Spotlight on people

© Guy Shorrock (

The strength of our cultural links to birds is testament not only to our shared past, but also to our mutual dependence on healthy, intact environments. Birds provide the main link to the natural world for millions of people worldwide, and a love of birds lies behind their participation in conservation. Empowered local people are important partners in the search for development which contributes to sustainable livelihoods and enhanced wellbeing whilst making the world a better place for birds and other biodiversity.

Over the millennia, and across all cultures, people have developed an intimate bond with birds (The Resplendent Quetzal in Aztec and Mayan culture, Feathers have always been used by humans as decoration and status symbols). Their ubiquity, activity, colour and song have made them a constant feature of art and music (The Goldfinch in Renaissance art). Birds are also economically important—with almost half of all species having been utilised in some way by humans (Nearly half of all bird species are used directly by people, Seabird guano, especially from Peru, transformed western agriculture in the nineteenth century, Megapode eggs are an important source of food to many Indo–Pacific communities). Despite, or perhaps because of, an increasingly urban, technology-driven world, our fascination and love for birds continues to grow. Today, over 80 million people in the USA watch or feed birds, while almost one in three people in the UK do so. Birdwatching is now big business and a major source of income in many areas (Birds have huge popular appeal, and the amount of information about them is impressive, ‘Birding routes’ in South Africa: integrating livelihood development with biodiversity conservation). For many, birds are their principle connection to the natural world—an important link to the biological systems upon which we all depend.

Despite our love of birds, one in eight is threatened with extinction mostly as a result of human activities. Saving birds from extinction is BirdLife International’s main conservation objective—however, it is people who are at the heart of the organisation. BirdLife is the largest conservation network of its kind, bringing together 117 national conservation organisations in 116 countries and territories (Membership of bird conservation organisations is growing world-wide). More than 7,000 people are employed across the Partnership and BirdLife is actively engaged in developing the next generation of young conservationists from around the world. Today, the Partnership has over 2.5 million members and a further 10 million supporters worldwide—a large and growing global constituency who care for birds and the wild places they inhabit.


The BirdLife Partnership has grown to encompass 117 NGOs in 116 countries and territories with a network presence in 120 countries (77 Partners and Partner Designates, 40 Affiliates and 4 Country Programmes).


BirdLife’s ‘local-to-global’ structure gives it an international perspective and profile whilst remaining responsive to national situations. Recent international campaigns to safeguard Tanzania’s Lake Natron, Poland’s Rospuda Valley (Campaign to save the Rospuda Valley in Poland from a proposed road development), Uganda’s Mabira Forest (Campaign on saving Mabira Forest in Uganda from sugarcane plantation for biofuels) and Kenya’s Amboseli National Park (Securing the future of Amboseli National Park by stimulating public debate) demonstrate how this can help to galvanise public support and civil society in opposition to damaging proposals. BirdLife Partners are often involved in major national campaigns and protests. For instance, NABU (BirdLife in Germany), recently supported a huge demonstration in Berlin against the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Similarly, in Auckland, New Zealand, environmental organisations including Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand) helped organise a rally against the mining of pristine conservation lands that attracted over 40,000 people. Volunteers are often the life-blood of Partner organisations. The RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) has over 13,000 volunteers, with at least nine volunteers for every paid member of staff, whilst Forest & Bird calculate that their network of volunteers contribute 864,000 hours each year towards protecting New Zealand’s wildlife. Volunteers also play an important role in monitoring bird populations—around the world hundreds of thousands of members of the public are giving their time and data to citizen science projects (Citizen scientists help push conservation forwards).

Conservation action is often best achieved by empowering local people. For example, the Society for Protection of Nature in Lebanon (BirdLife in Lebanon) and other BirdLife Partners in the Middle East have championed the revival of hima, a traditional land stewardship system that enables communities to take responsibility for managing local resources (The traditional approach of Hima: conserving Important Bird Areas and empowering local people). Since the late 1990s, BirdLife has been building a network of grassroots groups, known as Local Conservation Groups (LCGs) to harness local expertise and enthusiasm. These groups now work at more than 2,000 IBAs around the world and undertake a wide-range of activities including site management (Mangrove ecosystems provide numerous benefits including protection against sea level rise, The Berga Floodplain Site Support Group - a local initiative for a globally important site) and monitoring (Involving local communities in the assessment and monitoring of biodiversity, Monitoring Important Bird Areas in Africa), local advocacy, education and awareness (Developing sustainable livelihood options will help communities adapt to climate change), and sustainable livelihood development (Working with Community Forest Users Groups in Nepal).

Conserving biodiversity and eliminating poverty are linked global challenges. The poor, particularly the rural poor, depend on healthy ecosystems and the benefits they provide, including the provision of clean air, pure water and fertile soils, the pollination of crops and the recycling of nutrients (Understanding local needs: the role of Important Bird Areas in people’s livelihoods). The loss and degradation of wild nature can disrupt and diminish these essential ecosystem services with severe economic, social and environmental impacts on communities (Ecosystem services demonstrate the socio-economic value of Important Bird Areas). Around the world, BirdLife and its Partners are empowering local communities to conserve and restore degraded ecosystems (Community led wetland restoration in Nigeria, Restoring forest ecosystems will help buffer communities against climate change) and develop sustainable livelihood options (Using direct payments as an incentive for IBA conservation in Madagascar, The sustainable use of wetland resources can benefit both wildlife and local communities, Healthy forests are benefiting local livelihoods in Pakistan, Safeguarding wetland ecosystems is vital for local communities). For example, at the Arabuko–Sokoke Forest Reserve, Nature Kenya (BirdLife in Kenya) has collaborated with local people to develop sustainable, income-generating activities based around forest conservation—these include honey production, butterfly farming and ecotourism (Improved livelihoods at Arabuko–Sokoke Forest in Kenya). Linking biodiversity more clearly to people’s livelihoods and working alongside those who will ultimately benefit from conservation the most is the best way to achieve effective and sustainable conservation action.

A Review of Local Conservation Groups in Africa

The BirdLife Partners in Africa have published a report on their experience of working with Local Conservation Groups. This report underlines the principle that effective biodiversity conservation must coincide with sustainable natural resource management for the benefit of local people.

Click here to download the report

.....other reports on BirdLife's work with people

   Livelihoods and the environment at Important Bird Areas: Listening to local voices  Partners for sustainability: What BirdLife is doing for people and the planet  Partners with nature: How healthy ecosystems are helping the world's most vulnerable adapt to climate change  

To access more case studies on birds and people, please click on the following links.

BirdLife news archive: Proud moment as BirdLife Partnership in Africa launches Local Conservation Groups report
BirdLife website—BirdLife Partnership
BirdLife website—Developing capacity
BirdLife website—Action on the Ground
BirdLife Report—Livelihoods and the environment at Important Bird Areas: Listening to local voices
BirdLife Report—Partners for sustainability: What BirdLife is doing for people and the planet 
BirdLife Report—Partners with nature: How healthy ecosystems are helping the world's vulnerable adapt to climate  
Birds & People: A global celebration of birds in human culture

Compiled 2011

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2011) Spotlight on people. Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from: