Situated at the junction of the Alps, the Dinaric Mountains, the Pannonian Basin and the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia is amongst the most topographically diverse countries in Europe. The outstretched landscape is home to more than 22,000 plant and animal species, including those that are rare or endangered. 388 different bird species have already been observed in Slovenia, of which 243 – more than half(!) – are also nesting in the country.
All native bird species are protected by law, except for the domestic pigeon Columba livia domestica and six huntable bird species: the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica), Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix), Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), and the Gray Partridge (Perdix perdix) that isbred by humans. Until recently, Slovenia was considered by many to be a safe haven for birds, without any notorious poaching hotspots in the country…
But in reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. In 2018, DOPPS – BirdLife Slovenia – started to systematically record cases of illegal bird killings. Soon, the realisation came that the crime against birds is significantly higher than initially believed with an estimation of 3,500-52,000 birds being illegally caught and killed each year in Slovenia. But sadly, that’s not all. Due to its geographical location, Slovenia is also a critical country for bird smugglers, along with Croatia and Hungary.
35,000-156,000 birds annually are
smuggled across Slovenia’s borders
to enter the Italian black market.
Slovenia – a transit country for bird smugglers
Despite the seriousness and scale of the problem, the prevention and detection of bird smuggling is still bafflingly low. In Slovenia, nature and environmental crimes are often considered of minor importance. The trafficking of birds is not taken seriously by the law and legal authorities, reflected in the low fines the criminals that are caught must pay.
But there is hope. DOPPS is mobilizing all its energy and efforts to improve the situation for our feathered friends in Slovenia by focusing on the detection of bird trafficking and putting effective measures in place to reduce the smuggling of birds across its borders. By addressing the gaps in Slovenian legislation, showcasing good practices, and incentivising key stakeholders, including cooperating with authorities such as the police, customs, and prosecution services, DOPPS will turn the tide for birds in Slovenia.
On the eastern coast of Africa, engulfing the equator, lies Kenya. It is right in the middle of a tremendously diverse area, bordering Ethiopia and South Sudan to the north, Somalia and the Indian Ocean to the east, Tanzania to the south, and Lake Victoria and Uganda to the west. The East African nation is famed for its scenic landscapes, including the Great Rift Valley and mountain highlands, and vast wildlife preserves, notably the iconic Maasai Mara Reserve and Amboseli National Park.
The country proudly hosts over 1,100 bird species spread across different habitat types. Alas, some of these birds are in grave danger: if we do not act now, the threats that they face could drive them to extinction. Our feathered friends are threatened by illegal killing, habitat loss and degradation, and the climate crisis.
Wildlife poisoning, electrocution, collision with energy infrastructure, and trapping are among the leading sources of harm to Kenya’s birds. Due to human-wildlife conflict, birds of prey, especially vultures, become fatal victims of poisoning – even though this is a criminal offence under Kenyan law. Since just August 2019, 70 vultures (56 White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus), 11 Lappet-faced Vultures (Torgos tracheliotos) and three Rüppell’s Vultures (Gyps ruepelli)), as well as two Tawny Eagles have tragically succumbed to poisoning in the southern rangelands of Kenya.
There is a ray of hope for these birds, however. Nature Kenya, BirdLife’s partner in Kenya, is working with the community in southern rangelands to stop wildlife poisoning. Nature Kenya has trained and equipped a network of community members called ‘Vultures Volunteers’ to respond to wildlife poisoning incidents within this landscape. The volunteers work closely with Nature Kenya’s Vultures Liaison Officers and other organisations, such as the Kenya Wildlife Service and The Peregrine Fund to reduce vulture mortalities. The Vulture Volunteers also conduct awareness raising work to educate the community on the effects of wildlife poisoning and the value of vultures; and they collect precious data on human-wildlife conflict. While Kenya’s birds of prey may face serious threats, they also have many loyal friends fighting for their safety!
Zambia is a landlocked country at the crossroads of Central, Southern and East Africa. It is rich in both natural resources and biological diversity, being both a vital range state for many bird populations and a significant stronghold for several other rare, endangered and endemic bird species.
Zambia is home to as many as 21 globally threatened bird species. A significant number of those face a spine-chilling threat: illegal killing. The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius), which has been classified as Endangered due to recent evidence suggesting that it is experiencing severe declines, owing in part to the hunting, capture and trade of this unusual-looking species. The Southern Ground-hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) is also subject to trade and persecution, as well as secondary poisoning (when it ingests a poisoned animal); along with the Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) which is the victim of both deliberate and incidental poisoning.
