Tired: Bored Apes. Wired: endangered animals.
The U.K. arm of the World Wildlife Fund, the erstwhile conservation group, pulled a “How do you do, fellow kids” and announced an NFT drop featuring 13 endangered species available for purchase on OpenSea. The collection brings the shiny NFT aesthetic you know and love (or hate) to conservation. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about commodifying species that are non-fungible in the real world on the blockchain.
The NFTs have been dubbed “Tokens for Nature,” a term seemingly designed for maximum cringe. Among the animals that you can digitally own are the giant panda, Bornean elephant and North Atlantic right whale. Each animal NFT has a set number available. There were only eight North Atlantic right whales up for grabs in the initial drop, seven of which have been claimed. Your best bet if you want to snag one is a Cross River gorilla: 141 tokens were minted and only 36 had been claimed as of press time.
This isn’t WWF’s first NFT rodeo. The German chapter dropped a series of — sigh — Non-Fungible Animals, the number of which are limited to the number of those creatures left in the wild. “Since our NFAs are limited editions, they can sell out quickly, so you better create a wallet now to get one of the artworks on time,” WWF Germany helpfully notes on the page announcing the drop.
On the one hand, sure. It’s witty. Endangered species — any species, really — are non-fungible. You can’t swap in a house cat for a Javan rhino and think an ecosystem will just keep chugging along. There are just a few dozen vaquitas left, making them the most endangered cetacean on the planet due to human activities like fishing (where they get snared as bycatch) and pollution from agricultural runoff. Once these Amazonian river dolphins die out, they’ll never be replaced.
On the other hand, turning these creatures in dire need of conservation into digital assets and tossing them into a frothy market is, well, it’s a choice. WWF-U.K. has literally tokenized some of the rarest animals on Earth, turning them into commodities to be bought and sold in a highly speculative market. It’s a digital version of the illicit wildlife trade, something WWF has said it is strongly against. The idea that nature is a commodity to be bought, chopped up and sold for parts is what has pushed the very species WWF is hawking digitally at risk of extinction in the real world in the first place. Globally, WWF had over $454 million in total operating revenue in 2021 — even after being the subject of a damning BuzzFeed News investigation — so it’s not like the organization is hard up financially.
The backlash to the project was, not shockingly, swift on Twitter. WWF-U.K. hasn’t tweeted since the crescendo of anger, and the Discord server it linked to in its announcement is now unavailable.
“We are always looking at innovative ways to engage WWF supporters and fundraisers and trial new ideas,” WWF-U.K. said in an emailed statement. “This is a hugely expanding area that many other organisations and some charities are already operating in, and we are keen to build up our knowledge. We know that NFTs are a much debated issue and that this is an untested market, which is why this was planned as a very small, time-limited test of 13 NFTs, built on Polygon which has negligible environmental impact.”
Researchers have refuted the claims about Polygon, a sidechain to Ethereum, as having a negligible climate and e-waste impact. WWF-U.K. also did not respond to specific questions about what happened to the Discord server and whether it saw any issue with participating in a highly speculative market for conservation purposes.