IUCN President Tackles Biodiversity, Climate Change

Razan Al Mubarak is the second woman to lead the IUCN and first from West Asia.

Razan Al Mubarak
Razan Al Mubarak performs a laparoscopy on a green turtle before release.

 Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

For two decades, Razan Al Mubarak has focused on conservation. She was elected president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) last fall with goals of caring for biodiversity and tackling climate change.

Comprised of more than 18,000 experts and 1,400 member organizations, the IUCN is an international organization focused on conserving nature and how to have more sustainable use of natural resources. The group maintains the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, which charts the global conservation status of animal, fungi, and plant species.

A native of the United Arab Emirates, Al Mubarak is only the second woman to head the group in its 72-year history. She’s also the first president from West Asia.

Her nature and conservation experience are vast. She is managing director of Emirates Nature-WWF, which she helped establish in 2001. She was appointed secretary general of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD), where she spearheaded the UAE’s 2030 commitment to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 42%. She is the founding managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MBZ Fund) which promotes global species conservation. She's also involved in many other conservation groups including the international wild cat conservation organization Panthera, where she is a board member.

Al Mubarak talked to Treehugger about how her passion for conservation began and what she hopes to accomplish.

Treehugger: Where and when did you develop your love for nature and the environment? What were some of the defining moments that cemented the importance of caring for wildlife and endangered species?

Razan Al Mubarak: I grew up surrounded by nature with access to the desert and the sea. There was little distraction to keep us from observing and enjoying all of the wonders of these landscapes. I was very interested in the impact of environmental toxins while I was in university, and this motivated me to look at how our impact on the environment was affecting our health, our identity, our culture, and indeed, our humanity. I came to understand that we are part of nature. We're not separate from it. And therefore, nature’s fate is very much intertwined with our own fate and prosperity.

Last fall, you were elected president of the IUCN. Why is this role important for you, and what do you hope to accomplish?

IUCN has a critical role to play at this pivotal moment in history, especially as more and more people recognize that protecting nature is critical to solving the current challenges we face—climate change, biodiversity loss, and recovering from a global pandemic. Nature-based solutions are increasingly seen as an effective way to help mitigate the impact of climate change. We also know that restoring habitats and preventing biodiversity loss will rebuild the barriers that protect us against pathogens and future pandemics.

My top priority as President is reasserting IUCN’s leadership and influence on the global stage. We are focused on bringing conservation into the mainstream conversation—and making it an essential part of the solution for solving the multiple crises that the planet faces.

Razan Al Mubarak speaking


Do you feel a responsibility as a role model because you are IUCN’s first female President from the Arab world, and the second female president in its history?

As the first Arab woman president in IUCN history, I am grateful to IUCN members for entrusting me with this great responsibility. By electing me President, IUCN has inspired countless women and young people across West Asia, North Africa, and around the world who aspire to accomplish their dreams to build a better world.

It is also incredibly meaningful because I have long believed it is essential that more women play an equal role in conservation. Around the world, and particularly in indigenous and rural communities, women are often the first to feel the devastation of biodiversity loss in their day-to-day lives. They are forced to travel greater distances to collect water, to spend more time gathering wood for fuel, animals, and plants for food, clothing, and medicine. This is why it is crucial that women’s voices are represented equally when it comes to decision-making on the sustainable use of water, land, and other natural resources.

What are some of the biggest challenges that environmental stewards face in the world of conservation and species protection?

We face many challenges but I would like to focus on just one: how do we ensure that all stakeholders are involved in solutions to biodiversity loss—women, youth, people from impacted communities, farmers, and more. 

For example, indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population, yet they are stewarding, managing, and protecting over 80% of Earth’s biodiversity. Their experience with resilience and how to live in balance with nature provide the world with important knowledge about how to conserve biodiversity while adapting to climate change. 

This is why it is critical that we enable indigenous peoples to share knowledge with each other, and scientists and researchers, as well as play a central and active role in policymaking and sustainable development. 

What are some of the key goals of your work as founding managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund?

The Fund is a philanthropic endowment that provides micro-grants of up to $25,000 to support grassroots conservation projects for the most endangered species in the world. It is guided by the idea that small yet focused interventions on the ground can make a huge difference.

Since 2009, the Fund has given grants to over 2,450 projects in more than 160 countries and supported more than 1,550 different species and subspecies. Many of the grantees have successfully rediscovered lost species, discovered new ones, and reduced threats to countless other species. There are so many success stories, but I will share just one that demonstrates how simple and targeted solutions can have a big impact. 

Utila Island in Honduras is home to a few Critically Endangered species, most notably the Utila spiny-tailed iguana and the bica anole. The COVID-19 pandemic had a severe impact on Kanahau Wildlife Conservation, a newly registered NGO working to protect these and other species on the island. Pandemic-related travel restrictions, however, crushed the ecotourism revenue model which supported much of their work. 

The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund stepped in, providing two COVID Relief Grants of approximately $31,000 USD. This helped cover their rent, basic work, living amenities, cleaning supplies, and food for staff and local interns. As a result, we were able to keep this new NGO afloat as they navigate the serious challenges of the pandemic and the loss of ecotourism revenue.

Are there specific endangered species that really fascinate and impassion you?

One of the greatest achievements during my tenure as managing director of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) is the story of the scimitar-horned oryx, which was formerly relegated to extinction in the wild. Working alongside the people of the UAE, and with the help of institutions and zoos around the globe, we worked to bring this amazing creature back from the edge. To do this, we curated a world herd of scimitar-horned oryx, and began to reintroduce these animals to the wild in protected areas of Chad in cooperation with the Chadian Government, as well as the nomadic people who live in the region. This project demonstrated that there are conservation paths that go across borders, beyond languages, that have the power to unify people across different geographies.

Another species that inspires my work is the story of India’s greater adjutant stork, also known as the hargila, a scavenger that had been vilified because of its unusual appearance. Purnima Devi Barman, an MBZ Fund grantee and wildlife biologist, founded a local all-female volunteer group called the Hargila Army. It has successfully worked to protect nesting sites, save fallen baby hargila, and educate the local community on the importance of protecting these rare and endangered birds.

What advice do you have for the average person who wants to help with the environment and conservation?

I believe that every person has a role to play in conservation and the protection of our environment, even if just a small one in their community, backyard, or nearby park or pond. I like to think of it this way: There are 7.8 billion people on this planet, and we have 10 billion species. If just one individual out of 10 is empowered to protect a potentially endangered species, we have addressed the problem.

So I encourage Treehugger readers to remain interested, be curious, and to use that energy for good. There are incredible individuals that are protecting nature right in your community. Get in touch with them and be part of something that is very fulfilling. There is no doubt that nature is being challenged, just by our sheer population alone. But despite that, nature is not dead; it just needs our help. 

View Article Sources
  1. "About Razan: Experience & Impact." Razan Al Mubarak.

  2. "Razan Al Mubarak Elected President of International Union for Conservation of Nature." Abu Dhabi Government Media Office, 8 Sept. 2021. Press release.