2 Aug 2021

In memory of Fritz Hirt: a leading figure in the formation of BirdLife

On 17 July 2021 BirdLife International lost its honorary member Fritz Hirt, one of the leading Swiss conservationists, a few days after his 76th birthday. Fritz Hirt was an integral part of the formation of BirdLife International, which would not exist in its current form without his visionary leadership.

Fritz Hirt was awarded honorary BirdLife membership by HIH Princess Takamado of Japan
Fritz Hirt was awarded honorary BirdLife membership by HIH Princess Takamado of Japan
By Raffael Ayé, Director, BirdLife Switzerland

Fritz Hirt became Honorary Member of BirdLife International in 2013 at the BirdLife World Conference in Ottawa. Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado of Japan, as Honorary President of BirdLife International, underlined his leading role in the transition from ICBP (our former incarnation) to BirdLife. Fritz started to be active on an international level in 1977 when the European bird protection organisations had their first meeting in Mainz in Germany and later founded WEBS (Working Groupe of European Bird Protecting Societies). At that time the ICBP was a federation of conservation organisations but also scientific institutes and even state agencies and had no professional staff yet.

Fritz helped to develop both WEBS and ICBP. In 1985 he organized the European ICBP Conference and the WEBS meeting in Rapperswil in Switzerland. The continent was still in Cold War but Switzerland was neutral, which made it possible for Eastern European delegates to attend the meeting on neutral ground. The contacts established at this occasion made it possible for the ICBP to react instantly after the fall of the Iron Curtain between Western and Eastern Europe in 1989, and to start its Eastern European Programme. Together with other organisations, Fritz created the Partner to Partner development support scheme. During this time, BirdLife Switzerland, under the presidency of Fritz, offered particular support to SOS in Slovakia and MME in Hungary, but also many other new organisations including those in the Caucasus region and in Central Asia.

This big campaign of the European bird conservation organisations also contributed to the development of ICBP. Fritz participated in many meetings with the ICBP director Christoph Imboden, Johanna Winkelman from the Netherlands, Alistair Gammell from UK, Joe Sultana from Malta and many others, and in 1992 the mission was accomplished: BirdLife International became the successor of the old ICBP. Fritz continued to be active in BirdLife International and was a member of the European Committee from 1993 to 1999, which he chaired for some time and a member of the Global Council.

But Fritz Hirt’s interest in birds and nature conservation had started much earlier: he was not yet 16 years old when he became a member of the board of the local bird conservation society in his village of Bachs, close to Zurich. Soon he was its chairman and stayed in this position for 51 years. During the first European Year for Nature Conservation 1970, which was organised by the Council of Europe, Fritz extended his activities to the regional level, the Canton of Zurich. He helped to develop the cantonal association for bird protection to a very active organisation with a holistic understanding of nature conservation. He acted as its Vice-President for many years.

On the national level, bird conservation was initially organized in the same way as the ICBP, and was not very active. In 1977 Fritz became President of the Swiss committee of ICBP and developed to become the active conservation organisation BirdLife Switzerland from 1988 onwards. The first Red Data book of the country, one on birds, was published during his presidency. In 1979 he employed Werner Müller as the first paid staff who later would also play a role in BidLife International as chairman of the European and Central Asian committees and as member of the Global Council. Fritz initiated many campaigns for nature conservation and awareness raising. One of his favorite initiatives always the EuroBirdwatch which he founded more than twenty years ago together with other BirdLife Partners.

On the professional side, Fritz Hirt was Head of the state nature conservation agency of the Canton of Zurich and achieved many important successes also in this position. Fritz Hirt stayed active until his sudden death, as Honorary President of BirdLife Switzerland, BirdLife Zurich and his local conservation society in Bachs.

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BirdLife, from local to global, would not be the same today if Fritz Hirt would not have been so active for more than 60 years in nature and bird conservation from the local to the global level and in the development of the organisations. Fritz inspired several generations of conservationists and was a great pioneer. He liked to work with people. His unique work leaves an inspiring legacy in Switzerland, in many parts of the world and especially in the BirdLife Family.