Europe and Central Asia
11 Mar 2015

The Balkans bird mafia

Meadow Pipits, a protected species in Serbia, ready for illegal trade © Goran Sekulić
By Lisa Benedetti

«Resting on one knee, the hunter poses for the camera, his kill laid out in front of him in rows of 20... Before the end of the day, they will be skinned, packed and frozen in preparation for smuggling over land into Italy. Within 48 hours, many will have already been sold on the black market to Italian restaurants who offer them up as traditional Italian fare».

It's a quote from ''The Massacre of Europe's Songbirds'', where Newsweek journalist Luke Dale-Harris writes about the horrific illegal bird killing and trade in the Balkans. The article describes how throughout southeastern Europe, especially in Romania, Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria, illegal bird killers coming from Italy are public enemy number one against nature, birds, and conservationists.

In Serbia, Milan Ružić, president of Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia - BPSSS (BirdLife Partner), has spent the last decade trying to spur his government into action to stop this crime. “It’s Italians who run the show here,” he explains. Well organized expeditions orchestrated by Italian businessmen who own the agencies, bring in the customers, organize the killing spree, and illegally ship tens of thousands of birds from the Balkans to be served in the Italian black restaurant market.

The Serbian media barely care, but worse, inspectors, custom control, police, public prosecutors and courts, whose responsibility is to prevent and prosecute such offenders, often turn a blind eye. The number of inspectors is low and they are underequipped. Lobby groups who support this 'activity' have close connections with those commiting the crime, the authorities and business world, so the practice is largely ignored by the government as well. A limited number of locals tend to support it because the practice employs residents who know the local habitats and migration routes where birds can be easily killed in large numbers.

The corruption is so widespread it's simply organized crime at its worst. Milan and Luke have witnessed a typical scene, where a group of Italians wait around a pond for the sun to rise, and along with it, thousands of birds which take off and gather in species specific formations. But once the shots start there is only chaos, birds doubling back on each other again and again, falling from the sky and into the arms of the killers. Many are so proud of this illegal slaughter, that afterwards they are not afraid to post detailed photos of carcasses on social networks. Milan is furious. “You can go to jail for shooting these birds, and this man is advertising his own crime on Facebook. Yet the police don’t want to know.”

According to the BPSSS, up to 170,000 birds are shot and killed illegally each year in Serbia. The majority Quail (50,000-60,000 individuals), many shot during hunting season but with the use of illegal electronic attraction devices. Since 2001, cases of illegal killing and smuggling of birds within and from Serbia have become publicly visible but are very sporadic. In September 2001, there was a particular case where Italian police on the Slovenian border stopped a truck with 120,702 wild birds, mostly killed in Serbia. Although the offenders were prosecuted and punished in Italy, the crime is still omnipresent and the punishment too weak. The last sentence was given by the Bačka Palanka Court in Serbia on 6 Febuary 2015, initiated by a report from BPSSS against an individual who posted a photo on Facebook of a recently shot Corncrake; the sentence a mere 25.000 RSD (ca 200 EUR) penalty, far too small a penance to deter this sort of crime.

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Stay in tune for the release of ''Excessive Freedom'', a film about the plight of wild birds in Serbia, especially with respect to killing, trapping and smuggling. Srdjan Djuranovic, author of the film says: ''This movie may be disturbing, but it shows the facts and evidence for what people are capable of doing or ignoring when careless and selfish''Watch the teaser:

NB: A BPSSS and Craft Film Collective joint production funded by the Mava Foundation and EuroNatur Foundation


A report released by TRAFFIC in 2008 shows that illegal killing and smuggling of wild birds into Italy “Involves highly organised criminal activity in South-east and Central Europe. Hundreds of thousands of songbirds are illegally shot and exported every year. The industry as a whole is estimated to be worth around €10 million a year. An irony in this is that most of the money does not reach local purses. For nearly each bird that is shot and smuggled into Italy and sold on the Italian black market, prices are about 3000% higher than what the hunter paid to shoot. Each of the birds fetches anywhere between €5 and €150. If the citizens of Serbia, Romania and other affected countries were aware of this, and that Italians are not only the primary culprit but the ones who most benefit, they would likely stand up and demand action. But how to fight a trade fueled by an Italian market ravenous for wild bird specialities like ''polenta e osei“ – polenta with grilled songbirds? Most with so little meat on their bones it's just crazy to think they are considered a meal at all.

Željko Vuković, fearless inspector from the Croatian Ministry for Nature and Environmental Protection, has set an excellent example for what can be done. In recent years, illegal bird killers have been avoiding Croatia because of Željko's tireless efforts which have led to the capture and persecution of many commiting this crime. He says that before he became involved ''Poachers were everywhere. No one was doing anything about it. I got birders, environmentalists from NGOs and even hunters on my side. They are my eyes. They tell me when something is going on.'' Željko organized trainings for custom officers on Croatian borders to teach them proper tracking and investigation of smuggling, even when birds are skinned, beheaded and frozen in cubes of water. Although illegal bird killings are still a serious issue in Croatia, these efforts have made a positive impact.

It's not the locals killing the birds, it's not the locals who make the profits, it's not the locals causing the problem, it's time for the authorities in Serbia, Romania, Albania and Bulgaria to stop this massacre. BirdLife associates in these countries are urgently calling on those who create and implement legislation in nature conservation, hunting and custom control to deal more seriously with this unforgivable crime.

This article is based on:  

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