The Spirit of BirdLife
The BirdLife Partnership has achieved a great deal in its first 100 years. In the second part of our special anniversary series, we take a look at some pivotal moments that capture the spirit of the organisation and showcase its conservation achievements.
By Shaun Hurrell
Header image: With its pole-to pole migration, the Arctic Tern is a symbol of BirdLife’s international collaboration © Agami/Shutterstock
Every organisation has milestone moments that mark when its ideas first took flight, and BirdLife is no exception. Some may live on as golden anecdotes in the memories of long-term staff who have seen action on the frontline of conservation, but others may now only be documented in old newspapers and history books – but even the foreword of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, a full 62 pages that narrate the growth of BirdLife “from a council of experts to everybody’s global partnership”, doesn’t quite capture all of BirdLife’s history.
Last issue we told the story of how BirdLife was born exactly one century ago. Back then, the visionary conservationists that came together to found the International Committee for Bird Preservation (ICBP) may not have quite imagined the international movement BirdLife would become and what it would achieve for birds, habitats and people. BirdLife’s conservation work today can be split into four pillars: species, sites, systems and society – key approaches to preserving nature that have been the heart and soul of our conservation work since 1922.
Underlying these are the principles that conservation action must be informed by scientific insight, and that birds see no borders – thus international collaboration is key to their protection. And so over the years BirdLife has perfected the art of local-to-global impact with a suite of extraordinary projects and programmes that work towards a vision of a world in harmony with nature.
Some flagship achievements stand out in this ever-evolving story, including BirdLife’s first land acquisition in Seychelles, the formation of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network (which was in significant part based on BirdLife’s inventories of Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas, or IBAs), the launch of the Preventing Extinctions Programme and its pivotal projects to save species, the creation of the Albatross Task Force as a response to seabirds drowning in fishing gear, and the establishment of completely new NGOs such as Asity Madagascar, Burung Indonesia, SAVE Brasil and NatureLife Cambodia, thanks to our capacity building work. It would be impossible to mention all of BirdLife’s top moments, so here are just a few that really capture the aforementioned principles, or the ‘spirit’ of the organisation.
In one of the world’s great conservation success stories, the island of Cousin in Seychelles was purchased by BirdLife (then ICBP) to save the remaining 26 individuals of Seychelles Warbler. This endemic songbird was barely clinging to existence on this lone 0.3 km2 island, with much of its original habitat converted to coconut plantations.
Following the purchase, local Seychellois conservationists supported by the wider BirdLife Partnership, especially the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), implemented a habitat restoration programme. The species flourished and by 1982 the maximum possible population of the island was reached: 320 birds could be heard warbling in the restored forest.
But that’s not all. In the 1960s there were no conservation organisations in the country and (as a true example of the BirdLife spirit) this project, including the subsequent establishment of new bird populations on neighbouring islands, really helped develop the skills and recruitment of local people. This catalysed a conservation movement in Seychelles, culminating with the formation of Nature Seychelles – now a BirdLife Partner – which took over the management responsibility for Cousin and has since saved other species from extinction, including Seychelles Magpie-robin.
The global population of Seychelles Warbler, though still confined to five islands, is now more than 3,000 individuals, and Cousin has become a world-renowned ecotourism destination – an outstanding achievement driven by conservation but bringing much broader benefits.
CONSERVATION BEYOND BORDERS
Fast forward to the 1990s and the Greater Gola Forest in West Africa, where Liberia was in civil war and rebels could be seen crossing the lushly forested border between Liberia and Sierra Leone. For a bystander in the rapidly degrading rainforest, it would have been hard to conceive that 21 years later the area would symbolise peace and a dedication of both countries’ governments to nature conservation. However, for Hazell Shokellu Thompson, a Sierra Leonean studying for his PhD on White-necked Rockfowl, these events profoundly influenced his career as a conservationist, and played a major part in the eventual idea of a Transboundary Peace Park.
