18 Famous Animal Conservationists

Primatologist Jane Goodall holding a chimpanzee in the wild

Apic / Contributor / Getty Images

Animal conservationists strive to protect the health and safety of our planet's creatures. Whether they've devoted their entire lives to the protection of a single species, like Jane Goodall, or have taken a broader stance on environmentalism, like David Attenborough, the work of animal conservationists makes a difference.

While many of their names, faces, and voices are widely recognized and celebrated, more important are the ways they've raised awareness around the globe. Here are 15 legendary wildlife conservationists you should know.

1
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Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough sitting at the Woodberry Wetlands
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The buttery voice of this British nature historian can be recognized all over the world. Getting his start as a radio talk producer with the BBC, Sir David Attenborough (born 1926) has written, produced, narrated, and hosted countless nature programs over the course of his 70-year career. Some of them include "Planet Earth," "Life," "Our Planet," and "Blue Planet."

Through his beloved narrations, Attenborough has remained at the forefront of global wildlife and rainforest conservation for many decades. He is the president of the Butterfly Conservation, which was once headed by fellow conservationist Sir Peter Scott, and has received a CBE as well as awards from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Perfect World Foundation, the World Economic Forum, and more.

2
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Jane Goodall

Scientist Jane Goodall studying the behavior of young chimps
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The legendary British primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist Jane Goodall (born 1934) has studied the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees since she was 26 years old. Today, she is considered to be the world's top chimp expert and activist. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute to protect primates and promote sustainable livelihoods.

Goodall has collaborated with NASA to use satellite imagery to remedy the impact of deforestation on chimp populations, and demanded that the European Union stop using animals for medical research. She serves on the board of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks to change the legal status of intelligent species, and has been named a UN Messenger of Peace.

3
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Marlin Perkins

Marlin Perkins feeding a kangaroo with a bottle

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Marlin Perkins (1905 - 1986) was a zoologist and the face of the revolutionary and engaging nature program "Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom." Before he became a television host, though, he worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. During his time at the zoo, he joined mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary as a zoologist for a Himalayan expedition in search of Yeti. He began hosting the zoo’s "Zoo Parade" show, which led to his work on "Wild Kingdom."

After working to protect endangered species through the program, he cofounded the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center, now known as the Endangered Wolf Center, in 1971. The sanctuary still breeds wolves to be placed in their natural habitats.

4
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Li Quan

Li Quan sitting in grass with two tigers

Save China's Tiger / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

Born in Beijing, the London-based wildlife conservationist Li Quan (born 1962) coined the concept of rewilding captive tigers. Quan hails from the fashion industry — a former executive at Fila, Benetton, and Gucci — but switched focus to saving tigers when she saw the poor conditions in which they were living in South China. She persuaded the Chinese government to allow her to transplant tigers that had been living in captivity to Africa, so they could live in an environment similar to their natural habitats and, eventually, be released into the wild.

Quan's charitable foundation Save China's Tigers, which she founded in 2000, aims to save China's tigers from extinction. It now has offices in Hong Kong, the U.S., and the U.K.

5
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Jack Hanna

Jack Hanna posing with a big cat cub
Rich Polk / Getty Images

Jack Hanna (born 1947) initially gained his fame as the director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio, a role he held from 1978 to 1992. He became a regular guest on "Good Morning America" and the "Late Show with David Letterman," bringing national attention to his Ohio post. Due to his infectious charisma, he was given his own show, "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures" — and, eventually, a string of others.

After 1992, Hanna became the director emeritus of the zoo. Under his leadership, the zoo raised $3 million annually for conservation efforts around the world. Hanna is the founder of Jack Hanna's Heroes and has received the Tom Mankiewicz Leadership Award for his work in conservation.

6
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Paula Kahumbu

Paula Kahumbu with award at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
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Paula Kahumbu (born 1966) is a Kenyan wildlife conservationist who has worked with Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta to launch the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign, which aims to end the country's poaching crisis. She is the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a charity founded by paleoanthropologist and public environmental campaigner Richard Leakey. While much of her work has centered around Kenya's elephants, she has led the organization in conservation efforts also surrounding chimpanzees, African painted dogs, and other endangered species.

7
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Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey (1932 - 1985), Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas were dubbed "the Trimates" and "Leakey's Angels" because they were chosen by paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey to study hominoids in the wild in Rwanda. While there, Fossey created the Karisoke Research Center and actively opposed poaching in the region. She founded the Digit Fund, named after her favorite gorilla who was killed by poachers. The fund, now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, enables anti-poaching patrols to continue in the area. Fossey was murdered in her cabin in Rwanda at the orders of a local government official.

8
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Birute Galdikas

Birute Galdikas with an orangutan

Megan Coughlin / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Another Leakey’s Angel, Canadian anthropologist Birutė Galdikas (born 1946), took on the cause of orangutan conservation and is now known to be a top authority on these fascinating primates. She studied orangutans in their Bornean habitats and has since focused on rehabilitating orphaned orangutans and advocating for the species’ protection. She created Camp Leakey in 1971 as a base camp for researchers and park rangers. Then, in 1986, she founded the Orangutan Foundation International to preserve the orangutans' rainforest home.

