Circle of Life


Circle of life

Conservationist and nonprofit leader JG Collomb, B.S. ’96, is an advocate for peaceful coexistence between humans and animals.

by Caite Hamilton

JC Collomb




Change happens because people make change happen. That’s been a longtime belief of Jean-Gaël “JG” Collomb, CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), a nonprofit tasked with supporting conservationists who promote coexistence between people and animals. Collomb faces the reality daily that while the greatest threat to endangered species (or any species) is humans, it’s humans that will also be the remedy.

“It is really about addressing human behaviors, because humans are going to be the solution at a local level and global level,” Collomb said. “The threats speed up when we make bad choices, when we are driven by greed, by poor covenants, when we lose respect for nature and for each other.”

It’s not just about one individual or one species, he said. It’s about having a healthy relationship with our surroundings.



Collomb was born and raised in Paris, and while his family took plenty of trips to various European countries, it wasn’t until he’d come to the United States to earn his bachelor’s degree at GW that he went anywhere one might classify as “tropical.” For a kid who had long felt a connection to nature and wildlife, botany fieldwork in Peru was a dream come true. He loved it.

“I also love primates and great apes in particular,” he said. There are no great apes in the Americas, so he headed to the Congo Basin.

It was a professor at GW, Geza Teleki, who convinced him to hold off on going to graduate school and instead “go to Africa, put yourself under a tree and protect that area.” Teleki opened up his Rolodex (“It really was a Rolodex,” Collomb said) and put Collomb in touch with conservationists with whom he might be able to study.

Collomb wrote letters to many of them, including Jane Goodall, the world-renowned anthropologist. Following graduation, Collomb was off to Gabon, working for a decade in the field—for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Resources Institute—before returning to earn a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary ecology from the University of Florida.

“I set on this path to work with wildlife in a new way,” Collomb said. “If I just studied them, then they would disappear because their environment was under threat. The only way to resolve that was to work at the intersection between people issues and wildlife issues.”

WCN focuses on community-led conservation, relying on conservationists who are based in the field and know the species and the cultural context. That way, they can adapt quickly to make their projects successful. A big part of WCN is finding those people and understanding what they need to succeed. “We take a venture capital-style approach to philanthropic funding, and we connect these field-based conservationists with the people who can provide them the resources they need to carry out their mission,” said Collomb.

JC with elephant


WCN focuses on community-led conservation.





WCN’s strategy is threefold: working with partner organizations, investing in the work of emerging local conservationists and creating wildlife funds. WCN starts by vetting conservation groups working with myriad species, from more familiar ones like lions, elephants and cheetahs to the more obscure, like saiga antelopes in Central Asia, which date back to the Ice Age, or cotton-top tamarins, a critically endangered species (there are only 2,000 left) found in Colombia that look a bit like if a monkey joined a hair band.

Collomb said these conservationists take a holistic approach in their work, helping communities lead decision-making that affects their resources, and WCN supports them by writing foundation grants, obtaining solar power for remote field stations and creating opportunities for student internships.

“For community-led conservation projects to be successful, they need to take this kind of cross-sectoral approach that addresses the needs of those communities, and often those needs are fairly universal,” Collomb said. “It’s making sure that kids have access to education. It’s making sure that there is some level of good governance in the community that’s providing alternative income so people don’t engage in behaviors that are detrimental to the environment. It’s making sure that their interests are represented with local governments and then filtering up.”

Take, for instance, Saiga Conservation Alliance, a network of researchers and conservationists who work together to protect the aforementioned antelope population of Central Asia. With the help of WCN, the alliance and its partners have been able to increase the animal’s population from 48,000 in 2005 to 1.9 million in 2023.

WCN also invests in emerging local conservationists because, Collomb said, “ultimately, conservation success is going to come from local nationals. So it’s really important to make sure that we’ve got a cadre of local conservationists coming through.”

And finally, WCN employs a portfolio-type approach with wildlife funds for individual species. With this method, the organization has provided donor opportunities for lions, elephants, rhinos and pangolins.

Lance C. Williams has donated to WCN for roughly a dozen years and specifically to the Lion Recovery Fund.

“It has become one of the most vital tools for lion conservation funding throughout the lion range, having raised and deployed well over $30 million to some 250 projects in 25 African countries,” said Williams, who serves as a special adviser to the LRF. “More than just saving lions, the LRF seeks to create a global movement to build the political and philanthropic will toward achieving healthy and sustainable human-wildlife coexistence.”

It’s not only about saving the populations of endangered wildlife species. It’s about ensuring humans and wildlife can live and thrive synchronously.

“With healthy ecosystems, we have healthy human populations. And it’s not just the healthy human populations in Zimbabwe or in the middle of the Amazon,” he said. “The health of those ecosystems affect us here as well because of the global connections that tie our lands and seascapes together.”

Beyond the logistics of how and why the organization operates, WCN also offers a few distinctive selling points (so to speak) when it comes to donor benefits, which may account for the $300 million it’s raised since its founding in 2002. WCN guarantees 100 percent of a donor’s funding goes where the donor intends. If someone writes WCN a check for $1,000 and indicates they want it to help painted dogs in Zimbabwe, all $1,000 will go to helping painted dogs in Zimbabwe. What’s more, donors are able to see their money at work.

“The organization operates with great transparency and with the highest integrity, but, vitally, it values and encourages collaboration, knowing that no one organization (and no one funder) can save our planet’s wildlife and wild places alone,” said Williams.

He notes that WCN donors are brought into the process in a much deeper and more immediate way, logging into WhatsApp chats with on-the-ground conservationists and learning in real time of their daily successes and challenges.

“Donors are invited to give their time and talent to become an active and involved part of the solution,” Williams said. “[JG brings a] high level of strategic vision, combined with a high EQ and empathy for staff and conservation partners,” said Peter Lindsey, who serves as the director of the Lion Recovery Fund. “He has introduced a mutually supportive working culture that brings the best out of staff members and encourages people to stay in their roles long term.”

Empathy is the name of the game for WCN’s ultimate success, Collomb said. Without it, the organization will have a difficult time effecting the changes it wants to make. While he’s happy to take the small victories at an individual species level—as in 2017, when China banned elephant ivory trade, thanks to a coalition of conservationists of which WCN was a part—the bigger win he’s looking for is a shift in perception.

“[The goal is] a change in attitude, a recognition that people should care about the relationships that we have with nature,” Collomb said. “It matters to [the animals’] quality of life, and ultimately their quality of life then ripples down to everybody else’s quality of life.”  

  Photography: Courtesy of JG Collomb