The problem with (CON)servation

Today is World Rhino Day, celebrated on September 22 every year. This special day provides the opportunity for cause-related organizations, NGOs, zoos, and members of the public to celebrate rhinos in their own unique ways. It is also just one of many wildlife days in the year when people fall victim to the scam that is CONservation.

In a time when saving the planet and its inhabitants is more vital than ever, people are looking at ways to get involved to help alleviate the situation where possible. While this is an amazing effort and most organisations and initiatives are doing the right thing, there are always opportunists who will take advantage of this and manipulate the public for profit or gain.

Greenwashing is a word that has been thrown around for some time now in the environmental space. Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly.

A growing body of social and environmental accounting research indicates that, without external monitoring and verification, greenwashing strategies amount to corporate posturing and deception. While greenwashing is not new, it has increased over recent years to meet consumer demand for environmentally-friendly goods and services. The problem is compounded by lax enforcement by regulatory agencies.

The same thing is now happening in the world of conservation, with CONservation becoming a word used more and more to describe the growing number of organisations touting so-called conservation efforts to the public to source funding. Such is the confusing world of wildlife conservation where initiatives to save iconic species compete in a game of recognition, often completely missing the conservation goal.

With hundreds of NGOs proclaiming to “save” and “protect” wildlife, how do donors decide who to support?

The answer is not easy, and the donors themselves are often motivated to ‘do good’ with an easy click and credit-card swipe entry on a website’s donate button. NGO websites encourage this approach: for a few dollars, you can supposedly sponsor a park ranger, help buy equipment or secure land to protect. The question is, how much of the money you donate actually goes to the said cause?

I have spent the last 4 years becoming heavily involved within the conservation arena, specifically in Africa. What I have learnt is there is no black or white solution when it comes to conservation. However, there are most certainly good and bad operations happening out there and abroad. I have worked with some fantastic organisations that are getting proven results for their donors. I have also been caught up with dodgy organisations that I was even conned into believing were legitimate.

There has been a rise in foreign ‘conservation armies’ in Africa claiming to be soldiers fighting for wildlife. An article published by The Conversation hits the nail on the head when they say these  ‘conservation armies’ in Africa “may be doing more harm than good”

“Conservation is becoming more militarized, and it is cause for serious concern. Rising rates of elephant and rhino poaching in Africa, and fears of a link between poachers and terrorists, have led to foreign national armies, private military companies and even UN peacekeeping forces all moving into wildlife protection.

Not everyone is happy to see them: the Game Rangers Association of Africa recently issued a statement raising concerns about the growth of military personnel from beyond Africa involved in ranger training and anti-poaching operations across the continent.

The private contractors, current serving soldiers, and groups of army veterans currently working across Africa are all very different kinds of “conservation armies”. But the common thread is that they are contributing to the development of a more forceful and militarised phase of wildlife protection.”

That is not to be confused with locally born African soldiers who are fighting the conservation war. Being African born and bred means they have a better understanding of Africa that can not be obtained by those foreigners who have merely spent time in the region. The foreign ‘eco-military’ distracts from asking other important questions like what drives poaching in the first place, what role poverty plays, the balance with local communities and more.

One organisation that is getting it right is African Parks, who take on the management of protected areas in partnership with governments and are increasingly attracting donor funds because they are accountable for their actions. In signing formal public-private partnership (PPP) agreements, they secure full management responsibility for a protected area and are held responsible for what happens under their watch.

Given African Parks’ competency and expertise in protected area management, they are well-positioned to secure 30 parks in their portfolio by 2030. They release details of key and relevant achievements with detailed facts of the progress. Most importantly, they release an Annual Report that is accessible to the public and can be viewed on their website here –

This is why it is vital before donating, you research a company for their transparency and accountability. A genuine NFP or organisation will want the public to know as much as possible about how they operate and how carefully and effectively they use your donations. They prove their accountability to their members, the public and all those that have a stake in the conservation. It is in their best interest to make use of every dollar donated with careful attention to effectiveness and efficiency.

So how can you spot a dodgy organisation?

Unfortunately, not enough donors do any research about the nonprofits they’re supporting before clicking that “donate” button. Donors have an important role to play in preventing nonprofit waste, fraud and abuse.

Don’t let your hesitation or a bad experience previously stop you from donating to a cause you feel strongly about. While there are dodgy operators out there, there are just as many legitimate organisations doing amazing work that desperately need support. Here are some of the ways you can ensure your donation hits the right operation.

As mentioned previously, accountability and transparency are paramount. Ask to see an Annual Report. Frankly, if they don’t have this, go elsewhere. There are bound to be other organisations doing similar work that can provide this. If they are doing the right thing with your money, then they have nothing to hide. A bad charity is rarely going to tell on itself. In fact, the people running it will go to great lengths to obscure its financial reporting, using accounting tricks or outright lies to make it appear to be operating more efficiently than it actually is. Such fundraisers are notorious for crafting highly misleading donation appeals designed to play on your emotions and convince you that most of your donation will be used for a charitable purpose when this is far from the case.

Don’t be a sheep and follow the crowd. Social media is very good at rallying up support and that is great, but it can also be damaging if you are adding your support to the masses in the wrong organisation. Once again, do your research before throwing your social support behind an organisation or NFP. Can you see actual progress in what they say they are doing? Or are they recycling a lot of old material from the past few years or worse still, using someone else’s content and claiming it is their work? A legitimate organisation will be sharing their efforts, updates and successes constantly as these are performance results and achievements.

Look at who they work with. Are they associated with any large, well-established organisations or Government Agencies? Chances are if they have a lot of partner relationships, then they would have gone through a screening process with them for this association. Once again, showing this is showing transparency. This doesn’t mean you should neglect the smaller grassroots organisations. Just have a look at who they interact with even in a positive way and get the same response back.

Last of all, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You have the right as a donor to do this. If you are not being supplied information about how your money is spent, then speak up and call out the perpetrators when you encounter them. This is difficult to do as it is often met with backlash from not only the organisation but any of their supporters that are not privy to their operations.

It is important to take responsibility of your donation choices as it keeps the conservation arena honest and helps others make more informed decisions. This, in turn, helps build faith and trust for future donors and ensures the money goes to the right place. After all, the ultimate goal is to help conservation, not CONservation.

Kate Webster is a world traveller, ocean lover and conservation warrior who is determined to make every moment count for not only herself but the world around her. This has inspired Kate to translate those moments and share them through her storytelling. A dedicated David Attenborough and Jane Goodall fan, Kate has delved into the world of wildlife and conservation travel to bring awareness.