What is IUCN?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists itself as the oldest global environmental organization. Since its inception in the 1940s, IUCN has led the world in environmental research and conservation efforts. Today, the organization has over 1000 affiliate groups, and maintains offices and field sites in 140 countries worldwide.

In 1948, the director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) founded the group to give global environmental issues a central scientific base. The goal of the organization includes helping local communities understand the crises in their own ecosystems, to encourage conservation on the closest level. They try to maintain the balance between necessary development and the preservation of the natural world.

The organization ran into financial difficulty early on, before the spread of conservationist ideals took hold in world policy. Early members set up the World Wildlife Fund to act as a fundraiser and public relations firm for the work done through the International Union. After a grant from the Ford Foundation in the late 1960s, the organization was able to expand its international operations considerably, and has flourished ever since.


Since 1963, one of the key jobs of IUCN has been the maintenance of the organization’s red list, a compilation of every species alive on earth. Although early years involved some shaky science, today the list is managed under rigorous scientific standards, a peer review and petition systems. The most important feature of the red list is the tracking of conservation status of all species on the planet. The classification of an animal or plant as threatened or endangered can help boost conservation efforts and save species before it is too late.

IUCN operates six international commissions that oversee various projects and efforts of the organization. The Species Survival Commission (SSC) uses dozens of affiliated groups to closely monitor each species of animal by taxonomic classification. The World Commission on Protected Areas keeps tabs on the upkeep and creation of protected reserves for endangered species. The Commissions on Education and Communication, Environmental, Social and Economic Policy, and Environmental Law all work in advisory capacities with governments, lending a conservationist perspective to policy and education decisions. Finally, the Commission on Ecosystem management works with local communities to promote the idea that saving species is important for everyone.

Critics of IUCN come from both sides of the conservationist debate. Some claim that the group, despite its assertions otherwise, puts animal needs above those of humans, to the detriment of commercial expansion. Extreme environmental groups argue the opposite, that the organization is overly concerned with the greedy needs of industry and risks further ecosystem damage by pandering to politicians. Such criticism is to be expected with an organization that conscientiously tries to maintain a middle ground on a controversial subject. The usefulness of the scientific observation and data that IUCN produces is hardly debatable, and the red list is considered possibly the most valuable tool available in assessing the current condition of species.

If you would like to aid IUCN in its work to preserve and protect the plant and animal species of the world, there are many opportunities to help. The organization maintains offices in large cities worldwide, and frequently have job openings and internships available for those wishing to join. Check the organization’s website,, for a list of affiliated environmental groups that are always in need of donations, volunteers and workers. Scientific studies have repeatedly show that ecosystems perform best when there is flourishing biodiversity to balance them; by aiding conservation efforts, you may play a very real part in saving not only animals but humans from eventual extinction.


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