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Going into Business for Wildlife Conservation

According to World Wildlife Fund, the rapid loss of wildlife species today is estimated to be up to 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. We are watching them disappear on a daily basis. It is astounding.

The implementation of national parks, beginning in the early 1900s, the birth of large organizations dedicated to wildlife conservation beginning in the 1950s, and worldwide recognition of classified endangered species beginning in the 1970s were major milestones in the effort to protect our wild spaces and species. In the 40 years since, however, there have been few breakthroughs in conservation that have truly turned the tide. Deforestation, overfishing, climate change, habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching are all accelerating. Conservation organizations so far have been successful only at slowing this destruction, and doing so is an endless daily battle.

This is complicated by the fact that conservation programs require high levels of financing, and without alternative business models to generate revenue, we are stuck in an unfortunate loop that goes like this:

  1. Run fundraising schemes that raise “awareness.” Include shocking photographs of stranded polar bears, emaciated orangutans, or mutilated rhinoceroses; add “before it’s too late” and “fight [insert bad thing like poaching here]”; and name your campaign “Save the [insert doomed animal here].” Compete with other organizations for the gloomiest message, generate the most pity, and prick people’s conscience to open their pocket book and donate.
  2. Flood the media with these messages. 

  3. Guard work, research, and programs zealously, given the massive effort necessary to raise money for them. Rarely collaborate and don’t share data, as it may threaten further funding.

  4. Celebrate achievements.

  5. Go to number 1.

Meanwhile, there are people on the ground, investing blood, sweat, and tears in protecting bonobos and pangolins. They are truly heroes, and my cynicism toward the process above has prompted me to look for ways to support them in new ways.

When I first started thinking about breakthroughs, I immediately turned to technology—not surprising, given that I spent 20 years working as an IT consultant. I thought advances in forensics, battery life, GPS tracking devices, acoustic monitoring, and drones would surely be the next game changers. But I found that these solutions are probably deployed in less than 1 percent of their potential applications in conservation, and rarely deployed across initiatives or regions. While there are a few reasons for this, including politics and slow adoption, ultimately the primary barrier is money.

Mountain gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo by Gautam Shah)

The organizations in a position to benefit from the technology cannot afford it, and therefore the companies with the skills and resources to develop useful solutions for conservation can’t make money from them. A recent successful implementation of drones to prevent poaching is estimated to cost $500,000 annually to support one team covering a small area in South Africa. If you were to try and implement similar solutions across all land areas that supported rhino populations in Africa, it would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. So while technology is certainly part of the equation, many tech solutions are limited to narrow silos of implementation. The financial barrier will limit the application of technology to incremental benefits. And incremental benefits won’t save [insert doomed animal here].

One point of light is an X Prize for technology solutions to wildlife tracking and poaching prevention. I’m excited about this, and there is no doubt that some great ideas will come of it. But I would be even more excited to see an X Prize for sustainable business models to support large-scale conservation. That would be the real breakthrough. By sustainable business model, I mean developing new solutions that:

  • Sell a product or service that the public values and will buy
  • Generate revenue directly investible in conservation outcomes
  • Don’t have a negative impact on the environment
  • Don’t rely on donations or grants

Business model innovation is what we really need to eliminate the dependency on limited  funding for large-scale implementations of technology and other programs for conservation.

Of course this is easier said than done. To date, there have been few sustainable, revenue-generating mechanisms for conservation outside eco-tourism and, arguably, hunting—and the scale and effectiveness of both are debatable. According to a 2014 study, “There is significant appetite to invest in conservation, however asset classes that satisfy a clear investment objective are underdeveloped.” There is more opportunity out there; we just haven’t turned our attention to this type of innovation.

As conservationists, we want people to support nature for the same reasons we do. But we must look at things through the eyes of our “customers”—those who we are looking to engage. This is something that successful businesses would never fail to do. Walt Disney is an example of a company that has tapped into people's love of animals as a foundation for its business. The recent film Zootopia generated $800 million worldwide in just one month. It—just like The Lion King, Jungle Book, Finding Nemo, and many others—takes advantage of people’s love of and fascination with animals, yet none of the profits will benefit conservation. Imagine if they did. I'm not saying that Disney should start supporting conservation. I'm saying that maybe WWF should get into the movie business.  

At Internet of Elephants (IoE), we see quantifiable proof that people inherently love animals. We also see a $74 billion online gaming market, and are looking for ways to tap into it. We are currently partnering with the Chicago Zoological Society, and gaming and business experts, to build world-class games that create a direct connection between people and wild animals, and leverage human addictions such as friendly competition, status, self-quantification, play, and love. Rather than trying to get 20,000 people to donate $100, we will try to get 20 million people to pay $5 for an experience they value, and then invest the majority of that directly back in conservation organizations and programs. By doing so, we will have engaged the masses with wildlife and generated revenue to widely implement tech-based solutions. 

Using games to attract a large audience is by no means the only alternative to traditional fundraising, and it’s by no means a sure bet. But unless the leaders in conservation, technology, and business put more attention on rewarding business model innovation for conservation, we won’t find those alternatives, and our cycle of begging for money will only become more entrenched. 

I would like to see:

  1. Conservation NGOs allocate 1-3 percent of their yearly budget to experimenting with new value propositions and business models, partnering with the private sector to help unlock the potential of their assets
  2. Conservation donors and philanthropists seek out more opportunities to invest in new business ventures that have conservation impact, as well as the potential to preserve wealth

  3. Everyone above start looking at conservation through the eyes of the public, rather than only through the eyes of their own passion

If we invest just a little more in private-sector thinking, we can hit the next big thing that changes the game, either in our ability to finance effective-but-expensive programs or to truly engage a worldwide audience—ideally both. 

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