By Luke Dale-Harris
Resting on one knee, the hunter poses for the camera, his kill laid out in rows of 20 before him –birds ordered neatly into their respective species. The rarest are placed at the sides; red breasted geese, shelducks and a single sandpiper flanking dozens of coots, teals and white fronted geese.After the camera shutter snaps, the birds are quickly packed into plastic sacks. Before the end of the day, they will be skinned, drawn, packed and frozen in preparation to be smuggled overland to Italy. Within 48 hours, many will have been sold on the black market to Italian restaurants who will offer them up as traditional Italian fare.
Later in the day, I am sitting in a café in a small north Serbian village a few miles south of the slaughter, waiting for Milan Ruznic to get off the phone to the local police. He’s a conservationist with the Serbian Bird Protection Association and he’s furious because the hunter has posted the photo of the dead birds on Facebook. “You can go to jail for shooting these birds, and this man is advertising his own crime on Facebook. Yet the police don’t want to know.”
Before dawn that morning at a small fish farm in north-east Serbia, Ruznic and I had watched as more than 20 Italian hunters encircled the lake and waited for daybreak. As the sun came up, thousands of birds rose with it, ascending from the water like mist and then breaking into the formations particular to each species before heading to the fields for breakfast. But once the shots started, all order was lost. The birds fell into a frenzy, doubling back on themselves again and again, swerving violently from the noise and falling with increasing regularity as the hunters perfected their aims. By 10am, the game keeper began the long trawl for the dead.
Of the five billion birds that fly through Europe each autumn to spend winter in Africa and the warmer countries north of the Mediterranean, up to one billion are killed by humans. Along the Mediterranean coast, recorded birdsong blasts out of speakers, drawing swarms of songbirds into the lines of near invisible nets that hang between trees. Sticks smeared with glue are positioned among the lower branches of trees to provide attractive perches. Poisoned prey is laid out for raptors. Spring loaded nets for water birds. Then there is the army of hunters, tens of thousands of whom descend on the Balkan countries each autumn, positioning themselves along the migratory corridors and setting up camp in the spots where birds come to rest.
With the use of highly effective electronic decoys that mimic the sound of the birds, a single, efficient hunter can kill up to a hundred water birds by lunchtime. In Romania, a hunt manager boasts that the record for songbirds shot by one of his clients is 400 in a day, all felled from the comfort of a fold-out chair in a wheat field shortly after harvest. They kill for fun, a ramped-up version of centuries-old traditions, but also for money: every bird shot or trapped can be sold. Water birds and songbirds go to restaurants; raptors are stuffed and sold over the internet as ornaments.
Within the borders of the EU, birds have had special conservation status since the creation of the landmark Birds Directive in 1979, a policy designed to protect the populations of all bird species from hunting and habitat loss. For hunting, the directive is strict on paper but far looser in reality: all but a handful of bird species are illegal to hunt until exemptions are requested by individual member states, when they are invariably granted. As a result, a bird can be served up legally in a restaurant in France, while its killer would be jailed in the UK. This makes life particularly tricky for bird traders – a mistle thrush, for example, can legally be shot in Romania to be sold in Italy, but cannot be transported through any of the countries that lie in-between.
Song Bird Slaughter
After a few mornings in Serbia, the crackle of gunshot becomes as much a part of the wetland soundscape as the call of birds. But not once do I see a Serbian with a gun. Ruznic has spent the last decade tracking hunters in Serbia and collecting information to try and lure the government into action. “It’s Italians who run the show here,” he explains. “Serbians hunt when hungry. It was a bad time for birds following the war in the 1990s. But only Italians hunt here when things are going well.”
All across south-east Europe but particularly in Romania, Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria, Italian hunters have become public enemy number one for bird lovers and conservationists. Since the collapse of communism 25 years ago, each year sees more and more Italians heading east to shoot birds. Their sport is organised by Italian-owned companies, hundreds of which have sprung up in recent years, often registered in the tax havens of Malta or Cyprus. Hunters often stay in Italian-owned, or Italian-staffed hunting lodges. And almost every bird shot is thought to be illegally smuggled back home where it is sold at a mark-up of up to 3,000% on the black market to supply the unquenchable demand for wild bird recipes such as polenta e osei – polenta with grilled songbirds – sold in restaurants throughout the Italian countryside.
“Many Italians, particularly people from the countryside, think of bird hunting as an unalienable tradition,” says Marco Avanzo, chief of the Italian forestry police. “They argue that it is their way of connecting with nature, the rural way. It has already caused chaos to Italian wildlife, but now with the mix of new hunting technology, economic incentives and open borders through Europe, the problem is growing and spreading. The demand for hunting and wild bird dishes is huge in Italy, and so hunters are following the market to where laws are lax and birds come cheap and plentiful.”
According to a 2008 report published by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, the hunting and smuggling of wild birds to Italy “involves highly organised criminal activity in south-east and Central Europe. Hundreds of thousands of songbirds are illegally shot and exported every year. The industry as a whole is estimated to be worth around €10m a year”. But many believe TRAFFIC underestimates the scale of the trade. A few years before the report was released, a single sting by Italian border police found 120,000 songbirds crammed into a single truck coming from Serbia. The trade was organised by two companies which offered hunting tourism to Italians.
In the trial that followed in the Italian Courts, these companies were found to have smuggled over two million birds into Italy from Serbia over a six-year period. Each of these birds would fetch anywhere between €5 and €150 on the black market. The Serbian government was sent a note by CITES, the international body for monitoring the trade of wildlife, pointing out that many animal products were worth more on the black market than cocaine or heroin.
In the years since, little has changed. If anything, the poaching and smuggling problem has increased. A local hunter complains over coffee that the Italians have the police and authorities in their pockets. Under condition of anonymity, he says: “They work outside the law. They get access to the best spots where they shoot as much as they want of anything they want. All payments are in cash, so they are off the record. When the police occasionally turn up because someone has complained of poaching, resolution (for the poachers) is never more than a phone call away. Simply, it is a mafia.”
Everyone working in conservation seems to have settled on the term mafia as the best description of the network which runs the trade.Katalin Kecse-Nagy, an officer at TRAFFIC, points to the way birds are transported to Italy. “Mules or couriers store birds, often skinned and beheaded to avoid identification, in special compartments that are built into cars and trucks. Then they make a dash for Italy. These are the tactics of criminal gangs,” he says.
Then there are those running the show, a shifting network of Italian businessmen who own the hunting agencies, organise the transfer of the animals and arrange their drop off in Italy. A source from the environmental arm of the Serbian government explains: “It’s mostly individual Italians with strong contacts in local administrations. They employ local Serbians who know the right spots and the right people, and who know when to look the other way.”
Ruznic has tried fighting the hunters through official channels. “The hunting lobby is closely intertwined with the industrial lobby,” he says. “Many of the hunters here are also investors, and even where they’re not, the Serbian government is keen to keep the Italian community on side. This is the government’s idea of making new friends.” But Ruznic has another plan. Over the last year, he and a team of two volunteers have spent more than 900 hours scanning the Facebook pages of Italians who come to Serbia to hunt. At the end of a day’s shooting, tradition demands that each hunter has his photo taken with his kill laid out in front of him, often regardless of the legality of the quarry.
“They just can’t resist posting what they’re up to on Facebook,” says Ruznic. “It makes it very easy for us to get a good idea of what is being killed, and what is being smuggled out of the country. Last year for example, 45,000 quails were shot officially. Through Facebook, we found another 70,000 or so had been poached. The records show that only a few thousand stayed in the country, so the chances are everything else is going back to Italy. The problem though is what to do with the data when the police and customs aren’t interested.” More....