An Interview With BirdLife International CEO Patricia Zurita

As humanity continues to grapple with rampant environmental issues like pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction, the earth’s most vulnerable species need us now more than ever—a fact that BirdLife International CEO Patricia Zurita knows all too well. As this esteemed institution approaches its centennial, Zurita carries on a lengthy legacy of women-led initiatives to preserve the earth’s avian biodiversity, all while simultaneously ensuring that BirdLife International approaches new and existing issues from a contemporary perspective.

For Forbes, Zurita offers ample insight into some of the earth’s top destinations for avitourism alongside some of BirdLife International’s greatest success stories over its century-long history.

In your opinion, what’s the best country in the world for avitourism?

Oh, you are trying to get me in trouble with this one! Every country has spectacular birds. As a native Ecuadorian, I’m proud to say that my country is home to 1,654 bird species, from tanagers and bird of prey in the Andes to hummingbirds and toucans in the lowlands to the extraordinary birds of the Galápagos Islands—and a terrific ecotourism infrastructure.

Of course, there are many countries in South America that I would put on this list. I would say that any bird lover should also have Colombia on their bucket list. Colombia is home to nearly 2,000 species of birds and comprises approximately 20% of all bird diversity worldwide, which is why it is sometimes called the “birdiest country in the world.” It has several mountain ranges, spectacular lowland areas, and beautiful coastlines.

There are some great ecotourism birding options in Colombia that enable you to support local economies while also seeing all that Colombia has to offer, from its birds to its landscapes to its culture.

What kind of initiatives has BirdLife International worked on to protect the avian biodiversity of Colombia and other Andean countries?

Asociación Calidris, our BirdLife partner in Colombia, has done some great work protecting birds and their habitats in Colombia and the rest of the continent. As for other Andean countries, we work with our partner Aves y Conservación in my home country, Ecuador, and with Asosiación Armonía in Bolivia, CODEFF in Chile, and Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos in Peru.

We’re also proud to partner with ​​National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, and the Network of Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Funds (RedLAC) on Conserva Aves, which is a powerful coalition to increase protections for birds and habitat in the Andean region. Through Conserva Aves (which means “conserve birds” in Spanish), we are aiming to establish more than 80 new protected sites for nature totaling nearly five million acres and to improve ecological management on a similarly sized network of vital landscapes.

How has the overall vision of BirdLife International evolved since its launch in 1922?

A century ago, visionary conservationists came together to form an international movement to protect birds and the environment we all share. That same focus and commitment carry through to today, but the urgency of the mission has increased exponentially.

Ensuring the survival of wildlife and the protection of habitat is inseparable from ensuring humanity’s own survival. And we know we must take the action necessary to do so today. We cannot set up wonderful new targets and then discover five years or ten years down the road that we have failed. We need to create new systems focused on nature and the value it has in our lives—including economically—and work with the local communities around the world who are most threatened by the changing climate and the loss of biodiversity and natural resources.

That’s another change from 100 years ago—the recognition that conservation must be led by and accrue benefits to local communities and indigenous peoples around the world.

What are some initiatives that BirdLife International is planning in honor of its 100th anniversary?

BirdLife has accomplished much in the last 100 years: 2,000 of the most important sites for nature have been protected, including 2 million hectares of rainforest; hundreds of globally threatened bird species have benefited from the work of BirdLife partnerships; 10 million people across the world have been engaged to protect birds and nature.

But we also know we need to take dramatic action today to protect the natural world. At least a million species are at risk of extinction, changes in our climate are causing unprecedented natural disasters and the pressures we’re putting on our planet are unsustainable. The next decade is critical—humanity and nature are at a tipping point and there cannot be further delay.

To celebrate the last 100 years and to take the steps needed to focus our energy over the next ten, we’re convening the BirdLife World Congress in September. BirdLife will gather global thought leaders in London to explore topics ranging from biodiversity and climate change to conservation finance and the links between the health of our planet and human health.

For those looking to take action, they can become a BirdLife member or make a donation. We need business and philanthropy leaders to step up to the challenge of creating effective partnerships that benefit people and nature alike, something BirdLife has strong expertise in designing. People all over the world can also help contribute to science by observing and documenting the birds in your own backyard or the ones you see looking out windows. Events such as Spring Alive and the Global Big Day need volunteers who can participate from the comfort of their own homes or with friends at a local park.

What are some of BirdLife International’s greatest success stories in regards to a particular species or nation?

BirdLife recently partnered with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, and governments and communities in China, Korea, Thailand and nine other countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific to launch the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership—a $3 billion effort that will enable loans and grants to flow into projects that can help ecosystems recover and local people prepare for the challenges of climate change.

The flyway (a route followed by migratory birds) is an organizing principle, but what we are truly doing is designing a new economic system based on nature that will invest in the protection and restoration of critical wetlands that are essential for 50 million migratory birds and 200 million people.

Another accomplishment we’re proud of is our work with vultures around the world. Vultures are remarkable birds—they’re nature’s clean-up crew and play a vital role in clearing away carcasses and helping prevent the spread of diseases. It might surprise some people to learn that over its lifetime, a single vulture provides waste disposal services worth around $11,600. But vultures are vanishing at alarming rates as human activities have both accidentally and deliberately caused huge population declines across Africa, Asia and beyond. BirdLife’s Asian vulture program has helped wrench species back from the brink of extinction and we’re excited to work with our partners in Africa to be able to apply those lessons and techniques there.

Finally, a timely example: BirdLife partner Mauritian Wildlife Foundation just worked with the government of the Republic of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean to designate the endangered Mauritius Kestrel as the national bird of Mauritius. The kestrel was once the most highly endangered bird of prey in the world, with only four known individuals left alive by the early 1970s. But concerned Mauritian citizens banded together, built an international coalition including BirdLife, The Peregrine Fund, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and other organizations and saved the bird from the brink of extinction, proving what’s possible when we are determined and work together.

What are some sustainable practices that birders should keep in mind while visiting developing nations?

We have a responsibility to listen to and learn from local communities who know and treasure their landscapes and seascapes best, so I encourage anyone who might be interested in visiting a new country for birding purposes to be respectful guests.

One way to do this is to seek out tours that are operated and guided by locals. For example, BirdLife partners National Audubon Society and Asociación Calidris worked with Patrimonio Natural to develop the The Northern Colombia Birding Trail. The trail is a network of trained professional birding guides and operators, key birding sites, as well as small businesses and support services. The project trained more than 30 locals to become bird tour guides, including a group of Wayuu people, a native ethnic group that reside in the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia. Manakin Tours is one of the providers birders can work with as they plan their trip to and around Colombia.

I also recommend using a bird field guide while visiting a new country, either a book that focuses on birds of the region or a digital app like Cornell’s Merlin, which allows you to download information about birds in a specific region or country.

What are some of your favorite birds that you’ve seen in person in the wild?

While I’m tempted to share some of my favorite migratory bird species, I will instead focus on the Andean condor, a magnificent vulture that can be found in my home country of Ecuador and in other Andean nations. It is the national symbol of five South American countries and it is a prominent symbol in Ecuador’s coat of arms. It plays a vital role in the local ecosystem, but it is currently threatened by habitat loss and by secondary poisoning from lead. The Andean condor’s ten-foot wingspan takes my breath away every time I see it—and it reminds me why our work to protect vultures and other birds is so important.

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