However, the biggest conservation threat that Zambia currently faces is poisoning of vultures, both intentional and accidental.
Zambia holds significant populations of three critically endangered and one endangered vulture species. These are the White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus), White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis), Hooded Vulture (Nechrosyrtes monachus) and Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos).
Poison is the biggest threat to vultures worldwide, and it has been escalating at an alarming rate across Africa in recent years. In Zambia, pesticides are driving the death of vultures, both accidentally and deliberately. One serious issue is the deliberate poisoning of large mammals’ carcasses by poachers. Since vultures circling a carcass can be seen from miles away, this helps park rangers track illegal poaching. Therefore, as poachers kill elephants for ivory, they will lace their carcasses with poison so that the vultures that feed on them perish and don’t give away their crime.
There is hope for our Zambia’s birds, however: BirdLife partner BirdWatch Zambia is fighting for our feathered friends’ lives. Formerly known as the Zambian Ornithological Society, BirdWatch Zambia’s mission is to promote the study, conservation, and general interest in birds and their habitats in Zambia. For years, it has been protecting Zambia’s savannah species, tackling illegal killing by establishing vulture safe zones on game farms in the Luangwa Valley, running outreach and education programmes, rapid poisoning response training, vulture tagging, population monitoring, and working with local communities and stakeholders to improve outcomes for Zambia’s endangered vulture populations.
Austria is often referred to as the Alpine Republic. Even though the Alps with their foothills in the north and east shape the country, Austria’s landscape offers much more for our feathered friends. For instance, rivers and lakes, where waterbirds spend the winter. And what might be the most important stopover ground for migratory birds in Central Europe can also be found in Austria: Lake Neusiedl, located in the province of Burgenland, and shared with Hungary.
Although this stopover ground is considered relatively safe, cases of illegal killing still occur in this region. Beyond Lake Neusiedl, throughout Austria, birds are illegally killed , especially birds of prey, such as the Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca), White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) and Red Kite (Milvus milvus); who are either shot or poisoned.
Since the year 2000, more than 450 cases of illegal killing have been proven. And these are only the reported cases – sadly, the real number is no doubt much higher.
In north and east Austria, you can find some of the worst “blackspots” for illegal killing. No fewer than 10 of the top 15 worst illegal killing areas in the country are located in Lower Austria, followed by four districts in Upper Austria.
What does the law say?
The legal protection of birds in Austria is mainly regulated on the federal state level by nature conservation and/or hunting laws. In 2021, in total 33 species of wild birds have a regular shooting season in Austria, at least in one federal state. Furthermore, some other bird species are exceptionally released for hunting. Nevertheless, all raptor species in Austria are protected and killing them is illegal, although it is, infuriatingly, still widespread.
The law needs significant improvement, as prosecutions rarely lead to convictions – mainly due to a lack of evidence.
In recent years, positive changes have occurred at the political level thanks to the efforts of nature conservation NGOs such as BirdLife Austria. Public relations work has led to regular media coverage and has alerted the general population to the issue of illegal killing. This has increased political pressure and raised awareness of the problem in national ministries, as well as in the judiciary and executive. Investigations are now taken much more seriously. House searches for taxidermy or banned poisons are taking place, which was hardly conceivable just a few years ago. In addition, there are political demands for tougher penalties.
Malta, a sun-kissed archipelago in middle of the Mediterranean, serves as an important “stepping stone” for many migratory birds as they travel between their breeding and wintering grounds in autumn and spring. As they fly from Europe to Africa and back; the Maltese islands act as a place for birds to rest before continuing their long and taxing journeys.
Alas, the archipelago is a dangerous place for the feathered to cross: Malta is tarnished by a longstanding illegal killing crisis.
Due to its strategic location on the African-Eurasian flyway, Malta is visited by many different species: 389 species from at least 48 countries have been recorded to date. These various species have to deal with an exceptionally high density of hunters per square kilometre – Malta has the densest hunter population in the entire European Union.
Hunting and trapping are old traditions on these islands, and illegal hunting is a serious, widespread problem. Some birds suffer more than others. Poachers specifically target raptors and herons as well as rare migratory birds; such as the Greater Flamingo, Black Stork and Eurasian Spoonbill.
This persecution reaches its peak during migration periods, but exists all year round. Resident species such as the Barn Owl and the Eurasian Jackdaw have become locally extinct – the last living breeding pairs were shot down by hunters.
