class celebrated Earth Day virtually. I was impressed when I listened to her classmates talking about their commitments for nature—from decreasing plastic pollution to planting more trees. This gave me tremendous hope that our future is in good hands.
Interviewed by Melissa D. Ho
Senior Vice President, Freshwater and Food
She continues to be an inspiration to me in my career.
As a young girl, I’d often sit cross-legged on the floor of my grandmother’s modest London home, readying myself for another tale of our matriarch’s childhood in India. She’d hold a cup of piping hot Darjeeling tea—her favored brew—and I’d nibble on a chocolate biscuit.
The stories she enthralled me with were often about the adventures she and her sister, Anne, delighted in during their upbringing in central India. But sometimes she’d tell me more recent tales—about her niece Belinda Wright, Anne’s daughter.
Before committing her life to conservation, Wright was a wildlife photographer and filmmaker who spent two years capturing the lives of wild tigers in the Kanha and Ranthambore tiger reserves in India. The 1984 National Geographic documentary Land of the Tiger, which resulted from this effort, won several international awards, including two Emmys.
In 1994, Wright founded Wildlife Protection Society of India, an NGO focused on stopping poaching and illegal wildlife trade, especially in wild tigers. Later, working undercover in Tibet, she was part of a team that helped expose the enormity of tiger and leopard skin trade there. The findings helped lead to a denunciation by the Dalai Lama and spur a movement against the practice of wearing big cat skins in Tibet.
Today, as I start my day’s work from the safety of my desk, I take a moment to thank her. She continues to be an inspiration to me in my career. I am in awe of her tireless devotion, her bravery, and the sacrifices she made to commit her life’s work to the incredible big cats.
By Jennifer Roberts
Director of Development, WWF’s Global Tiger Program
Jessica Fanzo is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and the director of the Global Food Policy and Ethics Program at Johns Hopkins University. She also leads Food and Nutrition Security at Hopkins’s Alliance for a Healthier World. From 2017 to 2019, she served on the EAT-Lancet Commission, which assembled 37 leading scientists from various disciplines to define targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production.
More a rocky road of random directions! After I finished my PhD, I was really a bench scientist, working on nutrition biochemistry, molecular nutrition. Over time, I switched to a more public-facing career in international development—working in nutrition, but through a wider devel-opment lens, linking agriculture, climate change, and ecosystems with diets, nutrition, and health.
I think it was when I was living in Kenya, working on food security and nutrition and the impacts of agriculture and rural development on health. In rural communities where they’re growing a lot of their own food and their livelihoods deeply depend on food, you really see the links in a visceral way.
The EAT-Lancet Commission report was an important moment. It amplified the conversation and created a significant political and scientific debate. If we want human health, is the planet going to suffer? If we want planetary health, is human health going to suffer?
One option is to not eat meat at every meal. Increase your fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based proteins. Now, do you have to be a vegan? No, but you could limit some energy intensive meats.
I think many in the US are confused about what is healthy and what is sustainable. We are surrounded by these cheap calories that are high in salt, sugar, and fat. Meanwhile our food system has made it much more difficult to get access to fresh, perishable, nutritious foods. A lot of that has to do with where you live, your income, and ethnicity. There are systemic injustices and inequities in our food system that have made certain foods more accessible to certain segments of society.
We need a major shift in our food systems. Central to that is dismantling the marginalization of certain populations and their ability to feed their families well. There’s a real need to invest in infrastructure and better technologies to get fresh foods to markets and ensure that they’re affordable for everyone.
It just happened to come out this year, when I think all eyes are on food. Zoonotic diseases are very much linked to food systems and the way we do agriculture, our encroachment on natural habitats, and wildlife destruction. Just like with COVID-19, it’s going to take a global effort to shift our food systems in the right direction. It’s a “We are all in this together” kind of problem. We’re all sitting at the table.
Interviewed by Kate Graves
Director, Communications and Fuller Program, Global Science
As senior vice president for development and board relations, Julie Miller leads WWF’s private fundraising efforts and oversees the management of WWF’s Board of Directors and National Council. Miller holds a BS from the University of Kansas and an MBA from the George Washington University and completed an executive management program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
I grew up in a rural small town in southeast Kansas, in an intensely agricultural area full of cattle ranching and wheat and soy production, and it’s definitely shaped the way I think about conservation. We were not an outdoorsy family, but I spent a lot of time outside, riding my bike, running around.
My career had been on the private-sector side. I was getting ready to turn one of those birthdays that ends in zero, one of those milestones. I wanted to do something that I cared more about, to contribute to something bigger. I have two sons and that offers a tremendous motivation to make sure we leave the world better for their generation—and all those that follow. I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
I’m not sure I’m proud of achievements, as much as I’m proud of the people who have contributed to them.
