World wildlife hero

Green Lifestyle

Without Dermot O'Gorman, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) wouldn't be the highly-successful NGO that it is today.


Credit: WWF-China


Credit: Laurent Desarnaud, WWF-Australia

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Adventures through the sprawling bushland of New South Wales’ pristine South Coast sparked Dermot O’Gorman’s love of the natural world at an early age. These childhood expeditions into the wilds and waters surrounding his hometown of Illawarra inspired Dermot to pursue a career in conservation. This path would eventually lead him to spearhead high-impact conservation projects as the CEO of WWF-Australia, the country’s largest not-for-profit conservation organisation.

Stepping into the field as a 21-year-old to work for NSW National Parks in the Illawarra region, Dermot’s conservation focus was initially aimed at the park system as there were limited ‘environmental’ career options to pursue at the time.

“I always wanted to work for the national parks and I still think that was one of the best jobs that I’ve done. However, what I found was that I was more interested in what was happening in the wider world that was having an impact in the park,” Dermot says.

Seeing that the park ecosystem was threatened by a suite of stressors beyond its borders, Dermot decided that it was time to shift his career beyond park boundaries. Dermot says, “Becoming a park ranger made me realise that I wanted to work in a broader sustainable development context to tackle those problems.”

After resigning from his position, Dermot travelled to Europe where he found employment in a government agency, the Countryside Commission, which focussed on managing the UK’s cultural landscapes.

“I looked at how they were managing landscapes in the UK and I realised that if we didn’t work out a better way of integrating environment into land use planning in Australia, we were going to not only lose biodiversity outside park boundaries, but the parks would become ‘islands’ and we’d progressively lose biodiversity within the parks as well.”

Observations in Europe provided Dermot with insight into alternative models of land management, inciting new ideas for how it might be possible to better manage broader landscapes beyond national parks and nature reserves. However, his overseas endeavours had only just begun.

Dermot’s career with WWF started in the organisation’s UK office in 1998. He was then posted to WWF in the South Pacific, Switzerland and China. Dermot developed WWF’s sustainable fisheries initiative in the Pacific and supported Pacific Island leaders in designating their waters as protected whale sanctuaries. He has also worked closely with Chinese officials to protect endangered Giant Panda populations and helped secure 1.6 million hectares of land for panda reserves.

Today, as the CEO of WWF-Australia, he actively engages with community groups, industry leaders, government bodies and international organisations to improve the planet’s ecological wellbeing. As Dermot’s most immediate focus is protecting the Great Barrier Reef, he recently attended the UNESCO World Heritage Committee Meeting in Doha to raise concerns regarding the Reef’s health on behalf of WWF.

Dermot’s work with WWF leads him into forests, oceans, farmers’ fields and science laboratories where he has the opportunity to become personally involved in the work that WWF undertakes.

“I’m very fortunate in that I get to meet many inspirational people who are doing amazing things in conservation. That’s always an energising experience.” Dermot is a dynamic leader who is invigorated by the drive of individuals carrying out conservation work and research in Australia and the Pacific region, as well as the contagious vitality of WWF staff.

“I find that members of the WWF team – not only in Australia, but around the world – are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. Working with them on a daily basis is rewarding, both professionally and personally,” he says.

Dermot also had the good fortune of meeting his wife, a tiger conservation expert, whilst working with WWF in Nepal. They moved to their current home of Sydney in 2010 where they are now raising their son.

Although Dermot is responsible for leading a team of 101 staff from diverse backgrounds spread across every Australian state and territory, he is by no means tethered to a desk. He is always keen to partake in fieldwork related to the conservation efforts that he leads. Dermot’s enthusiasm for hands-on engagement has led him to work with wild orang-utans in the forests of Borneo, rehabilitate sea turtles on the beaches of North Queensland and partake in Crown of Thorns starfish eradication efforts on the Great Barrier Reef.

Garnering support for a range of environmental causes is a challenging mission, particularly when such efforts are perceived by some as requiring trade-offs with economic growth.

“I think that too often, the environment is put up ‘against’ the economy and that creates a false dichotomy. It ends up being a scenario of winners versus losers — with the environment ‘winning’, the economy ‘losing’ or vice-versa,” he says.

“Increasingly, we’re finding solutions which prove that economic and environmental interests are not mutually exclusive. Through cooperation, groups that may have once been at odds can use these solutions to benefit simultaneously. The idea that corporate entities always oppose the environment’s best interests is simply not the case.”

Project Catalyst is one example of successful conservation-corporate synergy. In this partnership, WWF collaborates with the Coca-Cola Foundation and Mackay-Whitsunday sugarcane growers to develop and implement innovative strategies for sustainable sugarcane farming which support healthy ecological function of water bodies in the reef catchment area.

These types of ‘win-win’ examples have given Dermot an overwhelming sense of hope about the future of our environment.

“I’m optimistic because I’ve found that wherever you are in the world, most people realise that we’re going to have to do something differently to maintain the world’s environmental assets — not only biodiversity, but the resources that provide us with our economic and social wellbeing. While everybody can’t be ‘winners’ all the time, people realise that we need to make decisions and pursue solutions that sustain the natural capital of the world.”

While orchestrating wide-reaching conservation efforts, Dermot believes that individual action also renders significant results.

“My overall message – one that keeps me motivated – is that individuals make a difference, particularly when they team-up with like-minded people.

“When you empower millions of people to work together, it snowballs and you can achieve the change you want to see,” Dermot says.