Charles Knowles, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Network, co-founded the nonprofit in 2002 along with fellow board members Akiko Yamazaki and John Lukas. The group provides funding and support for conservationists around the world and allows donors to target specific projects.
What does WCN do?
The Wildlife Conservation Network works to protect endangered species. We do that by supporting world-class conservationists working and living in the field with local communities. We provide our partners with administrative, financial and technical support, as well as fostering a unique network where conservationists, donors, volunteers and even other nonprofits can all collaborate together to protect the species we all cherish.
What was your background before founding WCN?
Academically, I finished degrees in engineering, physics and business. After graduating from Stanford, I worked several years as an engineer before starting Rubicon Technology, a Silicon Valley software company. After I sold the company in 1994, I decided to pursue my longtime passion for wildlife and became involved in fundraising for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. I quickly realized that some of the same principles that went into founding a company could be applied to nurturing young conservation projects in the field — what I like to think of as entrepreneurial conservation.
How do you measure your success?
We of course measure how much funding we are able to bring to the partner projects every year. To date we’ve raised over $20 million, with more than 93 percent going to support programs. But our ultimate goal is to see populations of threatened animals stabilize or increase in the wild. That’s much harder to measure; however, many of the partners have seen wildlife populations at least stabilize. An excellent example is the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program, which has almost single-handedly protected the 400 to 500 remaining Ethiopian wolves from extinction.
How do you stay motivated?
It’s easy for me to stay motivated when I see the incredible work our conservationists do. Knowing that there are such passionate, resilient and fiercely intelligent people out there devoting their lives to wildlife doesn’t just keep me motivated — it fills me with hope for the future of conservation.
What projects are you particularly proud of?
This past year, we saw great success with Rosamira Guillen’s Proyecto Titi project, which works to protect the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin in Colombia. Another project that has been a joy to watch grow is Elena Bykova’s Saiga Conservation Alliance.
There are so many species on the brink of extinction. How should we decide where to focus our efforts?
WCN focuses on key species that have a big impact on their environment and tend to need a lot of space. The theory is that by preserving this physically and ecologically significant animal, you’re also preserving its habitat and the animals and plants that share it.