Europe and Central Asia
9 Sep 2015

'Birding and conservation go together... You can't do one and not care about the other'

Jonathan Franzen is not only a BirdLife supporter, but also a member of the Rare Bird Club. Photo: Daniel Silliman/Flickr
By Luca Bonaccorsi

“We are sincerely grateful for this interview; I know this is a very busy time for you”.

“Not a problem, I always make time for birds.”

Jonathan Franzen, one of the best writers of our era, is right in the middle of the launch of his new, much anticipated novel Purity. Avid birder, BirdLife supporter and member of the Rare Bird Club, he comments on BirdLife’s latest scientific study on a very sensitive issue: the ongoing illegal slaughter of birds in the Mediterranean.  

The report suggests that the illegal killing of birds in the Mediterranean still has horrifying dimensions. You are a passionate birder and a writer who explores human motivations, cultures and thinking processes in great depth; what are your thoughts on the phenomenon?   

I’ ve spent a lot of time studying and reporting on the illegal killing of birds, and I’d like to begin by saying that I find Birdlife’s estimate of 25 million birds killed illegally every year—shocking though it may sound to most people—very conservative.

I’m not sure there’s a “general” motivation for the killing—the cultural contexts, and therefore the motivations, vary from country to country—but what every Mediterranean culture has in common is that there used to be a lot of birds and not that many people. For millennia, the enormous flow of biomass during the spring and fall bird migrations was a source of protein for genuinely hungry people, especially in the spring, when they were running low on cereals.

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So, throughout the Mediterranean, you find a deep cultural memory of “birds to eat” being a nice thing that nature does for people. Clearly, now the situation is very different: the killing is no longer sustainable, and nobody is starving.

Obviously we do not question starving people hunting for food. But rather, the caging and illegal killing done for “sport” or traditional “delicacies”.

The situation is different on the African side of the Mediterranean. Egypt is the worst case, especially in the use of mist nets with playback, but also in the use of firearms at desert oases. Hunger is not an issue in Egypt, but the killing of birds provides income for many poor people.

What makes it tragic is that hunting with modern technologies is wildly unsustainable.  And unfortunately there’s not a good legal framework to stop it.  Even if Egypt had good police—in fact, they have bad police—in many cases people aren’t even breaking the law.

But this is not the case in Europe: In countries such as Italy, France or Cyprus, laws do exist.

The law is still widely flouted in European Union member states. The most unforgivable violations are those of hunters with guns in Europe.  But even the legal hunting is too much.  It’s not that I don’t understand the tradition. I grew up in a family where hunting was part of life. But the various European hunting organizations don’t want to admit that there are simply too many hunters and too few birds to make the tradition sustainable.

And yet the big numbers of victims are caused by limesticks and mist nets on songbirds.

That’s certainly the case in Cyprus, where, despite heroic efforts by CABS [Committee Against Bird Slaughter] and BirdLife Cyprus, the situation is really bad. The Cypriots have a culinary tradition of Ambelopoulia—blackcap warblers grilled, stewed or pickled.  This appears to be a legitimate tradition. But nowadays, the trapping of songbirds is pursued on an industrial scale, by criminal gangs. And precisely because it’s illegal to capture or serve ambelopoulia, and because they’re expensive, the practice now has connotations of “luxury” and “forbidden delicacy”. Restaurant people in Cyprus have told me it’s mostly tourists, especially Russian tourists, who are eager to taste the birds.

It’s like with oysters: people eat these little blobs of protoplasm, which are repellent-looking and expensive, as a kind of cultural display. Golden Orioles are a similar kind of delicacy in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf States.  According to local myths, eating an oriole is like taking two Viagras.    

How do you deal with the typical criticism of birders and nature lovers: ‘With all the problems affecting human beings, why should we care’?

We should be free to care about whatever we want to. There will always be human problems, and if we can only save nature “after” we’ve solved these, it means we never will. There are also strong scientific arguments for preserving biodiversity. We know, for example, that birds are great indicators of the health of an ecosystem. A planet with 12 species of birds in it is a planet that’s dying. It means that all of your ecosystems are in trouble.

Let’s take a real example. In a place like Syria, where hundreds of thousands are dying and have died, and millions must leave their homes to find refuge, why should we care about the fate of the last Northern Bald Ibis [Geronticus Eremita]?

My instinctive reply would be beauty. Beauty matters. And the world would be poorer if the Ibis went extinct. But there are more rational responses. In Syria, there are reports linking the outbreak of war to overgrazing in certain areas, to the point where agriculture and the local economy collapsed. This resulted in massive unemployment, hence the social unrest.

Are you suggesting there is a link between the violence against nature and the violence between human beings?

I wouldn’t go that far. It’s like the old argument that pornography causes rape. I grew up in a Swedish-American family where hunting was normal, and where everyone was also a pacifist.  There’s no automatic link between hunting and murder. But I do know that, in Campania [a region of southern Italy] the Camorra prepares young killers for their job by getting them to kill animals first.

Can we change people’s mind and culture?

Of course, there are plenty of examples. The first one that comes to mind is Anna Giordano [ornithologist and LIPU/BirdLife Italy activist, currently employed by WWF in Sicily] and her fight in the ’90s against the shooting of raptors in Sicily. Through the efforts of one courageous young woman, the problem was almost entirely solved.  It’s a good example of how traditions can change. I’m generally unimpressed with arguments based on “tradition.”  In the American South, it used to be traditional to own human slaves.

In Italy today, maybe 80% of the population is on our side, and poaching is declining in most of the country. For that, we should thank, among others, the work of CABS in Brescia and Ischia and the policing work done by WWF and LIPU in Campania. Unfortunately there is still a terrible 20% that seems to enjoy the killing despite the naming and shaming. If you go to the Adriatic in the spring or fall, the wetlands are teeming with Italian hunters.

In France, I think it’s different. The French have the longest list of huntable bird species, in part because French culinary traditions are intimately connected with French nationalism: if you attack their tradition of eating for example, the Ortolan, it can be perceived as an attack against their national identity and culture.

How would you run a campaign to stop it?

I favour the use of shocking images. I think that a one-minute video showing shocking images, like those that showed baby seals clubbed to death to make furs, would get public opinion on the side of nature. Combined with sound scientific reporting, it could make a real difference.

On the Adriatic Flyway, there’s an urgent need to support the small groups and individuals who are fighting bird poaching. It doesn’t take many people to guard a large wetland, but those people need to be paid. And I’ve seen firsthand that having one guard can make a huge difference.

In Egypt, where technology allows the mass slaughter of birds and the political situation is impossible, the only real long-term hope is to invest in an education program in primary and secondary schools. Eating songbirds used to be normal in Northern Europe, but that tradition has gone extinct. It’s not inconceivable that this could happen in Egypt, too.

Some would disagree about the use of images. Many found our cover [of the review of illegal killing in the Mediterranean] disturbing.

I understand that. At first I myself found those type of images repellent. I compared them to the ones that anti-abortionists use, showing foetuses (although I am immune to those and remain pro-choice). I think it’s a failure of imagination of the French not to consider what is happening to the population of the species of birds being eaten, but the truth is that many birders don’t want to imagine it.

We need to get the message across: Birding and conservation go hand in hand. You can’t do one and not care about the other. If you care enough about birds to go out and spend your time watching them, you can’t stay silent about the massacre that’s happening in the Mediterranean. 

Please help us Keep the Flyway Safe by supporting our appeal and together we will win the battle to protect migrating birds so they can fly freely once more.

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