President's Letter: The central importance of place

Carter Roberts headshot

“Our work must help keep places intact in a way that builds on the science of the ecosystems, on the ever-unfolding knowledge of a place’s biodiversity, and on the wisdom of the people who have been there for millennia.”

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

When I was growing up, there were few pleasures greater than disappearing into the woods behind my house and getting lost in the wildness of it all. Today, it’s hard to believe places in the world remain that few people have seen, and even fewer have explored. But their very possibility resonates for those of us who work in the world of conservation.

A few months ago, WWF announced the discovery of 115 species in the Greater Mekong region. They included Malayemys isan, a snail-eating turtle found in a local market in northeast Thailand; Shinisaurus crocodilurus vietnamensis, the Vietnamese crocodile lizard, so threatened by habitat destruction and the pet trade that as few as 200 individuals could remain in Vietnam; and Rhinolophus monticolus, the mountain horseshoe bat, found in the evergreen forests of Laos and Thailand. These discoveries bring to 2,524 the total number of new species found in the region since 1997, when WWF began compiling reports.

The Mekong is not alone. WWF announced that 211 species were discovered in the Eastern Himalayas between 2009 and 2014. The finds included Rhinopithecus strykeri, the Burmese snub-nosed monkey, and Channa andrao, a species of fish that can survive on land for four days. Most recently, WWF’s Living Amazon Initiative reported that in 2014 and 2015 a new species was discovered every two days in the Amazon. The grand total of 381 included Inia araguaiaensis, a new species of pink river dolphin, and Plecturocebus miltoni, a fire-tailed titi monkey.

These discoveries stagger the mind in a world where, with the internet and social media, few secrets remain. They also raise the question: What else is out there, just waiting to be found?

Many of these discoveries happen in remote places that modern development has not reached. And yet when governments lay out maps of their countries, there is an insatiable urge to draw lines through these places and open them up, both to further develop national economies and to help meet the very real needs of their citizens.

Which is why it takes foresight and courage for groups like WWF, as well as local communities and leaders, to engage governments and decision-makers in elevating the value of these places to make sure we don’t lose them forever. And it will take persistence, at least in the coming decades, for us to be a bridge in securing these places while the markets and the politics and the broader populations of the world learn to properly value nature and ensure that all their decisions keep it intact.

In the meantime, there are parks to manage and parks to create.

Consider Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the heart of Africa. In terms of avian ecology, my birding friends and I have always marveled at the mystery of the Congo peafowl, a gaudy creature few in the world have ever seen. Salonga is one of the best habitats for this stunning bird—and for 40% of all known bonobos, and numerous other species. In this issue, you can read about the innovative agreement between WWF and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation to comanage this spectacular protected area.

But whether it’s the Amazon, the Congo, or the Greater Mekong, the questions are the same: Are we making a difference on the ground? Are livelihoods and communities stronger? Are there more animals? Are the air and water cleaner? Our work must help keep places intact in a way that builds on the science of the ecosystems, on the ever-unfolding knowledge of a place’s biodiversity, and on the wisdom of the people who have been there for millennia.

This is why our presence in so many parts of the world is central to WWF’s DNA. It’s why our 28 offices spread across the archipelago of Indonesia matter, why our presence throughout the Congo Basin matters, why our office in Bozeman, Montana, matters. And it’s why it matters that we have strong local programs in places like Colombia, Zambia, Nepal, and Bhutan.

WWF was created in 1961 in response to a series of articles highlighting the very real possibility that we would lose the Serengeti, and species like the white rhino in eastern Africa, without a bold public appeal. More than 55 years later, as we work to protect these places, their importance continues to be underscored by the discovery of new species our founders could not have imagined. It is clearer and clearer what’s at stake—not just for these species, but also for us.

The ultimate measure of our work is whether we keep these extraordinary places that we cherish, and all the life they support, intact and thriving. Everything we do must drive toward that goal.

Carter Roberts

President and CEO

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues