Using a Venture Capital Model to Fund "Conservation Entrepreneurs"

wildlife conservation network
Photo: WCN co-founder Charles Knowles with some of the Mbuti Pygmies who are on the staff of the Okapi Conservation Project in the DR Congo (WCN)

It may seem incongruous at first glance, but a Los-Altos, California-based group is implementing a venture capital-based approach to help save the world's endangered species, while also engaging the communities that would most economically and socially benefit from local conservation efforts.

By funding passionate people with original ideas — or whom they call "conservation entrepreneurs" — the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) aims to protect species at risk through a careful process identifying, reviewing and selecting projects that will have the greatest positive impact on conservation of wildlife and communities alike. "We look for very specific things," says Charles Knowles, a former Silicon Valley engineer who co-founded WCN in 2002. "The conservationist must live and work in the field, focus on a threatened species, engage in significant local community integration and involvement, and emphasize conservation action rather than solely research. We and our donors are interested in getting results which means saving species while sustaining local communities."

Similar to typical venture capital firms which usually provide private equity capital to potentially high-growth start-ups, WCN stresses network-building, connecting conservation "mavericks" to donors and other eco-conscious entrepreneurs, and advocating the use of technological solutions.

"Like their counterparts in business, successful conservation entrepreneurs are creative, action-oriented and dare to try different strategies," explains Knowles. "Their passion and commitment to wildlife preservation compels them to undertake conservation projects in areas the mainstream considers too risky or too challenging."

Low-operating cost model
In addition, by using 93 percent of its donations to fund its various programs now running in 15 countries, WCN also encourages its partners to use its business model, characterized by low operating costs.

"Hard-working, dedicated entrepreneurs know how to work on a shoestring," says Knowles. "In addition, the costs of working in-country are low, and when the conservationists train local people to play important roles in conservation education and wildlife management, they make a valuable contribution to the local economy while ensuring that the conservation ethic becomes part of the community."

Connecting conservationists to donors and entrepreneurs
WCN's biggest event is the annual, upcoming Wildlife Conservation Expo in San Francisco on October 4th, which brings together conservation enthusiasts, donors and entrepreneurs. The gathering allows conservationists to connect easily with donors and to solicit much-needed support from other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In one example of the effectiveness of the exposition, one organizer of a cheetah conservation project in Botswana brought up the issue of the lack of electricity in the area, which eventually led to one donor to recruit $350,000 worth of solar equipment to fund critical projects in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Botswana.

Connecting conservation with communities
Other WCN-affiliated projects have incorporated conservation and local community participation in raising awareness. For example, Columbia's Proyecto Titi is one effort to protect the endangered cotton-top tamarin primates, while simultaneously supporting local communities. The project recruits women to create eco-bags from the plastic bags that are left in the forest, which can pose a health hazard for the overly-curious tamarin monkeys.

"Proyecto Titi has developed a program which not only protects cotton-top tamarins and their rare habitat, but also turns the plastic trash into a valuable resource for local communities," says Stacey Iverson, WCN's Program Manager. "The program recruits women from local communities to create beautiful tote bags out of the plastic trash bags. Their Eco-mochila bag project has been a success in raising awareness, creating income and instilling pride in the communities. This tiny monkey has become an honored symbol in the many festivals and celebrations of the local communities."

proyecto titi conservation project columbia
Photo: Six of the founding members of ASOARTESANAS with their hand-made eco-mochilas (WCN)
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