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WWF South Africa looks to the future after 50 years of environmental action

From water security to environmental leadership, WWF South Africa has been at the forefront of identifying, scoping and implementing catalytic solutions to many pressing issues.

As WWF celebrates a half century of influence in South Africa, the organisation is gearing up for the next 50 years when the environmental challenges will far outstrip anything experienced to date.

From water security to environmental leadership, WWF has been at the forefront of identifying, scoping and implementing catalytic solutions to many pressing issues. WWF South Africa was established on 14 June 1968 as the Southern African Wildlife Foundation.

Reflecting on this anniversary, CEO Dr Morné du Plessis says: “WWF has played a significant role to date but one might call the experience of the last 50 years ‘kindergarten’ compared to what lies ahead. Competition for resources – be it food or water – will escalate exponentially and there is very little room for manoeuvre. We can no longer afford to make mistakes. Among the myths we must debunk is that development and the environment are at loggerheads. We ignore either at our peril.”

Du Plessis cites as priorities for South Africa securing strategic water source areas, promoting sustainable food production on land and at sea and transitioning to a low carbon economy.

He pledges: “WWF will play a role in seeing that future development takes into account not only immediate financial benefits but the long-term health of people and natural systems. When it comes to making decisions, we must do full cost accounting. We should never compromise irreplaceable aspects of our natural heritage, for instance, for short-term gain, because these form the backbone of tourism, an industry that now provides around 10% of the jobs in our economy.”

As an organisation, WWF South Africa has also built a considerable body of expertise that is well-placed to meet the challenges ahead.

“We have arguably the highest concentration of professional environmental and scientific expertise outside of the government. Many of the risks associated with our environmental predicament can be managed if we look to the medium to long-term future and to do this we need to have the best minds on board,” he says.

The emphasis has also shifted to a much broader focus on the resilience of ecosystems, hence the tagline “For Nature; For You” that emphasises the critical relationship between people and healthy natural systems.

“We can’t talk about sustainable production without talking about consumption. Better production and wiser consumption should be the watchwords. On the plus side, there is a growing awareness among young South Africans of the importance of sustainability. This gives us cause for optimism and hope for the future.”

WWF South Africa was founded in 1968 at the behest of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands under the banner of the Southern African Wildlife Foundation (later renamed the Southern African Nature Foundation). In 1995, after the country’s first democratic elections, the organisation took the name WWF South Africa.

WWF was originally an acronym for the "World Wildlife Fund". However, in 1986, the network realised its name no longer reflected the full scope of its activities, and changed its name to the "World Wide Fund For Nature". Only the United States of America and Canada have retained the old name.

Among WWF South Africa’s highlights of the past 50 years include:
  • Lobbying for the creation of the Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area which was declared in 2013. This remote area, which lies 2 000km offshore in the Southern Ocean, is an important breeding area for seabirds including four species of albatrosses
  • Setting up the Table Mountain Fund in 1993 which has helped to secure the Table Mountain National Park and its unique biodiversity for posterity
  • Creating the National Parks Trust to enhance and expand South Africa’s network of protected areas
  • The Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) which helps consumers opt for more sustainable seafood choices and encourages the seafood industry to adopt more sustainable fishing practices.
  • The annual Living Planet Conference, a “thought leadership” event aimed at stimulating debate around environmental issues (last year’s guest speaker was former finance minister and now minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan)
  • Ongoing stewardship work in a range of areas from water to agriculture, including helping the Mgundeni community in the grasslands of the northern KZN to working with wine farms through the Conservation Champion initiative
  • Rhino conservation, in particular the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project which has helped to grow the population of black rhino in South Africa
  • Celebrating Earth Hour since 2007 in the interests of promoting a low carbon future
  • A graduate internship programme which is helping students bridge the gap between university and working in the environmental sector
  • The Journey of Water, an event that now takes place every two years to connect ordinary people with their water sources – and which is now being replicated by WWF offices around the world from Brazil to Malaysia.
Among WWF South Africa's highlights from the past 50 years is its successful graduate intern programme helping young people to land their first jobs in the environmental sector.

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