A donation worth a combined $25 million to Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the World Wildlife Fund will among other things help the conservation group’s work to save elephants from poaching and extinction. Martin Harvey World Wildlife Fund
A donation worth a combined $25 million to Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the World Wildlife Fund will among other things help the conservation group’s work to save elephants from poaching and extinction. Martin Harvey World Wildlife Fund

Durham County

They work to save the world’s elephants. Now a grant makes Duke a partner

By Ray Gronberg

rgronberg@heraldsun.com

January 01, 2018 09:06 AM

DURHAM

A $5 million grant to Duke University will enable students and faculty to work more closely with the World Wildlife Fund, the conservation group best known for its work to protect endangered species.

The $5 million that investor Jeff Ubben and his wife, Laurie, gave the Nicholas School has already supported internships and a trio of Ph.D. students, and in 2018-19 will allow a group of undergraduates, graduate students and professors to team up for a special conservation project.

The Ubbens coupled the donation to $20 million they gave the World Wildlife Fund, which will help back, among other efforts, the group’s attempts to reduce demand for ivory – and with it the poaching that threatens the Earth’s remaining elephants.

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Duke professors and the World Wildlife Fund’s staff “have collaborated off and on for many years, but not at the level or in the sustained way” that the 10-year, combined $25 million gift now makes possible, said Jeff Vincent, interim dean of the Nicholas School.

The details, particularly when it comes to prospective research projects “are still being developed,” but they won’t “be limited to a particular region or particular issue,” Vincent said, adding that professors from the Durham campus and the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort will be involved.

World Wildlife Fund officials said decisions are pending in “the coming months” about an initial round of joint research projects, and that they’ll begin gathering proposals for a second in the spring.

Jeff Ubben has been a Duke trustee since 2015, and along with being a university alumnus is also on the board of the Nicholas School-based E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Laurie Ubben is also a Duke alumna. The couple has made at least one other large donation to Duke, a $15 million gift to underwrite the new campus arts center, club sports and alumni programming.

Duke and the World Wildlife Fund formally announced the $25 million gift from the Ubbens earlier in December, but Vincent signaled that it’d actually come through before that and was “already benefiting” the Nicholas School.

It paid for some master’s-level students to intern with the Wildlife Fund – an international organization whose U.S. office is in Washington, D.C. – over the summer. The Nicholas School and Duke officials also got a jump on planning for the student/professor research collaboration through the university’ Bass Connections program.

The Bass project will focus on “biodiversity conservation,” and officials are encouraging potential applicants to consider joining forces with the World Wildlife Fund.

The WWF is best-known for its work to prevent animal species like elephants and rhinos from going extinct. Its announcement of the Ubbens’ gift said the $20 million it’s getting will support the organization’s wildlife conservation programs, most notably its efforts to quell the illegal trade for ivory in China.

The Nicholas School is no stranger to big-dollar donations, as it secured almost $115 million in gift or pledges during the university’s seven-year Duke Forward fundraising campaign. Among them was an $11 million donation that will equip the Marine Lab with a new, ocean-going research ship.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

China closes ivory markets

China officially closed its domestic ivory markets at the close of 2017, the World Wildlife Fund reported on its Facebook page Sunday.

“China has followed through on a great promise it made to the world, offering hope for the future of elephants,” Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation, wrote. “It’s critical that the new law be well publicized, and that authorities in China robustly enforce the ban. ... This ban alone won’t end the poaching of elephants. It’s equally critical that China’s neighbors follow suit and shut down ivory markets across Asia. Only then can we ensure the open trade doesn’t simply shift to other countries and offer traffickers safe channels for newly poached ivory. The fate of Africa’s elephants depends on global rejection of ivory trade, and governments hold the key to driving this.”