Sixty years ago, in 1961, as global consumption of natural resources started to increase exponentially with accelerating impacts on the planet, a group of visionary and passionate people felt that the natural world needed a global advocate. The idea of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature; previously the World Wildlife Fund) was born and Sir Peter Scott approached the Duke of Edinburgh to be its voice as its first president.
It was a fitting choice: His Royal Highness shared with him an interest in birds, sparked during a visit to the South Pacific and the South Atlantic on the sidelines of the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, and a thorough reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
It marked the start of a lifelong association with WWF and with the broader environmental movement; the beginning of a passion that he would pass on to his children and grandchildren and a legacy for conservation.
As president of WWF-UK (1961 to 1982) and as president of WWF International (1981 to 1996), following which he became president emeritus, a position he held to the day of his passing, Prince Philip promoted conservation issues at the highest government and corporate levels, dedicating his voice, position and influence to raise awareness and funds for environmental causes across more than 50 years.
The prince participated in over 50 trips to visit countries and projects of WWF, calling for greater, deeper action on the issues he felt so strongly about, and that are entwined with our wellbeing and that of our planet.
In 1965, a visit of the prince to Ethiopia laid the foundation for the establishment of a Wildlife Conservation Department. More than 30 years later, in 1999, he was part of the historic Yaoundé Summit where the Central African heads of state gathered to negotiate the Yaoundé declaration, which still forms the basis for forest conservation in the Congo Basin.
The prince brought his trademark energy, activism and determination to conservation. Guided by science, he spoke powerfully and committedly on issues such as biodiversity loss long before they entered the mainstream in which they are discussed today. He recognised that all life on our planet is sustained by a healthy natural world and that we must therefore look beyond saving a single species to safeguarding entire landscapes and ecosystems in a way that benefits both people and nature.
Over the years, WWF and conservation more broadly have evolved, as they well should, and we still have a long way to go to ensure a sustainable future for all. But as we do so, together with the many communities, organisations and governments we work with, we want to stop and acknowledge what we have achieved today, with the support and vision of the prince.
From an organisation created to raise funds to help protect nature and wildlife in 1961 to one of the world’s largest conservation groups today, we’ve seen some of the most innovative actions ever taken to save nature, whose impacts are still being felt.
From the 1980s, when a mere 1 per cent of the Earth’s surface was under protection and almost all of that was on land, to today, where over 15 per cent of land and 8 per cent of the ocean are protected, with plans to reach 30 per cent by 2030, through action by government, indigenous peoples and local communities, and the private sector, we’ve come a long way. But a lot more remains to be done. In the early 1960s, when the prince helped launch WWF, 62 per cent of our planet was wilderness. Today, that figure is less than 35 per cent.
With our planet under threat like never before, the prince’s passion for nature is exactly what we need in the world today if we are to protect it for future generations. Our dedicated giving page, launched in his memory, will continue his support for essential wildlife conservation and biodiversity around the world, with special bursaries for young environmentalists.
The prince once said: ‘‘If nature doesn’t survive, neither will man.” We commit to do all we can, as selflessly and as restlessly as the prince always did, to fix our broken relationship with nature that is threatening our climate, food, freshwater and health.
Through life, the prince guided and steered the WWF network to make a difference and we resolve to continue our efforts to help secure a prosperous, healthy, happy and equitable planet and future for all. This is our tribute to HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. This is his legacy.
Tanya Steele is CEO of WWF-UK
Marco Lambertini is director general of WWF International