Hunting for migrants
Hunting migratory birds is a culturally and economically important activity in the North African and Middle Eastern countries bordering the Mediterranean. BirdLife International and its Partners in the region have just completed a three-year project to promote more sustainable practices.
Many migratory birds which breed in Europe and central and western Asia follow traditional routes across or around the Mediterranean to reach their wintering grounds. Some, especially waterbirds, stop and over-winter along the North African coast, but many other species fly on to sub-Saharan Africa. These migrations are vital to the survival of these species, and the migration flyways passing through this region are arguably the most important in the world.
The birds follow a number of different migration strategies. Some use a chain of predictable stopover sites at wetlands and coastal areas, scattered along their migration routes. Others such as storks, pelicans and many birds of prey use rising columns of warm air to gain height, followed by long glides which carry them across the water; these soaring birds choose narrow sea crossings (“bottleneck site”) at the Straits of Gibraltar and Messina, or follow the eastern Mediterranean coast. Finally, many songbirds and some birds of prey migrate on broad fronts, and fly straight across the Mediterranean, sometimes using islands for stopovers.
Because these birds migrate in large numbers at predictable times of year, and often at predictable sites, hunters can be waiting for them with guns, nets, traps or lime-sticks. Hunting of migratory birds can still be a serious problem on the European side of the Mediterranean, especially at bottleneck points like the Straits of Messina, where LIPU (BirdLife in Italy) is fighting a local tradition of slaughtering European Honey-buzzards Pernis apivorus and other raptors. In Cyprus and Malta, the governments are either failing to observe and enforce the requirements of the European Union’s Wild Birds Directive, or are openly flouting them.
While it tackles such problems within EU member countries through political means, the European Commission is also using its “financial instrument for the environment”, LIFE, to contribute to “the reinforcement of capacities and administrative structures needed in the environmental sector and in the development of environmental policy and action programmes”, in what it calls the “Mediterranean third countries” of North Africa and the Middle East. Migratory bird hunting is an important socio-economic activity across this region, involving hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in rural areas.
Subsistence hunting occurs only at very low levels. However, “sport” hunting has become widespread, and the number of migratory birds hunted is thought to be increasing as a result of people’s increased leisure time and disposable income, and easier access to guns, cheaper ammunition and 4-wheel drive vehicles. Diminishing populations of some native traditional game species may also be leading to increases in numbers of hunters interested in migratory bird species.
“Hunters think that migratory birds have large population sizes and contribute no value to the ecosystem" —Bassima Khatib, SPNL Assistant Director General
In response to this issue a partnership of BirdLife International, AEWA (the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement), the Society of the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL, BirdLife in Lebanon) and Association “Les Amis des Oiseaux” (AAO, BirdLife in Tunisia) implemented a joint project funded by EC-LIFE. The goal of the LIFE-Third Countries “Sustainable Hunting Project” (2004–2007) was “to strengthen the management of bird hunting… to reduce excessive, indiscriminate and illegal hunting of migratory birds, promote more sustainable hunting practices and enhance compliance with international and regional agreements on the conservation of migratory birds”.
Tunisia and Lebanon were chosen as the focal countries in North Africa and in the Middle East respectively, in order to demonstrate the range of activities aimed at achieving sustainable hunting which could be replicated in other countries. Quantitative information on hunting methods was extremely limited before the project, and it still remains difficult to ascertain the true scale of illegal hunting. In a four-month period in 2005, SPNL researchers estimate that 1,780 storks, cranes and pelicans and 3,640 raptors were shot or trapped in the main hunting localities in Lebanon. However, they point out that reliable information was impossible to obtain since hunting in Lebanon at this time was officially banned, although the hunting law did not restrict either dealers in guns and traps, or bird sales such as in restaurants and markets.
“Hunters think that migratory birds have large population sizes and contribute no value to the ecosystem, thus migratory species are more vulnerable to hunting than local species”, said Bassima Khatib, SPNL Assistant Director General. Those countries which record different hunting methods do so according to membership of hunting organisations, or the number of hunting permits issued, and not by actual monitoring of activity (though some countries also make estimates of numbers of illegal hunters). The distinction between legal and illegal hunters is not always clear. National estimates of numbers of hunters include up to 1,000 (registered weapons) in Palestine; 11,400 registered hunters in Tunisia; over 40,000 in Morocco; 92,000 in Algeria; around 60,000 hunters in Lebanon as estimated by hunters’ organisations; 500,000 (300,000 registered) hunters in Syria; and at least 10,000 individuals in Egypt.
