The origin of Mongabay

The destruction of that far-off forest did more than break my heart, though: it instilled in me a passion to make a difference. When I started college, I decided to write a book to raise awareness of what was happening to rainforests, and the people and wildlife they sustain.

While my university major had nothing to with conservation or the environment, I spent countless hours researching rainforests in the library and talking with experts. I scrimped and saved my earnings to pay for trips to rainforests in Madagascar and Latin America.

After finishing the book I was able to find a publisher, but the publisher didn’t have money to put pictures in the book. How could I convey the beauty of rainforests without photos? I didn’t write this book for money; I wrote it for impact. So I decided to post the book online so people could read it for free and named the site Mongabay after a beautiful island off the coast of Madagascar.

While doing a “real job” at a tech startup in Silicon Valley by day, by night and on weekends I continued to work on Mongabay. Surprisingly, Mongabay grew popular. So popular, in fact, that I decided to quit my job and pursue my passion. At 26 I started running Mongabay full-time, which meant I could focus on expanding the site. One of the first things I did was create a section for children which turned out being quite impactful — it was translated into nearly 40 languages by native speakers!

Me in Sarawak, Malaysia.
Me in Sarawak, Malaysia.

I also started a news section to highlight conservation stories that weren’t getting much attention in the mainstream press. Because I produced so many stories, people started to think Mongabay was more than a guy sitting in his pajamas in his apartment. But it was just me, fueled by and aligned with my passion to unearth impactful stories that had the potential to positively move the needle on saving our beautiful planet.

My focus for Mongabay was to cover geographies and topics where my scantly resourced journalism could have the highest impact. With profound levels of biodiversity and the greatest degree of threats, the tropics became my priority.

However, as I pursued these stories, I began to see major opportunities for impact that required far more ambition and fundamentally different ways of running the website. I saw the need to take a bolder approach and develop Mongabay in alignment with a bigger vision, and it became clear that my role within Mongabay would need to evolve.

The big shift

The big shift for Mongabay came in 2011 when I decided that an Indonesian-language environmental news site could be especially impactful. The reason? Corruption in the natural resources sector had been an underlying driver of environmental degradation in Indonesia for decades. By increasing transparency, targeted journalism influences change by driving greater accountability and supporting an enabling environment for a wide range of actors, from nongovernmental organizations to local communities to green entrepreneurs.

At the time, there wasn’t much of a business model for an Indonesian-language environmental news site, so I decided to form a nonprofit. Within a month after securing my first grant and putting together a small team to make this idea a reality we launched the site. By the time Mongabay Indonesia was three months old, it was the most widely read Indonesian-language environmental news site! And more importantly, the site started to have real impact. Very quickly Mongabay Indonesia found an audience among some of the top officials in Indonesia, as well as the conservation and indigenous rights communities. Within three years of launching the nonprofit, Mongabay News moved under its umbrella, enabling us to grow the team and build a network of correspondents around the world.

Mongabay’s international team and network of correspondents have proved themselves a powerful tool in holding people, governments and companies to account. Today we have staff in 16 countries and some 500 correspondents in 70 nations. We now publish in nine languages and our articles are republished by scores of local, regional, national and international outlets ranging from National Geographic Indonesia to Smithsonian Magazine to The Guardian. We have bureaus in Indonesia, India, the U.S., Spanish-speaking Latin America, and Brazil. And there’s more to come!

Mongabay’s reporting has substantial, on-the-ground impacts. In the past few months, articles have sparked petitions that have garnered tens of thousands of signatures against elephant abuse in Borobudur, as well as a plan to log and mine Papua New Guinea’s Woodlark Island. Reportage on the threats against the Jiw indigenous people of Guaviare and Meta was used in public communication asking the Colombian government to take immediate action to protect the Jiw. Our in-depth coverage on an illegal gold mining tactic prompted the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Loreto to initiate an investigation; and in West Sumatra, following extensive reporting on the region’s rafflesia species, the provincial government passed a regulation to protect the plant and its rainforest habitat. Additionally, Mongabay’s drone footage of the fires in Menabe, Madagascar, was presented as evidence to the Malagasy government on the damage being done in the country’s protected dry forests. Once this footage was published, a road that provided access to one of the affected areas was blocked. These are just some examples of the impacts that journalism can have. Being an impact-driven organization, we’ve made it part of our DNA to collect data on what happens after our stories are published.

Mongabay’s dedication to evidence-driven objective journalism makes it a tool that many conservationists rely upon to stay informed. Beyond that, Mongabay generates real, on-the-ground impacts by providing timely and accurate information to critical decision-makers.

Looking ahead

Now that Mongabay is 20 years old and reaching more than 4 million monthly readers from around the world, people are asking what’s in store for the next 20 years as we continue to face multiple environmental crises: global mass extinctions, a warming climate, acidifying seas, polluted oceans, on top of disappearing ecosystems and the services they afford humanity.

To effectively combat these challenges, we require better and more actionable data, communicated in a timely and effective manner across multiple languages and platforms to reach the key audiences that shape policy and influence global trends supportive of a sustainable future.

Accordingly, we see four high-leverage areas: data journalism, emerging content formats, geographic expansion, and better data on how reporting contributes to real-world outcomes.

Data is critical to decision-making, and conveying this information in a compelling and effective format is what leads to impact. As a global reporting platform with around 500 journalists in 70 countries, Mongabay turns data into stories that reach millions of people each month across our platforms and our network of content distribution partners. We’re currently exploring new partnerships that could enable us to develop stories based on novel data sources, from satellites to bioacoustics systems.

Mother Sumatran rhino with calf in Way Kambas, Indonesia. Sumatran rhino conservation efforts have been plagued by failures, offering plenty of lessons for current initiatives working to save the species from extinction. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Mother Sumatran rhino with calf in Way Kambas, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
Fungi in Yunnan, China. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Fungi in Yunnan, China. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Content consumption on the internet has evolved in the past 20 years from text and images to video. The world is now scrambling to figure out what’s next, whether it’s immersive experiences like augmented reality and virtual reality, or something else. With our expertise in conservation reporting and our network of fine journalists, Mongabay is well positioned to go where we need to reach people.

Mongabay now publishes original content on a regular basis in four languages: English, Indonesian, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. We have ambitions to expand into others as well as we add more in-country reporters to our network. Given the climate impact of air travel, our hope is to engage more local journalists to cover stories for us, everywhere they live.

And finally, we need to understand the effects our journalism has on the world around us. To that end, we are constantly improving our systems for tracking impact to capture both quantitative data and qualitative impacts from our work.

With these strategies in place, I expect the next 20 years for Mongabay will be even more impactful than the first 20 years. We’ll have more people in more places reporting on more topics in more languages.

That means that more local people will be empowered to tell their own stories and have their unique voices heard from the front lines. Mongabay is a platform with global reach where clear, honest and sophisticated journalism pairs with area expertise for real-world impact. As we move forward and begin to tackle our monumental environmental crises, we will continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards to ensure the information you need is accurate and unbiased.

Whether you’ve been tuned in to Mongabay for 20 years or two weeks, we thank you for reading and sharing our content. We hope you find real inspiration and solid information here that informs your work and helps you navigate some of the biggest questions facing our world.