At 1,950 species of birds (give or take a few), Colombia has the highest diversity of bird species in the world. In addition to its avian biodiversity, Colombia has more than 56,000 species of plants and animals—about 10 percent of all global biodiversity. Bird festivals happen throughout the country, and people who are passionate about Colombia, birds, and conservation issues. Gloria Lentijo is one of those people.
Lentijo manages Colombia's regenerative agriculture program at Audubon Americas and is helping develop Audubon’s approach to working lands conservation in Colombia and beyond. Most of her professional career has been focused on working with landowners to teach them how to manage their lands for biodiversity (and urging people to visit Colombia to experience its remarkable bird diversity), but Lentijo didn't start out a bird enthusiast. Her first love was dolphins.
Lentijo grew up in Manizales, Colombia, a city in the coffee growing area of Colombia. As a kid, she spent a lot of vacation time near the ocean, swimming and looking out for dolphins and other sea creatures. Because of those experiences, she studied marine biology when she went to university—that is, until she was invited to take a field trip with Asociación Calidris to work with shorebirds. Asociación Calidris focuses their work on improving knowledge of birds and their conservation issues in Colombia.
“I really liked the idea of these birds migrating so many kilometers all over the continent, and they were so little, and they arrived to the beach so tired,” says Lentijo, laughing. “It was such a life-changing experience for me at that moment because I was so amazed with this bird, and I thought it was so cool that migration happened.”
After that first field trip, Lentijo volunteered to go on these types of field trips more often. She learned more about shorebirds, bird banding, and eventually decided to switch focus from marine biology to biology while at Universidad del Valle in Colombia. Lentijo’s first job after she graduated was in the Coffee Growers Federation of Colombia with their research center, Cenicafe.
At Cenicafe, Lentijo surveyed birds on coffee farms to understand how different growing methods affected biodiversity. Over time, she found herself shifting to working directly with the farmers. She began working with community groups on conservation planning for farmers and coffee farmers all over the Andes in Colombia.
“It was a great experience because it opens many doors into the human dimensions of work, conservation, or biodiversity conservation,” says Lentijo.
That community work, especially when it comes to conservation, is important to Lentijo. Early on, she noticed the cultural importance of highlighting conservation and biodiversity: Many farmers, then and now, want to pass on their farm to their family members. But without birds and biodiversity, they will have no farm to give because the soil will no longer be productive. Lentijo says that people sometimes get discouraged at the amount of initial work it takes to make a farm supportive of biodiversity, but there are ways to engage them.
“The farmers are the ones who will have, at some point, the decision to preserve a place for birds,” says Lentijo. “If they know [about better practices], and if they value what they have, and if they get economic incentives from that—for example, through bird-based tourism—that will help to maintain those areas for the future.”
Lentijo says the work she did at Cenicafe, and especially her work with local farmers, was a terrific way to start her career. During her 11 years with Cenicafe, she also completed a Master's in wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida. Her thesis focused on working with farmers and surveying their attitudes, knowledge, and behavior about birds and conservation. Lentijo found that when people had more knowledge about issues in conservation, and particularly things that may affect their farms, they would make changes to their farming practices to make the land better for biodiversity if they had the financial means to do so.
Lentijo connected with Audubon in 2007, and since then she has worked on a number of Audubon projects in Colombia, including establishing the Northern Colombia Birding Trail and then helping launch three more birding trails elsewhere in the country, acting as the regional compiler for the Christmas Bird Count, and developing the new regenerative agricultural strategy in Colombia.
“I am passionate about Colombia, about my country, and conservation,” says Lentijo. “I am passionate about helping to promote the biodiversity we have, and also about preserving traditions here.”