This week I spoke with Andrew Impey, Head of Global Habitats for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He spoke to me about his career in international conservation and the work of the RSPB in saving vultures, albatrosses and rainforests from Sierra Leone to Sumatra.
Matt Williams: Why does international conservation matter, particularly when UK wildlife is in such a dire state?
Andrew Impey: Charity begins at home and a lot of people care about the birds in their back gardens, and rightly so. But RSPB has been going for 125 years and we have so much knowledge and experience… why keep that to ourselves? There are some species we work with that people in the UK will never see, but that’s no reason not to share our knowledge of how to save them.
And take the example of migrants. A swallow’s journey may take it over 6000 km through 15 different countries. Our migrants aren’t British birds, they’re international birds, so it would be foolish to ignore what happens to it outside of the UK.
MW: What’s your role at RSPB?
AI: The international department is divided into three sections, habitats, species and country programmes. I look after the habitats, like our rainforest work in Sierra Leone and Indonesia. I’m mostly based at the RSPB’s head office in Bedfordshire, UK but I get to go and visit places like Gola forest.
I was in Sierra Leone recently to sign documents allowing us to sell carbon credits from the Gola rainforest, which is a REDD project.
MW: What are the highlights of RSPB’s international work?
AI: Since I’ve started working here, there are three flagship projects that really stand out to me.
First, the vultures in India, where three species of vulture have gone down by 99% and we’ve been able to come in and work out what the problem was, and put things in place to address that. The vulture programme is still in its early days but the fact that we’ve been able to come in and do that is great.
And thanks to our work, diclofenac [the veterinary drug that was indirectly killing vultures] is now banned.
With albatrosses, we’ve worked with fishing fleets around the world so as all tuna long-line vessels now have to take measures to reduce by-catch [the animals, like albatrosses, that inadvertently get caught during fishing]. We’ve seen an 80% drop in albatross deaths and from a situation where 19 out of 22 species of albatross were close to extinction, that number is now 15 out of 22. There are huge achievements here and its something the organisation and our members should be hugely proud of. We’ve played a leading role in reducing the decline of such a charismatic bird.
And in Indonesia we got the law changed so as anyone with a concession for an area of forest can now restore it, as opposed to logging it. We now jointly manage the Harapan rainforest, 100,000 hectares in Sumatra that’s home to hornbills and Sumatran tigers.
And there are now 41 other applications in for concessions for restoration, which, if the Government chooses to approve them, could amount to four million hectares.
MW: What makes the RSPB so effective at international conservation?
AI: Let’s pick Gola forest in Sierra Leone. The RSPB is working with over 23,000 people in 114 communities in seven chiefdoms around the National Park. The RSPB has gone in to work with partners, communities and governments to explain why it makes sense to protect the forest from a livelihoods point of view.
We’ve started to regenerate the cocoa plantations that were damaged during the civil war that ended in 2002. Restoring the cocoa plantations means maintaining the forest too. Before the civil war Sierra Leone had some of the best cocoa in the world and with a possible predicted global shortage of cocoa this is great for local people.
In Harapan, the forest we help manage in Indonesia, we’ve created jobs for local people in the forest nursery, built schools and provided access to medical treatment and we’ve made sure local people are at the heart of protecting the forest.
And that’s where the RSPB adds so much because it’s not just a case of telling people what to do. We’re working with local tribes, chiefs and governments, and with everyone at every level.
I spoke to the head of a local tribe in Harapan, and asked him how he perceived me as a foreigner, coming in to work on protecting the forest where his tribe and family have been living for generations. He told me that they really value the fact that the RSPB is here because they see new opportunities for their children, they know the forest will be in safe hands for the future and they are part of the discussion at every step.
In terms of what the RSPB brings, take Myanmar as an example. The country has some of the most amazing relic forest in southeast Asia, but the BirdLife partner we work with there has, for many years, been just one person and now has no staff. We’re working to help that partner on building up a governance structure, on top of the funding we give directly to the central BirdLife International secretariat.
And the RSPB has a reputation with its history and one million members that is an advantage when we go to the negotiating table. I’ve spoke with governments and corporates and we’re well-respected which puts you a few rungs up the ladder before you even start the conversation. And we can get smaller organisations a seat at the table. I don’t think the RSPB should ever apologise for being ambitious because we’ve worked hard to build that reputation.
MW: What are some of the biggest challenges the RSPB faces in its international conservation work?
AI: Cultural differences are important: something that I think of as blindingly obvious may not be so for someone else. Sometimes you have to have a lot of patience over stuff that you may think is fairly basic and a lot of that comes down to experience. Even things like body language can be really important.
Another big problem is corruption, that’s a huge issue to deal with because everything the RSPB does has to be politically and legally sound so it can be challenging to maintain your integrity but also the impact of your project.
MW: What is one of your most treasured memories from your career in international conservation?
AI: I was working on Rodrigues Island for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, studying the rare Rodrigues Fody an endemic weaver bird. I was the first person to spend a whole field season looking at these birds and a lot of the local people wondered who this mad bird man was.
But at the end of three months I had take guards, local politicians and school groups up to see the birds.
It was very exciting when I began hearing people, islanders, talking about ‘our birds’ to the tourists. They understood that these birds were unique and I had gone from this crazy guy to the person who had got them to take ownership over this wildlife.
For me it was very exciting and fundamentally this is what RSPB is trying to do, going into countries and getting people to take ownership of their wildlife.
Indonesian rainforest of the kind Andrew and his colleagues work to protect.