Heed Birds' Wake-Up Calls, Eco-Group Says

Leon Marshall
National Geographic News
March 4, 2003

Noisy, active, and ubiquitous, birds are one of the most effective alarm systems in nature, often warning other animals and humans of trouble in the neighborhood. Now the organizers of a global conference on bird conservation want more people to recognize what birds are warning us about the world environment.

The overall picture of the health of the planet presented by birds is not pretty. Of some 9,000 species of birds, nearly 1,200 face extinction this century, according to BirdLife International, a worldwide conservation organization.

"Had other parts of nature been as easily observable—whether it be fungi or frogs—chances are they would have shown similar patterns of stress," said Aldo Berruti, director of BirdLife South Africa.

But birds are readily observed—and often watched with enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism by a growing worldwide community of bird-watchers—and it is this interest in them that some experts hope may be converted into greater involvement in conservation as a whole. Interest in birds can in theory result in greater interest in their welfare, which in turn would benefit many other animals and plants that share their habitat.

"I am not saying birds are the most important part of nature," Berruti said. "But if the global community manages to ensure the continued survival of every existing species of bird, we'll go a long way to conserving much else of our natural world. Because people identify so readily with birds, to the point of some attaching cultural and spiritual values to them, they are a wonderful vehicle for saving Earth."

The use of birds as an environmental warning system, and the need to protect their habitats, will be extensively debated at the BirdLife World Conservation Conference and Global Partnership Meeting that will be taking place in Durban, South Africa, from March 7 to 13. One of the main items on the agenda is "birds as indicators to measure the wider environment and sustainable development."

The conference will bring together about 500 of the world's foremost experts on birds, and their discussions should serve as a fair indication of the global state of birdlife as well as produce some new answers for protecting them.

U.K.-based BirdLife International is one of the world's leading authorities on the status of birds. With affiliates in 103 countries, including 18 in Africa, it has about 2.5 million members. It works in partnership with other conservation organizations and local communities to conserve birds and their habitats and promote global biodiversity.


The loss of birds and other biodiversity in recent years is mainly caused by human activity, says Michael Rands, director and chief executive of the BirdLife International Secretariat. "This not only threatens species of wildlife and natural habitats with global extinction, but also poses a serious risk to people and their livelihoods, as ecosystems are no longer able to provide the goods and services on which we all depend," Rands said. "There must be millions of people who would be as concerned as BirdLife supporters about the future of the planet if they knew the facts about diminishing biodiversity and the consequences of their actions," he said.

Held every four years, the BirdLife conference will be taking place in Africa for the first time. As with the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and last year's World Parks Congress in Durban, organizers of this conference hope it will focus the international conservation spotlight more firmly on Africa and the developing world in general.

But whereas there was some difference in the perspective between the developed Northern Hemisphere and the developing Southern Hemisphere at the sustainable development and parks conferences, the organizers of the BirdLife event believe there will be more unity at their event. Berruti says that in part this is due to the necessity for bird conservationists to work together over wide geographic areas and across jurisdictions.

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