There is often a considerable foreign influence on illegal and unsustainable hunting. Various sources told SPNL that Lebanon is a major hub for the illicit trade in birds between Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Malta and Cyprus. Many foreign hunters travel to Syria from the Gulf and Lebanon for falconry and, increasingly, to hunt with guns. In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, falconry on the protected Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulate is only practiced by foreign nationals from the Gulf States. Spanish hunters shoot partridges in Morocco, and tourists from Italy, France and Malta shoot thrushes in Tunisia. In Egypt most foreign hunters are Europeans visiting to shoot waterbirds, with smaller numbers from the Gulf and Lebanon. “Clearly, tourism hunting is a significant activity in the region,” said Jonathan Barnard, BirdLife’s Programme and Projects Manager.
“The achievements of the Sustainable Hunting Project will be used as tools to build on in future flyway regional projects in the region" —Jonathan Barnard, BirdLife International
The use of guns (shotguns and air guns) appears to predominate in most countries of the region, apart from parts of Egypt where the use of traditional nets and lime sticks is widespread. In Tunisia the use of nets and lime sticks is prohibited by law but they are widely used by poachers for trapping songbirds. Lead shot is the dominant type of shot and is used on a scale which presents a widespread environmental hazard in addition to the direct impact of hunting. The Syndicate for Guns and Ammunitions in Lebanon estimates that 25 million cartridges are sold nationally each year.
SPNL found that modern technologies were also being introduced. “Calling machines” —tape or CD players, often using bird calls downloaded from the Internet—are used by both shooters and trappers in order to attract birds. SPNL and AAO’s report were just two of eight national reports on migratory bird hunting, which provided the first baseline information on hunting in many of the project countries. The project also produced seven regional “synthesis reports” on key topics, including hunting practices, policy and legislation, hunting management, the religious, cultural and socioeconomic significance of migratory bird hunting, and alternative economic models. There were two regional reports on regional compliance with international conventions and agreements, and the use of lead shot.
The project developed a comprehensive set of guidelines for politicians and decision makers, and a Code of Practice for Responsible Hunting of Migratory Birds in MTC Countries for hunters, both of which were published in English and Arabic. AAO worked with the national federation of hunters’ associations to include the Code of Practice, together with the annual hunting decree, in a hunter’s guide in pocket format which is issued to all registered hunters and law enforcement bodies in Tunisia.
The project’s educational activities aimed to promote responsible behaviour among hunters, and improve general public awareness of migratory birds. (Many hunters who understand the conservation situation of their countries’ breeding birds regard migratory birds as a “surplus” resource and have no idea of the pressures on them). There was a special focus on school-age children, to educate the next generation of potential hunters. SPNL produced a comprehensive educational program for school children, which included full interactive resources for teachers (in both English and Arabic). In early 2007, AAO launched a project targeting young people involved in the trapping of thousands of migratory birds in the oases of southern Tunisia with a broad public awareness campaign during the spring migration period.
Governments in the region have agreed to strengthen national compliance with relevant international agreements and conventions. Lasting partnerships have been established between governments, hunters’ organisations and conservation NGOs, ensuring that progress on sustainable hunting will continue even though the project has come to an end. “In the case of Tunisia the project has resulted in a true exchange between the hunters and our association, and the two partners have agreed to fight together against poaching und unsustainable hunting”, said Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf, AAO’s Director of Projects. “It is now most important to maintain this exchange, to develop the ideas which germinated during the project and to ensure long-term awareness-raising and training programmes for hunters and for the wider public.”
“The achievements of the Sustainable Hunting Project will be used as tools to build on in future flyway regional projects in the region, such as the Soaring Bird and Wings Over Wetlands projects”, said Jonathan Barnard. “The project has provided a platform at both regional and national levels for continuing to improve the management of bird hunting in the region, and to promote more sustainable hunting practices”, said Jonathan Barnard. “Ultimately this leads to a safer migration, and a better future, for birds using these routes.”
by Nick Langley
The project was funded by the European Union’s LIFE – Third Countries Fund
For more feature articles like this, get your hands on a copy of World Birdwatch.
The award-winning magazine from BirdLife International is full of in-depth articles about the work of the BirdLife Partnership and all the latest bird conservation news from around the globe.
For more information on World Birdwatch magazine and for details on how to subscribe visit: BirdLife World Birdwatch magazine