John Burton – A lifetime working in conservation

Founder of the World Land Trust, a charity which has been running for nearly 30 years; more than a decade as Chief Executive of Fauna & Flora International; and an experienced natural history writer and editor, John has spent his whole life immersed in the natural world and conservation. I spoke to him about his dedication for preserving valuable habitats across the world and found out what career advice he has for keen naturalists.

Working in conservation

After school John got a job at the Natural History Museum, a place he had visited throughout his childhood. He then became a freelance writer specialising in natural history, before focusing on his interest in conservation.

John explained, “I had been freelance for over 30 years, but I had always been working part-time in conservation. Freelance work was a way of making a living rather than a vocation. My interest was always in the conservation side, and then I found I could actually turn conservation work into a full-time job.”

The World Land Trust

John founded The World Land Trust in 1989, to raise money to purchase threatened areas of habitat across the world, with the organisation raising over £25 million to date. John told me why he founded the charity and why the concept is unique, “There was no organisation in Britain, or really in the world that was solely dedicated to acquiring land for conservation internationally. One or two organisations in Britain did own land overseas, Birdlife international had an island in the Seychelles for example, but that was about it. There was just nobody doing it.”

The charity is focused on specific appeals, raising money to purchase particular areas of land. John described the very first as well as current schemes, “We started off with a single project in Belize, the first two years we were just fundraising for this. Then we realised the project worked, so we gradually started expanding. I went full time in around 2008, and the charity grew significantly – now we have 30 partners in 22 different countries.

“We have a big appeal each year, where a few donors, such as corporate and wealthy individuals, will put up some funds to match public donations to kick-start it. ‘The Treasure Chest Appeal’ was launched last year and is still going on. Everyone associates the Caribbean with treasure chests and pirates, and the area we are focussing on is in Guatemala. It has been cleared all the way around for oil palm and cattle ranching, so we decided to do something about it.” Since speaking to John, The Treasure Chest Appeal has reached its fundraising target!

John explained why the practice of buying land to conserve it works so well. He said, “It is fundamental that if there isn’t somewhere for species to live, the wildlife won’t survive. When I was working at Flora & Fauna International, most conservation those days was species based. However, as land gets scarcer, even if you did breed individual species and conserve them, there is nowhere for them to live. It is as simple as that really.”

The role of a CEO

John described what his job role involves as CEO of The World Land Trust, “It is largely administrative. I get involved to a certain extent in raising the funds, but by and large a CEO makes sure all the rest of the staff are happy, that they are capable of doing their job, and they all have the right resources. Then around twice a month I’ll go down to London and meet with the donors, board members and businesses who are supporting us. Three or four times a year I might travel to a project overseas, to make sure it is running perfectly. Those sort of things – just the usual job that a CEO does.”

Talking about a particular memorable moment, or favourite appeal over the years, John commented that he doesn’t have just one highlight. He explained, “They are all different, and I think that is what I like. It is like an ecosystem, the variety is the important thing.”

The appropriate knowledge

Having had a variety of high profile jobs over the years, John commented he didn’t gain experience through volunteering or academic work, it was his interest from a young age that got him involved. He said, “The world is a different place to the one I grew up in. From age four or five, I kept my interest in wildlife. I used to go out a lot. I went to the Natural History Museum from eight years old, although now most parents wouldn’t let their children go on a London bus age nine on their own – attitudes change. By the time I went to secondary school I was well and truly embedded into loving wildlife. I wasn’t academic, and I failed all my exams. So, when I left school I got a job at the Natural History Museum, whereas now you require a first class degree. The world was a different place, but my experience was that I was just always involved with wildlife.”

Careers advice for conservationists

A grounding in natural history is something John looks for in prospective staff members. He commented, “When I interview potential employees now, a lot of them have not done any real natural history. They have gone to university, got a degree, but when I take them into the field and ask what type of beetle it is, they don’t know. So, natural history is a dying subject, and I think enthusiasm for it is the bedrock of being a conservationist.”

For those wishing to pursue a career with an international charity, John insisted maintaining your passion for the subject is key. He remarked, “If you are starting out at eight or nine keep your interest, if not you are never going to have that real enthusiasm that you get as a young teenager. Handling and lifting up rocks, collecting earthworms, and getting out in the field is really important.”

To find out more about the World Land Trust, go to

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Conservation Enterprises, Organisational Manager