A recent audit of conservation NGOs working to save the Asian elephant assigned failing
grades to two organizations operating in Cambodia and handed another mediocre marks.
Only one was given a "strong" rating.
The Wild Asian Elephant Conservation audit, released on September 19, gave none of
the 21 elephant projects it surveyed in Asia a "very strong" rating, the
highest score. About half received "good" marks while the rest were ranked
as "weak" or "very weak".
The survey has provoked bitter controversy within the conservation community. Despite
a number of defenders who claim the study is accurate and promotes much-needed transparency
and accountability in the NGO world, it has been denounced by some researchers as
biased, flawed and a "hatchet-job". At a recent conference for elephant
specialists in Sri Lanka, there was even talk of lawsuits.
Among NGOs in Cambodia, the Cat Action Treasury (CAT) fared best, receiving high
marks in categories including vision, capacity to act and strategy. WildAid Cambodia,
for its work patrolling the Southwest Elephant Corridor protected area, received
mostly "fair" grades, but was rated "very weak" on wider social
impact. Among those at the bottom, however, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
and Fauna and Floral International (FFI) in Southeast Asia were singled out as among
The audit states the two NGOs were considered "the worst performing ... because
they lack a clear strategy and are under-resourced with inexperienced staff and little
The study, touted as "an up-to-date, authoritative and independent assessment"
by Conservation Direct, the NGO that produced it, claims it "will form a basis
against which concerned people everywhere can judge the performance of elephant conservation
It states that there is a "constant danger that conservation agencies may give
themselves glowing reports by cherry-picking results from their most successful projects".
Some environmental NGOs disputed that . They said the survey is ultimately subjective
and counter-productive to the goal of elephant conservation in Asia. One researcher
claimed the audit's methods-surveying NGO operations throughout Asia and studying
organizational documents-failed to produce sufficient analytical data and suffered
from a conflict of interest.
But the authors of the study, Paul Jepson and Susan Cannery, both former employees
or consultants for FFI and WWF, were careful to qualify the limitations of their
study. The audit admits it used "mostly qualitative data" that may have
made it too dependent on such information, but added "many essential aspects
of effective conservation are qualitative in nature and difficult to capture in quantitative
form". It encouraged NGOs to identify the types of data "useful and appropriate"
to increasing the effectiveness of conservation funds.
The 20-month, $100,000 study concluded that the 21 NGO projects in 10 Asian countries
"did not add up to a meaningful response" to the Asian elephant problem
and could make only a "relatively small-scale impact".
Another key finding was that local and national NGOs offered a "higher potential
for impact" than the larger international organizations. It recommended conservation
groups become more transparent and treat elephant conservation as a "social
problem not just a technical one".
But some NGOs said the study is worded so that Elephant Family, which commissioned
the study from Conservation Direct, founded by Jepson and Cannery, is well-positioned
to distribute new conservation aid. Elephant Family has established an "online
donation system" called elephantbank to invest in projects called "best
practice" by the audit.
In principle, many conservation NGOs said the audit was a good idea, but that the
study itself was flawed.
"This document is very useful," said Suwanna Gauntlett, country director
for WildAid Cambodia. "But I would make some vast improvements to it."
Although the audit rated the organization relatively favorably, she said it overemphasized
strategic documents over action in the field.
"That's the biggest gap in the conservation community," she said. "It's
Joe Heffernan, program coordinator at FFI, also supported the study in principle,
but rejected many conclusions of the audit.
"It's not credible," he said. "It lacks any comment on capacity building-the
number one priority of any NGO in Cambodia."
He called the study's scoring system "dubious" since he said missing data
was counted against the organization, rather than reflecting the lack of information,
particularly on the organization's vision and strategy.
"This is all too qualitative because the data wasn't there," he said. "You
don't release an entire audit without a full data set."
He also said the study radically underestimated the organization's resources-it reported
only two staff instead of 11-and its low rating in the "wider impact" category
"missed the fact that we're designing Cambodia's elephant conservation strategy".
But Heffernan acknowledged that if NGOs in Cambodia were judged against ensuring
the survival of the Asian elephant, "no one has succeeded yet".
Those defending the study say that is the point.
"The fact is we're losing elephants now," said a conservation worker in
Cambodia. "It's hard to criticize [the audit]. It's not technically flawed.
The methodology is clear."
He said accountability for many NGO projects was lacking and an audit could help
ensure that organizations produce better results. He faulted the nebulous mission
plans of some elephant projects, without ways to measure success, as conservation
boondoggles. He acknowledged the study might contain flaws, but said most of the
jibes by conservationists were not legitimate.
"The audit is worthy of discussion," he said. "It certainly does not
deserve to be dismissed."
Hunter Weiler, of the highly rated CAT project dedicated to protecting tigers, also
praised the project as an innovative way of "shaking up" the NGO world
"I think the whole conservation community has been wrestling with this concept
of how to measure success," he said. "There hasn't been a consensus of
He said although the audit evaluated his organization relatively accurately and favorably,
it included several errors. It rated the number of staff as four instead of 50, underestimated
the organization's budget and called CAT, in different parts of the audit, both a
national and an international NGO.
The reasons for the discrepancies might be a result of the study's criteria that
staff and funding figures be directed explicitly toward elephant conservation. But
Weiler said protection for large mammals like tigers and elephants could not be teased
apart so easily.
"There are some errors and omissions in it, but there are also some insights,"
he said. "It's something good for conservation. If the results are a bit uneven,
someone will come up with a better method."
However, time may be running out for the Asian elephant. The World Conservation Union
estimates that about 50,000 remain in the wild, mostly in India, down from 100,000
at the start of the last century.
In Cambodia, the population is between 200 and 600 animals. FFI reports 26 elephants
were illegally killed last year.