Christmas in August: Give to These Wildlife Groups Now

You’ll have more impact if you spread donations throughout the year.
A trainer gives treatment to an endangered Sumatran elephant in a program sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society. (Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Aug 12, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Most writers wait until the Christmas season to put together their recommendations for charitable giving. But the trouble with that timing ought to be obvious: In December, most people are broke or about to be broke. They’re also a little crazy. In August, on the other hand, life is fat and slow, and there’s time to think about our own lives and what we can do to make the world a better place. With that in mind, I’m going to offer a few recommendations for giving, with my usual focus on wildlife.

First, though, let’s talk about two candidates for this year’s charitable giving purgatory: The World Wildlife Fund is in many ways a great organization, but it has a long history of paying too much attention to marketing. That tendency showed up this year when a WWF vice president put out an announcement, widely reported in the press, that tiger populations were on the increase for the first time in a century. Too bad it was totally bogus. Sorry, but the folks at the top need to put wildlife conservation first and fund-raising somewhere down the list. Hoping to see you next year.

My other newcomer in purgatory is Ducks Unlimited. I’ve recommended it in the past for its single-minded focus on increasing populations of wildfowl. But, hey, save your money. Late last year, DU fired a staffer who had the nerve to take on a prominent donor. Media muckety-muck Jim Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises, was trying to block public access to the Ruby River, which runs through his Montana ranch. But defending public access is one of the core beliefs at DU, and Don Thomas, a longtime contributor to Ducks Unlimited magazine, called out Kennedy for his hypocrisy. DU promptly fired Thomas while praising Kennedy as “a dedicated DU volunteer.”

Where should you send your money instead? Let’s start with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, because these groups are led by scientists and have a strong focus on putting scientists and conservationists in the field.

WCS is the parent organization of the Bronx Zoo. Last month I published an article about the racist who founded the organization in the 19th century. But a lot of great organizations have racist pasts, and the next time I interviewed a WCS scientist after the article appeared, he volunteered that dealing openly with that history is the only way to move forward. WCS is anything but racist now. Its staffers come from all ethnicities and seem to be doing important work everywhere—whether it’s selling carbon credits to protect Cambodia’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, developing new solutions for human-wildlife conflict in India, or raising the alarm about the sharp decline of white-naped cranes in eastern Mongolia, just to cite a few examples from the past month. (You can check out the Charity Navigator report on WCS here and donate to WCS here.)

Panthera, which focuses on cat conservation, joined with WCS scientists early this year in telling the discouraging truth about threatened tiger populations. Panthera also did most of the difficult legwork of documenting the rapid disappearance of lions across much of Africa. Instead of empty outrage about the shooting of Cecil in Zimbabwe, Panthera (together with WildAid) outlined practical steps for channeling that outrage into real progress for lions. Panthera still hasn’t turned up on Charity Navigator. (Come on, @charitynav!) But take my word for it: This organization is worthy of your donation.

So is the Environmental Defense Fund. OK, it’s not strictly concerned with wildlife. The thing about EDF is that it dares to think originally and excels at enlisting unexpected partners in the cause. It was EDF, for instance, that got President George H.W. Bush to back cap-and-trade as an immensely effective solution to the acid rain crisis in the 1990s. And just this June it played a key role in winning overwhelming bipartisan(!) support for a major reform of federal regulations on toxic substances. EDF is also the driving force behind Catch Shares, a rights-based initiative that seems to be saving fish stocks and fishing jobs at the same time. (Here’s Charity Navigator on EDF, and here’s where to donate.)

Finally, I like two smaller groups, the Environmental Investigation Agency and Defenders of Wildlife. EIA does long-term undercover investigations of illegal trafficking in wildlife, timber, and other products. One of those investigations culminated this year when Lumber Liquidators paid the largest fine ever under the Lacey Act for illegally harvesting timber from the last remaining habitat of the Siberian tiger. Also this year, EIA exposed an Austrian company for harvesting Europe’s last virgin forests, in Romania. You can donate to support future investigations here.

Defenders of Wildlife takes on wildlife issues that are often unpopular in the American West. Wolves in Idaho, for instance. Right now, it is defending the pallid sturgeon from extinction at the hands of a sugar beet boondoggle in Montana. As Defenders puts it on its donation page, “America’s wild animals are counting on you.”

That’s all I have room for right now. But here’s one other thought: The usual end-of-year focus on charitable giving implies that it is a once-a-year thing. It’s also often linked to the idea that if you give now, you will reap a potential tax benefit in April. But lump sum donations have a way of feeling painful or just a little too difficult to manage this month. Instead, divide your annual giving by 12, and have the donation automatically charged to your credit card every month.

You’ll sleep better, budget-wise, and also because you’ll be making a difference every day.