Sunday, May 16

Snared: Capture Poachers to Save Italy’s Songbirds | Birds

TOAfter two hours of touring the mountains of Brescia, Stefania Travaglia finally finds what she was looking for. Among the remote farms of an alpine village, a spring net trap is partially hidden behind a grassy embankment and some trees. Entangled in the wire mesh, an exhausted thrush sits silent and motionless.

Travaglia gets to work quickly and quietly, hiding two motion-sensing cameras next to the trap. Clear evidence of wrongdoing is needed to catch a poacher. “You have to see everything: you have to see the trap; you have to see the person; and if there is a bird in it, “he says.

While you install the cameras, no one is in sight, but hunters often work close to home and anyone could be watching. For someone in your line of work, this uneasy feeling is part of the job.

A songbird in Brescia, Italy
Song thrush caught in a net. Birds are sometimes caught alive to be used as decoys to catch others. Photography: Joey Tyson

Travaglia is a member of the Committee against the killing of birds (taxis), an anti-poaching activist group dedicated to bird conservation in Europe. It is estimated that between 11 million and 36 million birds they are killed or illegally captured in Mediterranean countries every year, many of them while migrating. The group has been active in Brescia, northern Italy, since the early 1980s.

More than 5 million The birds, the highest number of any European nation, are believed to be illegally hunted each year in Italy, according to Bird Life International. Brescia, part of the Lombardy region, is the worst affected area. Here, protected bird species are routinely killed in arcane and brutal traps or captured alive in nets for use as decoys. Sometimes they just get shot. Based on nearly 40 years of operations in the area, Cabs believes that 400,000 to 1 million birds are poached in Brescia annually.

Despite being illegal, the capture of songbirds has long been a persistent problem in the region. Travaglia says the bird he found likely became a live decoy, used by hunters to lure other birds to their hunting hides, its melodious song that unknowingly calls other birds to death.

Plucked songbirds
Plucked songbirds. Dead birds are sold for about € 3 each. Photograph: Courtesy of Cabs

It’s a lucrative business, with trappers able to earn between € 3 for a dead bird and € 100 (£ 85) for a live bird, depending on the species.

Although it is illegal to serve songbirds in Italian restaurants, dishes like to spit (roasted songbirds), and polenta and osei (polenta with roasted songbirds), are still prepared in rural areas to the north.

The problem is not only the number of poachers, but the brutality and variety of their methods: Brescia is the last place in Europe where there are bow traps, or bows, are still used. To the inexperienced eye, a bow trap is easy to miss as it looks like a branch. When a bird lands on its catch, attracted by clusters of bright red rowan berries left as bait, the trap snaps shut, breaking the bird’s legs and causing a slow and miserable death. They are used almost exclusively to catch robins, considered a delicacy in northern Italy.

A song thrush that was captured by poachers in Brescia and used to attract other birds.
Song thrush captured by poachers in Brescia and used to attract other birds.
Photograph: WWF Italia

Once Travaglia has set up the camera traps, inform the local carabinieri Forest (forest police). Taxis have no jurisdiction to deal with poachers; Their goal is to collect information and evidence, which the police use to ambush and catch the perpetrator. Joint operations between the forest police and taxis began in 2001. Since then, a close working relationship has developed between the two groups, significantly reducing the number of illegal traps in Brescia.

While poaching is a year-round activity, the trapping season peaks in the fall, when billions of migratory birds fly through the narrow mountain passes of Lombardy on their way to Africa. Cabs’ team spent October scouring the mountains of Brescia in search of illegal traps.

Stefania Travaglia searches for illegal traps in the mountains of Brescia
Stefania Travaglia searches for illegal traps in the mountains of Brescia. Photography: Joey Tyson

They have developed an extensive database of potential sites, each plotted on a 3D satellite map, covering an area of ​​more than 4,500 square kilometers (1,700 square miles). Once recorded, the data is passed on to the police.

Andrea Rutigliano, an investigative officer at Cabs, says the turning point came about five years ago when the hunters “felt the greater power that the forest police had, thanks to our cooperation, because we were saving them time.”

Rather than taking two days to catch the hunters, one day to locate the traps, then one second to ambush, the data provided by Cabs allows the police to act immediately. As a result, fewer traps are being set. Last year’s operation recovered 78 bow traps – the lowest number in history – along with 57 nets, compared to 12,104 in 2001.

In 2014, the group also helped close a loophole in Italian law that allowed Tunisian sparrows to be imported into Italy and sold in restaurants. In the same year, after a long campaign, Cabs helped end the use of rocoli – Large nets designed to catch migratory birds in flight, which were previously allowed for “traditional” cultural reasons.

A robin is released from a net by a member of the Committee against the Killing of Birds
A robin breaks free after being caught in a net. Photograph: WWF Italia

A major problem for taxis is the murky line between hunter and poacher. Capturing is always illegal, but hunters have a list of 39 birds that they can legally shoot during official hunting season. Seventy percent of captured poachers have a hunting license, according to Cabs.

This figure is controversial by the Italian Federation of Hunters (FIDC), which recognizes that every year “100 to 120 criminal violations of the hunting law occur”, but maintains that the majority of poaching is carried out by people without a license.

Since 2018, Rutigliano has helped police catch nearly 40 hunters. He says: “We don’t find as many hunters as before. So now we are moving into the shooting business. We have exhausted that field, that source of illegality, and now we move on to the next one. “

Filippo Bamberghi, a WWF ranger, believes that the illegal hunting of songbirds is the biggest problem facing Brescia now. Due to the large number of licensed hunters in Brescia, some 20,000, those who kill protected species can do so without fear of capture, he says.

Even if they are caught, the laws don’t go far enough to deter poachers, according to Bamberghi, with fines of as low as 500 euros.

“The fine has been the same for 30 years. If you shoot a protected bird, it’s a very, very low fine, ”says Filippo. “And the fine is the same if you shoot a bird, or 1000 birds.”

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