We are. I really think of it as an achievement, attracting talented people who are committed, hard-working, honest, and show fortitude and determination—people who have a shared purpose and want the organization to be stronger.
You know, with all the tragedy and sadness of the past year, with the issues we’re grappling with as a country that are so hard and so deeply rooted, I have to say I’ve actually enjoyed watching the organization power through these challenges. The resilience of our staff has been remarkable. Seeing so many parents working remotely while homeschooling their children and handling elder care—seeing the balance and tenacity that requires—has been amazing.
I could not agree more about the importance of voices across generations, and across all spectrums of colors and identities and geographies. It’s such an important time for us as a country, but also as an organization.
It’s easy to go to women leaders who are public figures. But there are also women whose names will never be in headlines or history books, and yet they are making huge impacts for people and nature. I have met some incredible women. Half a world away, they’re trying to provide a better life for their families, a better future for the natural world, just like I am.
Be true to who you are. Don’t be afraid to express empathy in all that you do, in your decision-making. And be courageous. Standing up for what’s right, using your voice, is really important. You don’t have to try to act like somebody else. Be yourself.
Interviewed by Ashley Shepherd
Senior Specialist, HR Special Projects
Trang Nguyen is known for her undercover work to expose the illegal wildlife trade. She has received numerous awards, including from WWF, and appeared on the BBC’s 2019 list of the world’s most influential women. Her most recent book is Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear (Dial Books, 2021), a graphic novel based on her childhood. She is currently a founder and director of a local NGO in Viet Nam called WildAct.
When I was eight, a neighbor was keeping a bear for bile farming. I saw them stab the bear with a big needle, extracting the bile. It was really horrendous.
I said, “I want to help wild animals. What can I do?” But most people—my parents, for example—would say, “There’s no such career.” Then I was watching the BBC’s Planet Earth and Discovery Channel, and I saw people like Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey—women working in this thing called wildlife conservation.
When I was doing my master’s in conservation leadership in Cambridge, I got really sick—I had cancer. When I was in the hospital, I had an interesting conversation with my doctor. He was saying, “So some people in Viet Nam believe rhino horn can heal cancer. That’s very dangerous because you have an optimum time for treating it, and if you pass that time, it might be too late.”
I thought, “Wow, that’s a really powerful message. What can I do to raise awareness about this issue so people get proper treatment?” I started to think, “I’m going to work on the rhino issue. If I can do it successfully, it will make things better for the rhino and also for humans.”
I did most of this work in Africa. It’s difficult because people have this prejudice that Asian people are bad people. It’s racist, in a way. People pushed me or said things like, “Oh, you [expletive] Chinese, [expletive] Vietnamese. You come over here and you kill all our wildlife.” You also have to deal with gender-based violence and sexual harassment.
A lot of times I don’t know how I do it, when people show me a pile of elephant skins, that kind of thing. But I’m able to keep a straight face and talk about hides and money. The moment I get back to my house, I cry. But I think, “I’m in a position where I can help. If I don’t help, then who [will]?”
It’s a threat, but also an opportunity. In Viet Nam, people are more aware of zoonotic diseases. Now you see the government issuing an order to ban all this wildlife meat in the markets. There are opportunities for us, especially to raise awareness. People care about health issues, about corruption. We have the opportunity to make them realize it’s all connected.
Having a career, it’s very much like getting married: Marry someone you love.
Interviewed by Nelly Kadagi
Director, Conservation Leadership and Education for Nature Program
Ostrom’s legacy shapes how we work in conservation today.
In 2009, Elinor “Lin” Ostrom was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, but her legacy extends far beyond that singular honor. Ostrom countered the dominant narrative around “the tragedy of the commons,” an economic theory which argued that individuals pursue their own interests even when it goes against the collective good. (The theory was made famous by an ecologist who was a known racist and eugenicist.) Ostrom’s work challenging the theory proved that our planet could be protected through community, collaboration, and cooperation.
One colleague who knew her said that she disliked the image of “helpless observers” being caught in a destructive pattern of resource depletion. So, through her cutting-edge and collaborative research, Ostrom showed that communities can and do self-organize to make decisions and create and enforce rules that lead to good outcomes.
Ostrom pushed the boundaries of science and challenged the usual divisions between disciplines. Working in true partnership with others who thought differently than she did, she paved the way for a new research community and body of knowledge that embrace diversity and the intertwined nature of human and natural systems.
Ostrom’s legacy shapes how we work in conservation today and continues to give me hope. Her principles on how to govern the commons from the bottom up guide our worldwide engagement to support and scale community-led institutions that protect the nature we all depend on.
By Shauna Mahajan
Lead Senior Social Scientist