BirdLife International – The world’s oldest international conservation organisation

T. Gilbert Pearson, ICBP President 1922-1938

1922 was the year that the birth of the world’s first true international conservation organisation, The International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP), the organisation which grew into the BirdLife International Partnership, was founded.

1922 has been described as the 20th Century’s annus mirabilis, a miracle year for many reasons.  It was the year that public radio hit the airwaves, especially in the USA and Europe. Suddenly, it became possible to reach huge audiences with new ideas and information and for people to take an active interest in the world beyond their provincial and national borders.

Sharing ideas on new global perspectives can move the world but only if people act upon them. And that’s exactly what happened at midday on June 20 1922, when a remarkable group of people from different countries met in London at the private home of the UK Minister of Finance, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

They included Dr T. Gilbert Pearson, the co-founder and President of the National Association of Audubon Societies (now National Audubon for USA),  Frank E. Lemon, the  Honorary Secretary of the RSPB (UK),  Jean Delacour,  the President of LPO (BirdLife in France), and P. G. Van Tienhoven and Dr A. Burdet from the Netherlands.

United by their passion for birds they concluded that the only effective answer to the growing trade of wild bird feathers or the threats to migratory birds across the continents had to be through co-ordinated international action.

This was the birth of the world’s first true international conservation organisation, as Professor Kay Curry-Lindahl decades later described the International Council for Bird Preservation.

Soon after this first meeting, a declaration of principles was adopted, which stated, “We believe that in organising a world-wide Committee we can be of much aid to each other in our several countries by the interchange of literature bearing on bird study and bird protection;” and in words very similar to those BirdLife still uses 90 years later:

“by united action we should be able to accomplish more than organisations working individually in combating dangers to bird-life”.

Among its earliest campaigns, ICBP called for an end to the traffic in feathers of wild birds for the hat-making trade. Outrage at this trade had been behind the foundation of the National Audubon  (BirdLife in the US) RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), and VBN (BirdLife in the Netherlands) towards the end of the 19th century, and remained a concern for ICBP well into the 1950s, when the fashion died out, at least in part because of awareness-raising by ICBP member organisations.

Other early concerns, which remain central for BirdLife today, included the protection of birds on migration, and the identification and protection of the areas where birds congregate in large numbers and the most important sites for threatened birds.

An example from the Netherlands of a Little Tern used in millinery. Photo: VBN
An example from the Netherlands of a Little Tern used in millinery. Photo: VBN

Alarm over the growing extinction crisis led to ICBP, other organisations and governments to create the foundation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948.

ICBP was given responsibility within IUCN for compiling data on the world’s threatened birds. The first Red Data Book for birds was published in 1966. This Red Data Book and its successors had a profound effect on the global conservation agenda by setting conservation priorities, and galvanising government, institutional and donor support for conservation.

ICBP was also instrumental in promoting international wildlife laws, most significantly the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and the European directives on wild birds and habitats.

ICBP retained its unpaid, voluntary structure until Phyllis Barclay-Smith stepped down, after more than 40 years of tireless service in the late 1970s. A new professional Secretariat began a global programme of bird and site conservation projects.

Some of the BirdLife Partnership’s best known conservation initiatives, such as the work at Arabuko-Sokoke forest in Kenya, and protection of the only known colony of Zino’s Petrel in Madeira, were begun by ICBP in the early 1980s.

ICBP’s structure as a ‘federation of federations’ (national sections including conservation organisations, government agencies, universities, museums and special interest groups) proved too cumbersome for united conservation campaigns.

A new vision was needed and this was to lead to transition from ICBP to the BirdLife Partnership in March 1993. The new model was to have a single BirdLife Partner for as many country and territories as possible around the world.

The world today is a different and generally more democratic place than in 1922. Wireless communication, which once meant the radio, is now very much a two-way process, and the Internet has transformed every nature enthusiast from a passive recipient of information into an active citizen scientist.

Active conservationists, once numbered in dozens, are now counted in millions, with ten million supporters of the BirdLife Partnership alone. We all owe a debt to the handful of people who came together to form the ICBP in the annus mirabilis of 1922.

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