Rare and beautiful birds – including the national bird of Britain – are being illegally shot dead for fun or trapped before being plucked, skinned and eaten – or simply discarded.
Across southern Europe and North Africa birds are dying at rates that are driving endangered species to the brink of extinction.
From the lawless deserts of war-torn Syria to the cypress-lined fields of Italy, vast numbers are being killed.
Many of the wretched victims are shot dead or trapped in nets en-route to Britain’s back gardens.
For the first time, the appalling levels of bird slaughter have been laid bare by a detailed scientific review.
The study – poignantly headlined The Killing – has been carried out by BirdLife International and and breaks down the killings, country-by-country across the region, pointing at the worst culprits and highlighting the species suffering the most.
Italy is one of the worst offenders on the great migration flyway between Africa and Eurasia. But worst of all is Egypt, where 5.7 million birds are illegally killed each year. It is followed by Syria and Lebanon with 3.9 million and 2.6 million birds killed, respectively.
Cyprus has a death toll of 2.3 million dead birds; Greece 704,000 France, Croatia and Libya, all around 500,000 each, and Albania 265,000. As well as our robin, bird species suffering the worst death tolls are chaffinches, blackcaps, quail, song thrushes, calandra larks and skylarks.
Tim Stowe, international director at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, added: “The illegal killing of tens of millions of birds around the Mediterranean, highlighted in this report, is a source of lasting shame. “It’s time that action is taken to put an end to the killing, especially in the European Union where nature laws should be protecting vulnerable species.
“If properly implemented and enforced, the EU Birds Directive would provide the necessary protection for a number of birds that feature in this report, and in time reduce the needless illegal killing.
“We have seen positive steps taken this year to reduce the rate of illegal killing of birds, in places such as the Dhekelia British Sovereign Base Area, Cyprus. Now we need to put pressure on the rest of the EU to follow this example to ensure safer flyways for birds migrating between continents.”
The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) runs regular bird migration camps in Italy, France and Spain and on Cyprus and Malta, yielding tens of thousands of confiscated illegal traps and nets. Working with police units and wardens, it also catches hundreds of poachers red-handed every year.
It warns that in EGYPT an estimated 5.7 million birds are killed illegally each year, making this country the most dangerous place for migratory birds in the Mediterranean. Indiscriminate hunting has become commonplace with a large number of migratory species caught as illegal incidental catches during legal trapping of quail.
House sparrow, common coot, red-backed shrike and Eurasian golden oriole are illegally killed in large numbers.
In ITALY an estimated 5.6 million birds are killed illegally each year. In the Brescia Alps, birds are trapped in tension snares, where many die of thirst or exhaustion.
Migrant birds caught in nets are sometimes used to trap other birds: they are kept in the dark and released into daylight only in autumn. They mistake this for spring and then sing, attracting even more birds to the trap.
Birds hunted in the Sulcis district are sold at high prices to restaurants and other private dealers to be consumed. Large numbers of chaffinch, meadow pipit and song thrush are killed in Italy.
SYRIA is located on the second most important avian flyway in the world, which poses a serious issue given the lack of enforcement of hunting laws in the country, making it an ideal place for illegal hunters from around the region.
Hunting has always been a traditional pastime; however, it has now become widespread and indiscriminate. In general, there has been a severe decline in the number of wild animals in Syria.
A hunting ban exists in the country, but lack of enforcement has led to a new generation of amateur shooters who lack basic hunting skills and ethics and do not respect good hunting practice and etiquette.
Rather than being a problem in specific areas, illegal killing of birds is a countrywide issue. Blackcap, common whitethroat and skylark are killed illegally in large numbers for food, which is sold in markets. Others are caught to be kept as cage pets and in many cases, killed for “sport”.
LEBANON: Located on the same important flyway as Syria, Lebanon is a strategic location for migratory birds. Unfortunately, widespread problems with the illegal killing of birds exist across the country.
Normalised in society, illegal shooting and trapping has become an extremely popular pastime in Lebanon. As a result, the mean estimated number of illegally killed birds in Lebanon is more than 2,600,000 annually.
CYPRUS: The Famagusta district of Cyprus is seen as the worst in the Mediterranean area for the mean estimated number of illegally killed birds each year.
Geographically, Cyprus is a key stopover location for many migratory birds on their route across the sea. Unfortunately, birds tend to concentrate in particular parts of the island when leaving or arriving on migration, thus making things easier for those engaged in illegal killing.
Laws forbidding trapping have been in place since 1974, but these are frequently flouted. Audio equipment is used, illegally, to broadcast birdsong and attract birds to trapping locations.
Many birds are illegally sold as ‘delicacies’ for consumption – in particular, blackcap , song thrush, lesser whitethroat and common chiffchaff. The Akrotiri and Dhekelia areas are controlled as British military bases by the UK.
BirdLife Cyprus finalised a National Strategic Action Plan to tackle the illegal killing of birds, which was also adopted by the British Sovereign Base Areas.
GREECE: The mean estimated number of illegally killed birds each year in Greece exceeds 704,000. On average, more than five birds are reported to be illegally killed each year for every square kilometre. Presently, of the 345 species of birds assessed in Greece, 32 per cent of species are being killed illegally in significant numbers.
Greece is among the three worst countries for the illegal killing of European turtle dove. Moreover, European goldfinch, European serin, European greenfinch and greater short-toed lark are caught in large numbers to be illegally sold as cagebirds. Greece is also among the top three countries that illegally kill Dalmatian pelican.
FRANCE: In France, an estimated 149,000 to 895,000 birds are illegally killed each year.
In the name of tradition, many regions get away with illegally trapping small birds with many non-target species getting caught in the process. Trapping is the predominant form of illegal killing of birds in France.
Of the 349 species of birds assessed in France, around 32 per cent of them are killed illegally in significant numbers. Eurasian chaffinch, European robin and ortolan bunting are killed in large numbers. The ortolan bunting is known for being served as an expensive “delicacy” – it was a rite of passage for centuries for French gourmets to eat this bird. Despite its illegality, capture of the species is tolerated.
Meanwhile in CROATIA the mean number of birds killed illegally in Croatia is estimated to be more than 500,000 each year, with nearly ten birds killed annually per square kilometre.
Of the 306 species of birds assessed in Croatia, around 32 per cent of these being killed illegally in significant numbers. The common coot is reported to be highly impacted by illegal killing in Croatia, with the country among the worst three in the region for the illegal killing of this species.
One of the major issues to tackle is the use of illegal methods during open season. For example, common quail and waterfowl are illegally killed using tape lures.
LIBYA: It is estimated that around half a million birds are killed illegally each year in Libya. Of the Mediterranean countries, Libya is the only one currently without any legal framework to regulate hunting and trapping and prevent illegal killing.
In terms of numbers, of the 266 species of birds assessed in Libya, 23 per cent were reported to be killed illegally in significant numbers. The country is among the three worst for the killing of African houbara, which is listed by BirdLife as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.
ALBANIA: The mean estimated number of individual birds illegally killed in Albania is around 265,000 annually. This is much lower than the nine countries above it in the list, but still enough for the Balkan nation to make it into the top ten countries.
Despite its lower overall figure, the estimated mean number of individual birds killed illegally is more than nine per square kilometre each year. Of the 296 species of birds assessed in Albania, some 32 per cent are killed illegally in significant numbers. Eurasian skylark and Eurasian blackbird are illegally shot and European goldfinch are trapped in large numbers.
This article was first published by The Express on 22 August 2019.
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