For Thompson – who, in true local-to-global BirdLife spirit, went on to become a BirdLife Global Director and later Interim CEO – biodiversity conservation, social and environmental justice, sustainable development and poverty alleviation are inextricably interconnected. With the end of the civil unrest, it was with these values in mind that a process was started by Thompson and others that resulted in the formation of the Transboundary Peace Park in 2011 – a symbol, in the words of both countries’ presidents, of “our renewed commitment to peace, stability and biodiversity conservation in the region”.
More than three decades of effort to prevent the degradation of Gola exemplifies the collaborative spirit of the BirdLife Partnership. Work was started by the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (BirdLife Partner) and the RSPB, but after the Society for Conservation of Nature in Liberia became BirdLife’s Partner in that country in 2005, work was expanded there with the help of VBN (Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife in The Netherlands), and the size of protected forest in the area was tripled in 2009.
In 2019, a local co-operative set up by the Gola Rainforest Coca Project produced its first rainforest-friendly chocolate bar which was shipped worldwide, and ensures local people benefit from the profits.
TAKING COUNTRIES TO COURT
The year 1993 marked not only the transition of ICBP to BirdLife International, but the formation of the European Union (EU) – catalysing the launch of a BirdLife office amidst the main EU institutions in Brussels in the same year. Through applying scientific expertise and political pressure, BirdLife was instrumental in shaping the ground-breaking EU Birds and Habitats Directives – and later in fighting to save them in 2010s (with over half a million people mobilised in the #NatureAlert campaign). The ever-increasing impact that decisions taken at the EU level have on nature and the environment ensures that EU policy continues to be a key priority for BirdLife.
While the organisation’s spirit often encompasses working with governments (as in Gola), BirdLife is not afraid to campaign against them when needed – as shown by campaigns in the EU’s early days, and today. One of Europe’s last great wildernesses, the Rospuda Valley in north-east Poland, is an area of ancient peat bogs, wetlands and pristine primeval forest. In 1996, developers announced plans for an expressway, Via Baltica, which would cut directly through the heart of the Rospuda Valley, including IBAs. Poland, like all EU member states, is required to designate its most important wildlife sites as protected areas, part of the European Natura 2000 Network. Despite this, the Polish authorities persisted with their plans.
In 2006, backed by thousands of people wearing green ribbons, BirdLife fought back hard against the road. A coalition of Polish NGOs led by OTOP (Polish Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife Partner) submitted a complaint to the European Commission on the grounds that the Via Baltica project would violate EU nature laws. When the Commission was unable to resolve the situation informally with the Polish government, the case was put before the European Court of Justice, and in 2009, the Rospuda Valley was saved, along with other Natura 2000 sites in the region.
A similar story followed when Romania joined the EU in 2007 and BirdLife campaigned to protect the Danube Delta, one of Europe’s premier wetlands. Recognised as a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive, the Romanian authorities should have been protecting the Danube Delta from development, but were not. After long-term efforts by SOR (Romanian Ornithological Society, BirdLife Partner) supported by the RSPB as watchdogs and campaigners, information was provided to the Commission that led to the passing of an infringement action against the Romanian government at the European Court of Justice. Eventually, in 2011 the Romanian President confirmed a law which imposed strict protection on 18 areas within a Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve.
Having the power to divert massive development projects and take governments to court is a result of scientific expertise, strong policy and advocacy work, and effective campaigning. To this day, BirdLife’s structure as a global network of national Partners with strong local representation in many countries provides an ideal springboard for such actions.
So who best captures the BirdLife spirit: the policy officer in the conference in Brussels, the Sierra Leonean ornithologist who became Interim CEO, or the ecotourism guide on Cousin island? The answer is all of them, and more. Every active conservationist within the BirdLife Partnership, who once numbered in the dozens and are now counted in millions, is part of a movement that is striving for a world where birds and their habitats are preserved for future generations to enjoy, and where nature and people can thrive in harmony alongside each other.
Also published in the BirdLife Magazine.
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