Patricia Zurita is CEO of BirdLife International, a leading conservation organization that works with 115 national partner organizations and 13 million members to protect birds and their habitats worldwide. In an interview marking BirdLife’s 100th anniversary, she shared her vision for how the world can create a healthy environment for healthy societies in the coming century.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I truly have the best job in the world because I get to work everywhere — our focus covers all continents, landscapes, and seascapes. I love being able to combine global reach, internationally recognized science, and local, on-the-ground expertise in a way that yields conservation successes that we can all benefit from.
For example, BirdLife maintains bird data for the IUCN Red List and for the global Important Bird Areas database, which has grown into the Key Biodiversity Areas partnership. This data collection and recording is vitally important and speaks to the enormous value of the work of our staff and volunteers around the world.
How did the global pandemic affect your work?
COVID-19 had a devastating impact on human health, the economy, and livelihoods worldwide. It has also had widespread impacts on international efforts to protect birds, the full extent of which is yet to be determined. Travel restrictions, social distancing measures, and wage cuts have impacted fieldwork and on-the-ground conservation.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Significantly lower tourism reduced pressures on some sensitive areas for wildlife. The drastic reduction of travel temporarily cut greenhouse gas emissions. We also saw more people discover birds or deepen their appreciation for the avian wildlife just outside their windows. The Birdsong Project is an example of that, with more than 220 artists coming together during the pandemic for an outpouring of creativity, all in the name of celebrating and supporting birds.
How did you get into this line of work?
After studying environmental science in Ecuador, I did a master’s degree in natural resource economics at Duke University. I realized as a student that in order to preserve biodiversity and advance human well-being, we would need to build an economic system that values nature in different ways than humanity has done over the last two centuries.
After graduating I spent seven years at Conservation International, and then became Executive Director of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, which gave me the opportunity to direct investments in biodiversity conservation efforts worldwide. These experiences brought me to my role as BirdLife International, which made me the first woman from a developing country to lead a major international conservation organization.
BirdLife International turns 100 this year. What does this mean for you?
BirdLife has accomplished so much over the last century — 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; and millions of people across the world have been engaged to protect birds and nature.
But it’s not enough to rest on these accomplishments. We have a lot of work to do to protect the natural world into the next century. The next decade will be critical to stopping the worst impacts from the climate change and biodiversity crises. At least 1 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. This is our moment of truth.
What are you currently focused on?
One of our major priorities is protecting the habitats of migratory birds along the length of the routes they travel, known as global flyways.
For instance, BirdLife recently launched a $3 billion initiative in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and regional governments to restore ecosystems along the path of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – one of the world’s eight major bird migration superhighways. Every year, 50 million waterbirds of over 200 different species migrate along this route stretching from Siberia and Alaska to Australia and New Zealand. The flyway connects coastal wetlands spanning 20 countries, providing habitats where shorebirds can stop to feed, rest, and refuel before continuing their journey.
The habitats along this flyway don’t just benefit migratory birds. For the 200 million people who live in and around them, these wetlands are a lifeline. Every year, they protect coasts from the impacts of flooding, sea level rise and storm surges, and provide food, employment, and recreation. They also absorb vast amounts of carbon, helping to fight climate change.
The East Asian Australasian Flyway Regional Initiative is a 10-year effort that will connect loans and grants with conservation projects and ventures to help local people prepare for the challenges of climate change. Initially, we’ll focus on protecting 50 priority coastal wetlands along the flyway. Conservation and habitat restoration activities will be funded using a blended financial model that mobilizes investments from private foundations, government bodies, and regional development banks, making sure nature is integrated into the financial structures of the region. The program will actively involve local communities in all stages of design and execution, making special efforts to include women, Indigenous Peoples, and youth.
We know this approach can work because it already has. A wetland protection initiative financed by the Asian Development Bank and Global Environment Facility, known as the Jiangsu Yancheng Wetlands Protection project, has restored 45 square kilometers of wetlands in China, in an area that had been severely degraded by urbanization, pollution, poaching, and invasive species. The restoration allowed waterbird populations to rebound by 365 percent in the Rare Bird Nature Reserve zone, also supporting forest farms providing sustainable employment opportunities for thousands of people in the area.
Is there a GEF-supported project that is close to your heart?
The Migratory Soaring Birds project, which was funded by the GEF, was very meaningful to me because of the “full lifestyle approach” it established for protecting these magnificent birds.
Migratory soaring birds are large birds such as raptors, storks, pelicans, ibises, which use air currents to gain lift and fly over large distances without flapping their wings. They move relatively slowly and can be vulnerable to threats such as hunting and collision with power lines along their migratory routes.
This GEF-supported project set up a platform to connect governments and conservation organizations along the full length of the Rift Valley–Red Sea flyway, an aerial superhighway for migratory soaring birds. More than 1.5 million birds spanning at least 37 species – including five globally threatened species – use this corridor to travel between their breeding grounds in Europe and West Asia and wintering areas in Africa each year. This project’s holistic approach has helped ensure that birds can be protected year-round.
Environmental issues are very concerning. What gives you hope?
The world seems to be finally recognizing the immense value Indigenous leadership can, should, play in conservation, and this gives me great hope. I have deep appreciation and admiration for Indigenous and local community leaders, many of them women, who are doing inspiring work in the face of unparalleled challenges. Ultimately, conservation must be done with and for local people, and this is a positive step.
I am also optimistic about international efforts underway to prioritize biodiversity. The new global biodiversity framework under negotiation at the Convention on Biological Diversity is exactly the kind of thinking we need to maintain biodiversity for future generations. I very much appreciate the focus on addressing five drivers of biodiversity loss – changes to the use of land and sea; exploitation through activities like unsustainable industrial agriculture; climate change; pollution; and the spread of invasive alien species into new habitats. To truly effect change we will need to address these threats collectively, and we are on the right track to achieve this.
What are you looking forward to in the year ahead?
We are convening the BirdLife 100 World Congress in September, gathering conservationists and advocates for the environment to work together on bringing nature back from the brink. The discussions will cover topics including biodiversity, climate change, conservation finance, and the links between the health of our planet and human health.
We will also launch an ambitious new 10-year strategy to address the nature and climate crises threatening our existence. The dual threat of the climate and biodiversity crises is central to all BirdLife does. Biodiversity loss is one of the world’s biggest challenges and has immeasurable implications, from disease emergence and outbreaks to economic impacts and beyond. In the coming decade, I would like to see more novel partnerships stretching the length of global flyways, building on the work done to date. I’d like to see more conservation decisions put into the hands of local and Indigenous leaders, and I’d like to see real action taken by governments across the world to address our changing climate. The last few years have reminded us once again that the time to act is now if we want to be able to create a healthy future for us all.