Ali Hassan Habib: A Conservationist at Heart

Ali Hassan Habib: A Conservationist at Heart

By Fatima Arif
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Ali Hassan Habib’s name was synonymous with that of WWF-Pakistan for 19 years. Prior to joining the organization as CEO in 1995, he didn’t have a direct association with nature conservation or WWF. He knew of WWF, as his mother was a member and had crossed paths in a professional setup while working for the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).

Habib started out as an engineer at ICI and as he progressed his portfolio included managerial work, where he developed his management skills. Concerned about the natural environment, he was dissatisfied with the product produced by the organization. It was in this period that the position for WWF-Pakistan’s CEO was advertised and Habib applied. “I never thought I would be considered seriously for it.”     

Habib always had an interest in nature and wildlife. However, this interest became a passion when he became a member of the Adventure Foundation. This resulted in trekking expeditions and later he was certified as a camp guide and counselor. He was doing all of this voluntarily and at times even spending money, driven by his passion. Later on he started serving on the board of the foundation, which helped him gain an understanding of how a non-profit operates.

“As I joined WWF-Pakistan, I was not expected to have an in-depth technical knowledge of say juniper forests or snow leopards, even though I loved them all. So it was easier for me to tell my colleagues that you know more than I do and my job is to facilitate your work, identify the bottlenecks and strengthen the organization as a whole. That is where I put my focus. My most important job was to motivate the staff working directly under me as I believed that this would open a cascade where the whole organization would be motivated. A CEO’s role is to meet all the governance needs.”

Talking about WWF-Pakistan’s conservation successes, Habib shared that there are too many; there were successes before he joined, during his tenure and there will continue to be successes after his departure from the organization.

However, one of the conservation successes that he is proud of is the conservation of the Indus River dolphin, locally called bhulan. “I thought it was such a perfect fit of science, inspiration and looking after the ecological aspects of Pakistan.”

The Indus River is the lifeblood of the country and the blind dolphin is an apex species. Science tells us that if you look after an apex species in its ecosystem, you are looking after that entire ecosystem. Soon after he joined the organization, reviewing reports and literature revealed that WWF had done a lot of work on the conservation of this species in the 1970s and after that there was a huge gap. When looking for an answer on an estimate number of the population of the blind dolphin from conservation colleagues, the response was that they didn’t know. Likewise, when asked about the same from the government, the response was that they were sure there were dolphins but not what their number was. In this scenario, a sample survey was conducted, and the results were promising, leading to the preparation of proposals for funding. A comprehensive survey was conducted for the first time in 1999, a tradition which is now carried out every five years showing a steady increase in the species’ population. The bhulan is the only river dolphin among five species globally which has shown an increase in its population courtesy of WWF-Pakistan’s efforts.

“I made sure was that we follow the best international standards. Regardless of how tight we were on money, I would not compromise on spending money to maintain that standard because that was the foundation. So it was notwise to do a cheap job. We brought in Richard Garstang and Dr Gill Braulik to conduct the survey and the standard of work that was carried out opened a floodgate of funding. The dolphin conservation work went from strength to strength and continues to progress,” says Habib.

Talking about the current state of conservation awareness, Habib shared that in his observation people are now more informed about environmental issues. However, the real challenge is when people want to contribute but don’t know how to make their contribution.

One of the stereotypes that he also had, was that communities in remote areas of Pakistan would reject the idea of caring for the environment - in reality it was quite the opposite. They have a deeper sense of the issue as they face the impacts upfront. “For example the communities of the mangrove forests could see that the sea was encroaching on their land, storms were getting intense and if a village was behind the mangrove forest it was protected and thus, they could sense its value. I found them to have a better understanding than a rich person in Karachi. Their discussion about the decline of the mangroves was very superficial. When I used to tell them that they might have decreased in Karachi but they have increased in KetiBunder, they didn’t know how to absorb that information.“
In Habib’s opinion the urban youth doesn’t realize that they may be materially well off but they are very poor in many other aspects. “WWF-Pakistan does a great service especially in interacting with the urban youth to reduce their poverty of the experience of nature. People don’t realize how poor they are in this respect and for someone who doesn’t know, they suffer and that suffering comes out in various ways especially when they become adults.”

After retiring from WWF-Pakistan in August 2014, Habib established his own business, HIMA Verte with three divisions; Shama, which deals with solar energy; Parwana, which makes beautiful handmade paper and See-Sea, which is the compliance consulting for environment.    

“I knew in my mind that when I leave WWF-Pakistan, I will not be taking up another job, partly, because I knew that the experience of working at WWF could not be repeated. It was such a wonderful place to work. Secondly, your own business gives you autonomy,” says Habib.

The company has a self-limiting clause that only those business ventures can operate which are environmentally and socially sensitive.
Habib concluded with a message for the employees of WWF to continue their excellent work. Additionally, for anyone who has a calling for nature conservation in their hearts, they should reach out to WWF or any other conservation organization and engage. Explaining ‘engage’, he stressed that contributing money is of course valuable but it is not enough. If one donates to WWF-Pakistan, remain engaged. Participate in an activity or volunteer. If you care for something, you will always find time and it doesn’t have to be a lot of time, a few hours in a month but they need to be regular. “There is a lot happening in Pakistan in conservation, never accept when someone says nothing is happening; make your contribution to it.”
Fatima Arif is Senior Officer Digital Media, WWF-Pakistan.

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