It was founded in 1954 as the International Wildfowl Inquiry and the organisation was focused on the protection of waterbirds. Later, the name became International Waterfowl & Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB). The scope became wider; besides waterbirds, the organisation was also working on the protection of wetland areas.
Later, organisations with similar objectives emerged in Asia and the Americas: the Asian Wetland Bureau (AWB) (initiated as INTERWADER in 1983) and Wetlands for the Americas (WA) (initiated in 1989). In 1991, the three organisations started to work closely together.
In 1995, the working relation developed into the global organisation Wetlands International.
Wetlands International has recently endorsed the Forests Now Declaration, which calls for new market based mechanisms to protect tropical forests.