Conflicts of Interest at Conservation Group IUCN: Investigation
Conflicts of Interest at Conservation Group IUCN: Investigation

Conflicts of Interest at Conservation Group IUCN: Investigation

Buzzfeed uncovers trophy hunters among the ranks of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which, critics say, may be impeding wildlife protection.

Amy Schleunes
Amy Schleunes

A former intern at The Scientist, Amy studied neurobiology at Cornell University and later earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. She is a Los...

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Feb 14, 2020


The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the largest and most influential conservation organizations in the world, boasts a network of 15,000 scientific experts, some of whom have interests that run counter to wildlife conservation and may in fact promote the trade of endangered animals, according to an investigation by Buzzfeed.

For instance, the news report describes an IUCN expert on sustainability who is simultaneously the director of a trophy hunting lobby group, which some see as a conflict of interest that pits conservation efforts against potential commercial gains. The IUCN claims that members are required to disclose any such conflicts, according to the report, but conflicts are still common within the organization.

“IUCN is considered the world’s leading authority on science and species conservation, but when you look at the members who influence the organization, you have to question whether this status is still justified,” biologist Daniela Freyer of Pro Wildlife tells Buzzfeed.

The IUCN, which calls itself “the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it,” compiles the Red List of Threatened Species that government agencies and NGOs use to target their conservation efforts.

Buzzfeed details the efforts of a giraffe researcher who fought against the IUCN’s recommendation not to increase protection for giraffes after learning that the organization failed to pass along a letter from NGOs supporting protections, and of two herpetologists who exposed what they call the “leather lobby” inside the IUCN.

In 2017, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an NGO that opposes all forms of trophy hunting, applied to join the IUCN, prompting the IUCN to conduct an internal investigation aimed to settle the dispute between supporters and critics of trophy hunting, according to Buzzfeed. The investigation concluded that, “The crucial question is whether trophy hunting, as practised by individuals and promoted by certain hunting organisations, is compatible with the general objectives of the IUCN. This is clearly not the case.” When the opinion was completed in October 2017, the IUCN invited the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods specialist group, which promotes “sustainable trophy hunting,” to weigh in, according to Buzzfeed. The International Fund for Animal Welfare was admitted into the IUCN in November 2017, and the IUCN published the results online in February 2018.

“I am personally saddened that the IUCN, an organisation that purports to be the ‘global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it’, seems to be so heavily influenced by trophy hunting proponents with vested interests in exploiting wildlife for financial gain,” Mark Jones, the head of policy at the Born Free Foundation, tells Buzzfeed.

Jennifer Mohamed-Katerere, chair of the IUCN’s Governance and Constituency Committee, tells Buzzfeed that she promotes “full and transparent debate on all issues that come before the committee.”

Amy Schleunes is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at

Corrections (February 22): The fifth paragraph originally stated that it was the IUCN’s decision not to protect giraffes. The IUCN clarified in an email to The Scientist that it decided to recommend against the protection of giraffes to CITES parties, but does not make the policy decision. The sixth paragraph previously stated that trophy hunting advocates were consulted on the report. That statement has been corrected to clarify that the IUCN consulted with the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods specialist group. Also, the date of the report’s publication has been updated to reflect information provided to The Scientist from the IUCN. The Scientist regrets the errors.