Stewardship Conservation Organizations

Management of natural resources–land, plants, and animals–are the realm of stewardship conservation groups. Often, the groups are started by (and may still be headed by) a single dedicated conservationist. For me, these groups stand out as clear, direct examples of conservation work. Jane Goodall of the Jane Goodall Institute began her research with wild chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park of Tanzania, alone in the jungle with her mother. She has since grown her organization into a global powerhouse promoting education and conservation theories worldwide, while still maintaining stewardship over Gombe. Dian Fossey, infamously assassinated in the midst of her work with the endangered mountain gorilla in the Virunga massif in Rwanda, did not live to see her legacy, but the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International  and the Gorilla Doctors continue her work today. Stewardship also extends beyond these personality-driven conservation organizations, and includes protecting landscapes and ecosystems, monitoring and managing species across the globe, and rescuing and caring for individual animals.

Landscape conservation


The land that animals and plants inhabit must necessarily be protected for wild populations to survive. Landscape stewardship organizations protect and preserve natural landscapes and ecosystems through forestry protections, game management for hunting, and National Parks conservancy (thanks Theodore Roosevelt!). Landscape and species-specific stewardship groups work in concert to manage and protect the environment in their care.

Governmental Organizations

Government organizations focused primarily on landscape conservation are national, state, and regional parks and monuments. Parks control access and use while also protecting tracts of land from development and loss. Balancing citizen access with landscape preservation is critical to the parks’ mission – with too few restrictions, the habitats and ecosystems can sustain damage, while too stringent restrictions alienate citizens and make parks a popular target for defunding (examples in the US include the federal government shutdown and the California budget crisis). Government protections for landscapes are potentially highly impactful: In the United States (as of 2014), 800 thousand square miles (14%) of US land territory was under management, with a global area of 12.8  million square miles protected worldwide (See for a fascinating interactive map of protected land and marine areas throughout the world.)

While some governmental land preservation choices have been driven by scenic value rather than ecosystem needs per se (such as the first national park of Yellowstone, or the breathtaking Yosemite), more recent national park designations were crafted strategically, including US marine national protected areas in the ocean. Protections at the local level may be more temporary, with local parks acting more as gatekeepers for reassignment to other uses, rather than preserving the land in perpetuity. Some delicate regions can be at constant risk of loss to developers who may see open space as prime real estate to be monetized rather than land to be kept pristine. For example, a hard fought battle was waged at San Bruno Mountain  in California as developers battled against local enthusiasts who attempt to save the Mission Blue butterfly, whose last remaining habitat is on this barren patch of land. Even today, new developments creep further up the mountain, as the local government cedes control for increased revenue.

Non-Profit NGO

          Non-governmental organizations (NGO), which are not obligated to consider the needs of  multiple stakeholders, can focus on landscape conservation with specific goals in mind.

For example, the Sonoma Land Trust’s primary mission is to buy land for the sole purpose of preserving the land as-is. Few, if any, improvements are made, unless contractual agreements require access for the public. Historic grazing may or may not be grandfathered in and thus allowed. Importantly, the land cannot be developed or converted for commercial or residential purposes. Strategic protections also help to maximize wildlife corridors, connecting wild spaces as well as they can.


For profit entities are similarly not obligated to consider multiple stakeholders, but must instead develop a strategy for making money while pursuing a conservation mission. For example, some private game reserves cater mainly to tourism by preserving natural landscapes near governmentally protected lands. This form of landscape conservation is probably the most tenuous, since the land use and the future of conservation efforts are dependent on the financial fortunes and continuing dedication of the current owners.

Thornybush in South Africa is a privately owned game reserve, and completely fenced off from its adjacent neighbors, including the governmentally protected Kruger National Park. Thornybush is much smaller at 53.5 square miles compared to Kruger’s 7523 square miles (0.7% the size of Kruger). Interestingly, the smaller park is able to maintain greater diversity in less space because the region is highly prone to poaching and illegal wildlife trade, and the smaller area is much easier to patrol and protect. However, having an enclosed region also impacts migration and population mixing with Kruger. It’s unclear what type of management will prove to be most effective in practice in this region.