9
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Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau shaking hands with Federico Mayor

UNESCO Archives / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910 - 1997) began as a French Naval officer and marine explorer. The iconic adventurer, always clad in his signature red beanie, was a filmmaker who pioneered scuba gear and sailed around the world over the course of his life, educating people about oceans and marine life all the while. He used his documentary work to battle against commercial whaling and inspire a passion for oceans. He founded The Cousteau Society to protect marine life in 1973; it now has 50,000 members worldwide.

10
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Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell posing on balcony in front of water
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The British naturalist Gerald Durrell (1925 - 1995) founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of Jersey, now known as Durrell Wildlife Park. He was also an author of about 40 books, including autobiographies, children’s books, and novels, most of which carried strong environmental messages. Durrell saw zoos as an opportunity to foster endangered species and spent decades trying to restore species such as the Mauritius kestrel raptor.

11
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Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin holding crocodile with raised fist
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Steve Irwin (1962 - 2006) was an avid conservationist, as was apparent in his enthusiasm as the star of his '90s-era television show, "The Crocodile Hunter." Behind the scenes, the Australian zookeeper also actively worked to protect wildlife as the founder of the Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation (now Wildlife Warriors Worldwide), the International Crocodile Rescue, the Lyn Irwin Memorial Fund, and the Iron Bark Station Wildlife Rehabilitation Facility. He also advocated for eco-tourism and sustainable consumer choices prior to his 2006 death, caused by a stingray injury.

12
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David Suzuki

David Suzuki walking at the Melbourne Sustainable Living Festival
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David Suzuki (born 1936) is a Canadian geneticist and biologist known for making complex environmental issues accessible and relatable. In addition to a decades-long career in broadcasting, the scientist also founded the David Suzuki Foundation, which helps protect marine species, pollinators, caribou, and other fragile animal populations throughout Canada and around the world.

Suzuki has used his public platform to speak out about climate change and slowed his international touring due to concerns about transportation and greenhouse gas emissions. He has won numerous awards, including the UN Environment Programme Medal and UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science.

13
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Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt with his dogs on a farm

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Teddy Roosevelt (1858 - 1919) may have started out as an enthusiastic big game hunter, but he adopted conservation as his passion once he saw the decimation of the West. Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service and established hundreds of bird sanctuaries, game preserves, national forests, and national parks. According to the National Park Service, Roosevelt protected about 230,000,000 acres of public land throughout his time as president. His creation of bird refuges likely prevented further mass killing of island bird species for their highly valuable feathers.

14
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Margaret Murie

Portrait of Margaret Murie in a meadow

Raymond Gehman / Contributor / Getty Images

Margaret "Mardy" Murie (1902 - 2003) was deemed the "Grandmother of the Conservation Movement" for her work promoting the 1964 Wilderness Act, which protected 9.1 million acres of federal land, and for creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, whose 19 million acres make it the largest national wildlife refuge in the country. She and her husband, Olaus, spent their honeymoon studying birds and traveling some 500 miles via dogsled to research caribou populations. In 1998, five years before her death, Murie received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her environmentalism efforts.

15
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William Hornaday

Rosa Ponselle presenting a silver fox to William Hornaday

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William T. Hornaday (1854 - 1937) was a buffalo hunter-turned-conservationist. He worked for the Smithsonian Institute and helped to establish the National Zoo. During his time at the Smithsonian, Hornaday was sent westward to collect buffalo specimen; upon finding that so few were left, he dedicated himself to their cause. Alongside Teddy Roosevelt, he cofounded the American Bison Society and, through persuasion and writing, alerted the public to the conservation cause.

16
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Leela Hazzah

An animal activist standing in front of Maasai warriors.

Philip J. Briggs / Lion Guardians

Leela Hazzah (born 1979) is the Egyptian conservation biologist behind Lion Guardians, which aims to mitigate conflicts between people and lions in East Africa's Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. Africa's lion population is dwindling rapidly, losing about 100 individuals per year, and it's projected to fall by another 50% over the next two decades. Lion Guardians promotes coexistence between big cats and the indigenous Maasai people by hiring Maasai warriors to be lion protectors.

17
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Paul Watson

Paul Watson sitting in garden
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Captain of the Sea Shepherd — one of the famed vessels from the late Discovery Channel program "Whale Wars" — Paul Watson (born 1950) has worked towards marine life conservation for more than 30 years. As a cofounder of the Greenpeace Foundation, he sailed in opposition of nuclear testing, seal hunting, and whaling. After his departure from Greenpeace, Watson founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Today, he lives in Vermont and writes books.

18
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George Adamson

Known as the "Father of Lions" ("Bwana Simba"), George Adamson (1906 - 1989) was the pioneer of lion conservation. He and his wife Joy raised an orphaned cub named Elsa, and also rehabilitated the English-born lion Christian and 23 other lions in Kora National Park until his tragic murder in 1989. His assistant, Tony Fitzjohn, founded the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust to continue the protection of these big cats, their habitat, and other wildlife.