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A grim future – will the Madeira-Laurel Pigeon be added to the endangered list again

Unmonitored hunting of the protected species has been ongoing since 2012, despite concerns raised by environmental NGOs.

A persistent, growling coo is floating through the evergreen and mystic woods of Portugal’s Laurisilva forest in Madeira. This UNESCO World Heritage is home to the Madeira-Laurel Pigeon (Columba trocaz), a species that is endemic to the island and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. For centuries, they have been the gardeners of the region, acting as protectors of the natural ecosystem by spreading seeds of trees and shrubs, and contributing to the restoration of this habitat affected by the climate crisis.

But their peaceful growling and munching on berries became more silent over the last years. Since 2012, the autonomous region of Madeira has allowed annual killings labelling the activity as “an exceptional measure” to reduce alleged damage to agriculture. Although the Madeira-Laurel Pigeon is currently listed as “least concern”, its grim past is shining through. At the end of the 80s, its population nearly went extinct due to excessive hunting and could only recover when a hunting ban was enforced. The latest numbers from 2015 estimate around 10,000-14,000 individuals on the island.

Nonetheless, hunting activities are increasing every year. Since 2021, the regional government has also authorized hunters with a license to kill the pigeons, without properly establishing limits, or proposing effective protective mechanisms for crops that don’t involve harming the birds.

“We are facing a continuous and regular slaughter, removing more than 5% of the population every year. This culling is in every way similar to a severe hunting activity, and its impact on the population of this protected species is not even adequately monitored,” says Executive Director of the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA, the BirdLife partner in Portugal), Domingos Leitão.

The local government has never carried out an assessment of the damage to agriculture allegedly caused by the species and scientific information and evidence are lacking to back up the current strategy that lies in a grey zone between legal and illegal. Due to its restricted distribution and low population numbers, the Madeira-Laurel pigeon is a protected species at the European level, listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive and Annex III of the Bern Convention.

According to European legislation, non-lethal protection measures must be implemented first, and culling can only be used when evidence shows that other measures are failing. In the case of the Laurel Pigeon, only a controlled cull that does not endanger the species can be allowed. “It turns out that the regional administration has not complied with any of these requirements and has decided to kill these pigeons without justification or safeguards,” concludes Domingos Leitão.

Since 2012 our Partner SPEA and other environmental organizations have insisted to the government that the killing is wrongfully done, and proper assessments and monitoring must be implemented. For a species that is so restricted in its habitat and small in population size, we are on the verge of placing this precious pigeon on the endangered list once again if unmonitored killing continues.

The organizations SPEA, ANP/WWF Portugal, GEOTA, FAPAS, LPN, Quercus, SPECO, and ZERO filed a joint complaint to the European Commission this summer in the hope that they will intervene and pressure the Portuguese State and the regional administration of Madeira to enforce the Birds Directive.

But so far, the Commission’s voice has been as silent as the voices of the Laurel-Madeira will be if the uncontrolled hunting activities continue. Are we once again at risk of losing the Madeira-Laurel Pigeon, a species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world?

Read the joint letter in Portuguese here  

Photo: wirestock, Freepik

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