What is driving this illegal killing crisis? For the most part, it’s taxidermy. Despite this fact, shockingly, authorities have issued amnesties for the owners of illegal taxidermy collections of wild birds; thereby helping collectors avoid criminal prosecution. Calls by BirdLife Malta to initiate a nation-wide spot check of these taxidermy collections – to make sure collectors do not abuse the system – have been ignored by the authorities.
The hunting and trapping lobby is very powerful within Maltese society, and has strong links with the two main political parties. As a result, local hunting federations have successfully lobbied for Malta to continue unsustainable activities in the face of legal pressure from the EU.
To this day, government authorities still implement policies which favour hunting in spring, the trapping of songbirds, and just generally adopt a lenient attitude towards the killing and possession of protected species.
Champions of bird protection
BirdLife Malta, our partner on the ground, has been the thorn in the side of the illegal hunting complex for many years. Their decades-long fight to protect both resident and migratory birds has seen numerous victories, as well as several setbacks. For a long time now, they have been working to bring Malta in line with the European Union’s Birds Directive. This includes advocating against the use of a legal instruments called “derogations” which effectively exempt the Maltese state from adhering to environmental legislation.
BirdLife Malta strives to protect birds both in the courts and in the field. Launching legal challenges to protect the precious species; they also set up volunteer bird protection camps to ensure that migratory and protected birds are safe from poachers. These bird protection camps help monitor for evidence of wildlife crimes during critical migration periods, gather evidence of these crimes, and assist the police with any further investigations. Since 2007, BirdLife Malta has been keeping a centralised database on illegal hunting and trapping incidents witnessed by BirdLife Malta staff, ornithologists, volunteers and members of the public known to the organisation. An analysis of the database is published annually. The also run the country’s bird recovery centres to care for and rehabilitate persecuted or injured birds.
In addition to this direct-action approach, BirdLife Malta also run a world-leading environmental education programme that tries to work with communities to explore sustainable ways to interact with wildlife. They work to generate understanding and respect for the environment, and to inspire change in people’s behaviour towards the natural world, especially in children and young people. Working with the future generation is the best chance there is to end the illegal killing crisis for good.
Did you know? Hungary is a landlocked country. You can’t go there by boat. But you can fly. Which sounds like a relatively easy thing to do if you’re a bird – but as it turns out, the Hungarian sky is a risky place to flap your wings.
Between 2,300 and 25,700 birds are poached in Hungary every year1.
One of the most pernicious forms of bird crime in the country is the poisoning of raptors. From 2017 to 2019, wildlife poisoning caused the death of 187 individual birds and mammals. Unfortunately only a small number of the poisoned birds are ever found, while the majority remains unnoticed. Illegal poisoning is still the most significant threat for the strictly protected Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca); accounting for the death of an entire quarter of all Imperial Eagles.
What does the law say? In Hungary, only 15 bird species can be hunted during specific periods. Only licensed firearms, trapping with legal equipment and falconry are permitted. Alas, as the numbers show, the law alone is not enough.
Thankfully for Hungary’s feathered beings, BirdLife’s partner MME is here. MME – the Hungarian Ornithological and Nature Conservation Society, is the leading non-profit nature conservation organisation in Hungary. –To fight poisoning, MME has two amazing four-legged employees: specially trained dogs who can sniff out poisoned baits and carcasses. Based on their success, MME is now helping in the implementation of other anti-poison dog units both nationally and abroad. Among other activities, MME gathers data about bird crime from citizens and relevant stakeholders into a single national database. Working within a National Anti-Poisoning Working Group, all relevant stakeholders (national park directorates, NGOs, veterinarians, police, hunters) provide and receive data for their work. MME also advocates for better enforcement of nature laws – an essential step to counter the country’s illegal killing crisis.
1.Brochet et al. (2017). Illegal killing and taking of birds in Europe outside the Mediterranean: Assessing the scope and scale of a complex issue. Bird Conservation International 27:1–31.
Located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean basin, Lebanon lies on the second most important flyway for migratory birds as they travel between Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. For iconic species such as Storks, Lesser-spotted Eagles and Pelican; the country provides a resting hotspot to refuel on their long migration, twice each year.
They wouldn’t want to stay too long, though, as the Lebanese skies can be a dangerous place to fly: millions of birds are shot down in Lebanon each year.
Despite gradual developments in hunting legislation since the mid-1990s, the illegal killing crisis is still a reality.
With the help of local communities and pro-regulation hunters, the anti-poaching unit of BirdLife partner SPNL – the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, has been working relentlessly on the ground to stop this crime and report all incidents to the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. As we write these lines, SPNL are chasing poachers, despite the dangers on site.
