Many know him as an industrialist but one of Syed Babar Ali’s greatest ventures came out of his devotion and passion for conservation and wildlife. Not only is he the pioneer of World Wide Fund for Nature in Pakistan, but his efforts have put the biodiversity of Pakistan on the world map.
In 1970, Syed Babar Ali persuaded by his family friend, Tom Roberts, an acclaimed authority on Pakistan’s biodiversity, and Christopher Savage, an engineer who was interested in water fowls, decided to establish the Pakistan chapter of the World Wildlife Appeal, an organization founded Switzerland. Syed Babar Ali’s constant efforts were successful when he received a message from Prince Bernard, who stopped at Karachi Airport on his way to Indonesia for a meeting to explore the possibility of bringing WWF to the country. Reminiscing about those early days at WWF-Pakistan’s head office, Syed Babar Ali described this meeting as “the first seed sown into organizing World Wildlife Appeal which later became WWF-Pakistan.”
This was just the beginning; in a country where non-profit organizations did not flourish due to lack of support and funding, Syed Babar Ali registered the conservation organization and started its operations out of his personal office in Lahore. In those early days, Syed Babar Ali was running the organization as the secretary treasurer. The first person to be formally hired as part of WWF-Pakistan was Zahid Baig Mirza, one of the leading conservationists of Pakistan today.
WWF was off to a promising start. The biggest challenge this small, but enthusiastic team faced was lack of scientific data about the environmental landscape in Pakistan. Soon they were off collecting baseline data on various species and surveys were being conducted but the organization still required an authoritative figure to take lead.
“We wanted a figure with clout, that could protect the organization as sort of an umbrella.”
Hence, Mumtaz Bhutto, Governor of Sindh at the time, became President of WWF-Pakistan. Even though he was part of the government, no governmental support was required nor requested, as Syed Babar Ali envisioned that the organization would be independent and self-sustaining. With funds raised at the international and local level, WWF-Pakistan has been an entity run without any interference from higher authorities to date.
Syed Babar Ali’s determination and enthusiasm for conservation had its rewards along the way. One of the many was in 1994, when the annual WWF International conference was held in Lahore. Around one hundred environmentalists and conservationists from across the world came to Pakistan, many for the first time, to attend the meeting. Among the ambassadors flying in for the conference was the President of the organization, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. Many of the participants went on to travel to the northern areas of Pakistan - to Gilgit and Hunza, and even up to the Chinese border. This trip was of major significance as international support grew for local projects, opening doors for staff and employees at WWF-Pakistan to lead in several committees and ventures internationally.
Throughout its journey, the organization has created awareness about the natural wealth this country and its people have been bestowed with. To preserve and educate communities, WWF-Pakistan today has operations nationwide, with 20 offices spread across the country, and a team of 250 dedicated staff members. With its head office in Lahore, it has regional offices in Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar, Gilgit and Quetta, and project offices wherever there is need and the potential to make a difference. Syed Babar Ali’s struggle and efforts have resulted in a fruitful reward. Such is his message to the employees today at WWF-Pakistan, to not look for monetary benefits from the work they do, rather earn the satisfaction that comes from surviving as an individual and standing on their own feet and for the staff to be passionate about what they do and love their job.
There is a saying that “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Syed Babar Ali is a firm believer of this statement and for him this journey will never end. In his conversation he shared, “Today we are working with schools and colleges, so that the next generation will carry on the mission. We are going to make sure that future generations will find this environment in better shape than we found it in.”
It takes a lifetime to serve the community the way he has, especially in a developing country like Pakistan. For him, the challenges are never ending but his spirit never falters. There is nothing perfect in this world, even the best amongst us have room for improvement; still there are some who are close to the benchmark. Syed Babar Ali may have many great accomplishments in the business world, but for many of us he will remain the Panda that started it all.
Imran Rabbani is Officer Youth Development Programme, WWF-Pakistan.