Poison is a deadly weapon, killing birds across the continent. Our partner, BirdLife Hungary, is taking action. This is their story.
If you are wandering around in Hungary, you don’t have to worry about running into long mist nets with songbirds struggling in them. You will not see birds trapped in glue sticks either. Our storks don’t have to worry about bullets. Illegal killing in Hungary is much less obvious. It’s silent. Discreet. Vicious. But just as deadly. The killer’s name? Poison.
When BirdLife Hungary, Magyar Madártani és Természetvédelmi Egyesület (MME) was founded in 1974, bird enthusiasts started a census of the raptor birds of Hungary, to assess their population and determine which species were in need of instant conservation action. Based on the results, it was obvious that among other raptors, the Eastern imperial eagle populations were plummeting and the species was on the brink of extinction: there were only around 20 pairs left. As it is an umbrella species – a species whose protection also protects others sharing the same habitat – we knew we had to act.
Since day one, conservation of this magnificent imperial eagle has been an ongoing project of BirdLife Hungary, with constant support from national and international governmental and non-governmental organisations. And our raptor conservation measures were a success: the population slowly but steadily increased.
That was uplifting: our eagles were in better shape, and everything was going well – or so we thought… Suddenly, in 2005, two imperial eagles were found dead – and we didn’t know why. After an autopsy, our worst fears were proven right. Someone had killed the eagles with poison.
There had not been a single eagle poisoning case since the 1970’s. At that time, it was thought to be a tragic, but individual case. Unfortunately, we were proven wrong. We witnessed a horrifying series of deaths by poisoning that we had never experienced before.
To this day, poisoning continues to be the most severe problem we face. It doesn’t only affect globally endangered eagles: all raptor birds fall victim to this discreet and deadly form of illegal killing. Hungary is the country with the most direct poisoning cases in Europe.
Why do people poison birds?
There are two main causes. Poisoning can be unintentional: birds can be exposed to pest-control chemicals carelessly laid out for rodents. There is also a more frightening explanation: illegal poisoning can be intentional. Some people use illegal poisoned bait deliberately targeting wolves, foxes or birds of prey, who are considered dangerous to game populations. It’s particularly sinister: they poison birds of prey so that they don’t eat other animals, in order to be able to kill them first. It’s enough to make your blood run cold.
How Falco, Carlo and Hella are sniffing out bird crime
The situation is dire, but we’re lucky enough to have four-legged superheroes to help us. That’s right: we’ve got dogs. But not just any dogs. They can sniff out poison bait or poisoned carcasses. Falco, a German shepherd, was the first dog in the anti-poison unit that underwent training at the Dog Training Centre of the Hungarian National Police. During four months of training with leader Gabor Deák, Falco first learned to find carcasses of birds of prey, then carbofuran and phorate (poisons), and finally, both carcasses and poisoned bait such as animal parts and eggs.
Falco’s first field search was a bittersweet success: he found twelve Marsh Harriers, one Buzzard, four foxes, poisoned bait (eggs) and three Saker falcons buried in the ground! It was devastating to uncover such death.
Due to this result, two more dogs were trained. Now, three dogs, Falco, Carlo and Hella are fighting with BirdLife Hungary against the illegal killing of birds. These results wouldn’t have been possible without the EU LIFE fund, which financially supports most of our work in order to halt human caused mortality among raptor birds. We are currently running our third LIFE project, but this time we are not alone. As birds know no borders, we teamed up with Slovakia, Czechia, Austria and Serbia to run the PannonEagle LIFE project together. At the moment there are two dogs in Slovakia, one in Czechia and a voluntary unit in Austria, but we also participated in the training of a separate dog unit in Hungary, that is run by Kiskunság National Park Directorate, and in Bulgaria’s very first anti-poison Dog Unit.
To this day, the dog unit of BirdLife Hungary has carried out more than 1000 searches, and there were 321 crime related events.
The task is daunting, and it’s not possible without financial support. There are always new ways to kill and new poisons emerging intentionally or out of sheer lack of knowledge. But the successful national and international cooperation have proven that there is hope, and the magnificent eagle will continue to amaze us for many years to come.