For many Lebanese, hunting is a tradition passed down from father to son, and an autumn ritual for men to pass weekend nights with friends before hunting at dawn. Smaller birds are usually cooked and eaten, but the larger ones, including migratory birds, are just shot for “sport” or taxidermy. And some species suffer more than others. When the Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra), Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix), Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), or the Eurasian Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) fly through Lebanon, they might be taking the most dangerous journey of their lives.
The illegal killing crisis is widespread across the country; Akkar, Koura, Kfarhabou, Hilane, Donnyeh, Arida, Eghbe, Hermel, Fakiha, Dalboun, Qaraoun and Roum-Aytouli are all large areas where illegal killing is rife. And because of the unique landscape of Lebanon, sites such as Eghbe or Mount Lebanon act as a funnel for the thousands of migratory birds on the move each spring — and equally as remarkable — in autumn, making them extremely vulnerable to poachers.
Nevertheless, things are beginning to change with the establishment of SPNL’s Anti-Poaching Unit, which is fighting illegal killing by teaming up with CABS, local authorities and responsible hunting associations, in collaboration with internal security forces; to educate hunters, patrol key sites and ensure birds a safe passage during their annual migrations. With time, mentalities are changing for the better.
BirdLife’s partner in Lebanon, SPNL – the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, aims to protect nature, birds and biodiversity in Lebanon and to ensure sustainable use of natural resources by reviving the concept of Al Hima. SPNL took the initiative to support the Lebanese government with the enforcement of the hunting law. Clarifying the legislation, working with communities, and undertaking joint operations to ensure better law enforcement to help tackle the illegal killing crisis.
In Greek mythology, Cyprus is the birthplace of Aphrodite, an ancient goddess associated with love and beauty. And from the ruins of Kourion to the salt lakes of Larnaca, Cyprus is indeed a place you could easily fall in love with. But if you’ve got feathers, you might want to think twice. Sadly, Cyprus isn’t always the best place to visit as a migratory songbird.
In 2019 alone, an estimated 610,000 birds were trapped and killed with mist nets and limesticks.
That being said, significant progress has been achieved over the past few years. In 2016, that number was as high as 2.5 million!1
What’s more, Cyprus’s three worst illegal killing areas rank among the top twenty worst poaching areas in the entire Mediterranean basin.2 The UK Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) have recently been very successful at tackling poaching – once the country’s worst blackspots, they have evolved into exemplary success stories by reducing illegal trapping by 90% within the last couple of years.
Some species suffer more than others. The birds hit the hardest by the massacre in Cyprus are the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), the Lesser Whitethroat (Curruca curruca), the Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), the Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), and especially the Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla). The Blackcap faces a particularly gruesome ordeal. It’s poached for ambelopoulia: a deadly dish made from the bodies of songbirds. Sourcing birds for this dish has become a profitable business which is controlled to a large extent by organised crime. The Cyprus Game & Fauna Service estimate this black market activity is worth around 15 million euros annually.3
You get the picture: there’s an illegal killing crisis. But what does the law say? In Cyprus, 34 bird species can be legally hunted during specific periods. The only legal way to hunt is with a rifle. All other hunting methods are forbidden, including use of calling devices or live decoys, shooting from a moving vehicle of any sort, or falconry. Trapping is also illegal, including the use of mist nets and limesticks. However, in reality, bird trapping with mist nets and limesticks takes place across the country, contributing to the large-scale killing of hundreds of thousands of migratory and wintering birds. Survey records show that 157 bird species have been found trapped in mist nets or on limesticks, 82 of which are conservation priority species. Moreover, it is forbidden to possess, sell or eat trapped songbirds
Thankfully, a protector works night and day to save Cyprus’s feathered beings. The saviour’s name? BirdLife Cyprus. Our Cypriot partner is fully dedicated to protecting the birds of Cyprus and their habitats. They have been carrying out a surveillance programme on illegal bird trapping since 2002, which has been instrumental in confirming the industrial scale of this horrifying activity. Moreover, BirdLife Cyprus has been pushing for the implementation of strategic action against illegal bird trapping, involving all relevant stakeholders, and advocating for better law enforcement on the ground. Finally, BirdLife Cyprus has been growing its educational and awareness outreach programme in recent years, with a focus on making the next generation more appreciative guardians of wildlife and nature.
1. BirdLife Cyprus, 2020, Update on illegal bird trapping activity in Cyprus
2. Brochet at al. (2016) Preliminary assessment of the scope and scale of illegal killing and taking of birds in the Mediterranean. Bird Conservation International. 26: 1–28
3. Game and Fauna Service, 2010