Behind the panda logo sits a charity that lost its way

Published by The Times (3rd September, 2021)

Can there be a more cuddly brand than the World Wide Fund for Nature, a charity committed to conservation and saving animals, as symbolised by that cute logo of a panda? It seems strange that Extinction Rebellion activists descended on its Surrey office, when many might assume that the two groups would be soulmates in the fight to protect our planet.

Behind the protests lie claims dating back to the turn of the century that this beloved global charity turned a blind eye to human rights abuses by conservation rangers who beat, raped, tortured and killed indigenous peoples in several African and Asian countries. It funded eco-guards who illegally evicted communities from lands on which they had lived for generations, then turned on them for poaching when they carried on hunting.

WWF ignored the atrocities until Buzzfeed journalists revealed two years ago that it was running what they termed a “secret war” with paramilitary groups. It set up an inquiry that confirmed the savagery and staff failures, but denied that donations went directly on buying weapons. The charity expressed its horror and “unreserved sorrow”.

This disturbing green colonialism shows the readiness to put animal rights above those of humans, and I write this as someone who does not eat meat, loathes factory farming and wants zoos closed. But the latest protest, as with scandals over abuse at Oxfam and Save the Children, puts a spotlight on the corruption of ethics as charity chiefs protect their lucrative brands and relationships.

WWF is a big recipient of state aid cash. And it has been accused of selling its soul through deals with businesses seeking to greenwash activities that harm the environment, including the oil giant Shell and the fish farm firm Mowi, formerly Marine Harvest. But it is not only endangered species that benefit from the funds raised.

The international body, based in Switzerland, does not disclose senior staff salaries and has resisted my efforts to winkle them out in the past. But US tax returns show that the chief executive there has made $5.38 million over the last five years, while 14 top staff shared more than $6 million last year as they begged for money to “protect threatened species”. British pay is more modest, thankfully.

Sadly, like other famous charities, WWF evolved from noble roots into a self-serving corporation clad in frayed clothing of compassion. This is not to deny many good works. But lurking behind that famous brand, the royal seal of approval under Prince Philip and the glitzy celebrity backers lie justified concerns over its actions, arrogance and avarice.

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