Saving threatened habitats worldwide

After 25 years at the helm it’s time to step aside

1 February, 2016 - 16:03 -- John Burton

World Land Trust (WLT) was launched 25 years ago with a founding concept that has proved compelling and enduring. The Trust’s signature appeal, Buy an Acre, laid the foundations for an organisation that after more than a quarter of a century remains dedicated to saving biodiversity via the conservation of habitat.

By adopting an approach that takes in an entire landscape - rather than restricting the focus to an individual species - the Trust successfully broke away from a style of conservation that was by the late 1980s starting to seem dated and restrictive. This new approach to conservation proved sufficiently persuasive to inspire thousands of people to donate to saving habitats acre by acre.

WLT’s first programme in Belize was a resounding success: WLT was instrumental in raising enough funds to directly save 110,000 acres (44,515 hectares) of rainforest on the verge of being destroyed, plus 42,000 acres (16,997 hectares) saved indirectly thanks to the leverage effect.

From Belize, we turned our attention to the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, then to Danjugan Island in the Philippines and then to Argentinian Patagonia. In these countries, purchases of biodiverse land that was threatened with unsympathetic development ensured WLT's role as a key funder enabling partners to create nature reserves protecting threatened habitats through the 1990s and early 2000s.

These conservation successes were made possible thanks to many, many donations. But it wasn’t just members of the public that rallied to our side. Conservation heavy weights such as Gerald Durrell, Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and David Bellamy who had lent their support from the beginning, continued to back the Trust.

In 2003 Sir David became a Patron of the Trust, joining David Gower who became the Trust’s first Patron in 1997. Experienced and knowledgeable people joined the Trust’s board of Trustees and Council, firmly grounding the Trust in the conservation sector and ensuring that programmes were scrutinised and well executed. More recently in 2013, Chris Packham became WLT’s third Patron.

After 25 years, WLT is no longer that same small organisation. We have helped save for conservation through land purchase and protection nearly half a million acres of threatened habitat. We have 29 partners in 20 countries and are funding 19 partners to employ 32 rangers in 15 countries. Income in 2014 was £3.2 million. We have a trading subsidiary in the UK and a wholly owned subsidiary registered as a charity in Australia. Today WLT owns not insubstantial assets – a large building in Halesworth and a nature reserve at Kites Hill in Gloucestershire. As we approach the end of our 26th year, full and part time staff number 24 (equivalent to 20 full time employees).

During 2015, I led a strategic planning exercise with the support of the Board and staff of WLT. The result is WLT 2020, a five year development strategy and forward plan. In drafting the plan, colleagues from across the organisation joined me in examining the Trust’s mission, strategies and ways of working. We have analysed the Trust’s values and considered how we put them into practice. We have identified practical strategies to improve all aspects of what we do. And the result is a set of ambitious but realistic targets and objectives.

The main goal of the plan is twofold: within five years to significantly increase the Trust’s conservation impact and to generate the resources necessary to do so. This won’t be easy. It will take teamwork, determination and creative thinking. Luck will also play its part. But it is possible.

After 25 years at the helm of WLT, I remain as committed to the Trust saving the natural world as I did when I helped found WLT. As this process has evolved I have declared my intention to step down as CEO in 2016 but intend to remain involved with WLT in a different capacity to be agreed. WLT gives some hope for the future and I am certain that it will continue to deliver dynamic and successful conservation for the next 25 years and beyond. I am grateful to all those who have helped WLT become the success it is and I am constantly spurred on by the commitment shown by so many to its future development.

Details of the Chief Executive job vacancy »

WLT looks to the future »


Submitted by Roger M. on

John, thank you for being a champion for conservation. What you have done (and will doubtless continue to do) is exceptional. The world owes you a debt of gratitude.

What a fantastic and inspiring story! I cannot wait to tell this to our customers so we can plant as many trees and buy as many acres as possible to support this amazing movement in conservation.

Submitted by Sally Birch on

Nobody could have done more or done it better. Relax (yes that's an order) and enjoy a well earned retirement. Hope to catch up sometime. X

Submitted by Kamila Zahno on

John, I read this with great interest. Thank you so much for all your work and good luck for the future. I can tell you retirement will be busy!! I'm sure you will spend a great deal of time writing. Kamila xxx

Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

John, I keep trying to bash out a comment, to add to the other tributes, and then I keep failing to complete it...

I find myself deeply moved. On the one hand I'm eager to pay my tribute to your huge contribution to highly effective conservation and wax lyrical about WLT's achievements under your leadership, but then I want to plead for your continuation..."hey, we're just getting started here.." While on the other hand, I realise that time inevitably moves on and the best leaders are those who know when to quit the stage and pass the baton on to the next generation (having found and encouraged their successors).

So anyway, your record stands colossus-like in the field of wildlife conservation, and I for one have been massively grateful to you and Viv and the team for starting up WLT and then driving it forward to its successes, so allowing all of us who share the vision to add our support and share in the glow.

Yours is a world class legacy.

Submitted by John on

Thanks for all the kind comments. But I am not disappearing completely. I will still be involved, but handing over the day to day responsibility more later when I have more energy!

Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

Atta-boy !

Submitted by Robert Burton on

I've forgotten to keep up to date with Green Diary. So this is a late response to your "retirement". I have followed the fortunes of the WLT over the last 25 years with great interest and not a little amazement at the scale of its success. It is clearly a brilliant "business model", part of which is to tap people's enthusiasm. Your retirement may be like mine: just as busy but without the hassle.

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