Species-level Stewardship

Within the landscapes protected by the above organizations, multitudes of animals and plants live and hopefully thrive. But populations may not be adequately protected by just landscape level protections. Animals move and traverse large ranges of ecosystems, with some areas specific for mating, others for rearing young, others for feeding. Population census and behavioral observations contribute to understanding the ecology and needs of specific species and can allow for more complete protections.

Charismatic Species

Being drawn to a particular animal is a common reason to support its conservation–it’s hard not to fall in love with pandas or elephants! Animals that regularly attract positive attention are referred to as a Charismatic Species.  While this may seem unfortunate for species that have less of that “aww, how cute!” factor, the protections and interest provided to the charismatic species can indirectly benefit other animals living in the same environment.

The Cheetah Conservation Foundation was started by Laurie Marker, who has stated that cheetahs are her favorite animal and she wanted to do something to help their plight. Protections for cheetahs by the Cheetah Conservation Foundation in Namibia, for example, also benefit the other wildlife living in this habitat, as well as the landscapes in which the cheetah resides. Ecologic interest in the cheetah necessarily also brings interest in its primary prey, antelope, and other animals in its food web.

Keystone Species

Some animals have a deeper impact on its ecological function such that their loss could lead to a disruption of an entire ecosystem. These are considered Keystone Species.

An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the story of the Southern California Sea Otter. Before ecological webs were understood, the Southern California Sea Otter was hunted until it was thought to be extinct. The sea otters love to eat sea urchin, which are a plague on the kelp forests. Without the predatory otters feeding on the urchins, the kelp forests were overrun by urchins and the biodiversity of the region was demolished. Fortunately, a small remnant population was discovered in 1938 under what is now the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California. Only 50 were still alive and the population had undergone a severe bottleneck. Groups such as the Friends of the Sea Otter helped provide support for encouraging the population re-growth of the otters and supported research through funding and political action. The sea otter population had rebounded to 2944 as of the spring of 2014.

Individual Animal Stewardship

In some cases, further intervention may be warranted, particularly at an individual level. Beyond just studying ecology, or counting population sizes and ranges, there may be a need for direct action. Some philosophical arguments for conservation advocate for non-involvement: let individual animals live or die as they will. However, this is a difficult argument for many to accept, particularly because often human activity is responsible for adverse effects on an individual animal’s health in the first place. Animals frequently get caught in snares, nets, and discarded plastic, catch diseases from humans entering their habitat for tourism or research, are captured and abused, or lose young moved by well-intentioned Samaritans. Groups focused on intervening in the lives of individual animals seek to counteract such human-induced damage.

Rescue and Rehabilitation

Some organizations focus on rescuing animals caught either legally, such elephants used for the logging trade in Asia, or illegally, such as animals captured for wildlife trade. These animals typically cannot be released back into the wild because their family groups or habitat are destroyed, or they have sustained crippling injuries.

The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand rescues Asian elephants from logging and tourism and provides a private reserve in the lush highlands. Some of the elephants have lost feet from landmines still peppering the mountains, and the park provides medical support to care for individual animals. This organization even has a medical intervention team that provides medical care to elephants still locked in the logging industry.

Intervention and Release

Some animals, however, can be released back to the wild, after some form of veterinary intervention is accomplished.

The Marine Mammal Center, located in Sausalito, California, rescues abandoned or ill marine mammals found along 600 miles of shoreline central California to the Oregon coast. Sometimes these are young or juveniles left by the mother while she feeds, and humans disrupt a normal process. Other times, they rescue starving or ill animals disrupted by red algal blooms or hit by boats. They are dedicated to returning as many animals to the wild as possible.


All three forms of stewardship–landscape, species, and individual–provide important and complementary efforts towards supporting conservation. Many of these groups are multi-functional and are also engaged in education, fundraising, and political activism, to be discussed in the next several posts. Landscape protection provides protections for the physical spaces and habitats, while specific species groups detail the ecological needs and environmental pressures seen by specific species, as well as developing population counts which influence political and funding needs. Groups focused on individual animals attempt to mitigate the negative impacts of human activity on specific animals. Together, these groups represent some of the most visible and directly impactful conservation organizations.

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