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Leigh Henry

A photo of Leigh Henry
VLS is an amazing place. There is a breadth of professional knowledge and experience that can lead you where you want to go. The trick is that you can’t be afraid to use the connections available to you.”


Senior Policy Advisor, Species Conservation and Advocacy
World Wildlife Fund

You don't need a letter of recommendation signed by Jacques Cousteau to be admitted to the MELP program at Vermont Law School, but Leigh Henry wasn't about to say no. "After an internship with Friends of the Earth in London, I worked for the Cousteau Society and was in my third year on their membership team," she says. "But I wanted to move on to programmatic work in conservation, and VLS seemed like the right place to help me achieve that. All of my colleagues were supportive of my move, but no one could top that letter from Captain Cousteau himself!"

In fact, Henry's first steps toward international wildlife conservation came much earlier in her life, as a child traveling the world with her Navy family. "That early exposure helped me form a broader horizon, outward and beyond the U.S.," she says. And travel continued to be a big part of her life. While in college at James Madison University, a Semester at Sea program took her around the world from the Bahamas to South America, Africa (with a memorable trip to the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya), India, Southeast Asia, Japan, and on to Seattle.

During the summer after her junior year her growing interest in wildlife strengthened when, as part of a study of how California sea lions' diets changes during an El Niño year, Henry traveled to the Pacific coast of Mexico to work on a sea lion rookery. "This was a bit dangerous" she says. "The bulls charged us as we swam to the rookery. Fortunately the younger males were more fun to be around."

Arriving at VLS in 1997, Henry discovered resources and opportunities that brought her future into view. She was able to focus on international environmental law and study the effectiveness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) on protecting tigers. "VLS is an amazing place," she says. "There is a breadth of professional knowledge and experience that can lead you where you want to go. The trick is that you can't be afraid to use the connections available to you, just as I did when I applied for my job at the World Wildlife Fund."

But as with many careers, that particular connection didn't happen immediately. For three years after receiving her MSEL degree, Henry worked for "the other side"-a private law firm whose clients included timber companies, large-scale developers, a homebuilders association, and the like. She adamantly refuses to characterize the clients as "the bad guys." Working on issues of permitting efficiency, she learned early on that governments are significantly under resourced when it comes to implementing environmental laws. "I worked for an incredibly brilliant attorney, and in a real way, I learned that there are two sides to every story."

In 2002, Henry began to work for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network jointly supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Over time, her work expanded to include international policy development in areas where the WWF species program aligned with TRAFFIC. Then in 2010, she moved to the WWF full time in her current position.
Her focus now is the illegal trade in wildlife, particularly the poaching of tigers for their bones and rhinoceros for their horns. "Traditional medicine continues to value these products," she says, "and despite laws against taking animals, there continues to be a poaching crisis." She notes that, as recently as 2009, an untrue rumor surfaced in Vietnam that rhino horns offer a cure for cancer, dramatically increasing their poaching in Africa.

Henry's descriptions of the cruel and inhumane manner in which these animals are taken are gruesome-"truly enough to make me sick," she says. But she is careful to differentiate between wildlife conservation and animal welfare, saying, for example, that the killing of dolphins in Asia is a welfare issue outside the scope of the WWF's conservation mission, while the killing of threatened and endangered whales on the high seas is an important issue for them.

Her realistic assessment is that "we can't always work on everything we want, but we do what we can. Every day I do something I believe in with the hope that the world will be a different, better place for my two girls. I can't even consider doing anything else."