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Valetta bird market © BirdLife Malta

Flying into the face of danger

Shooting, trapping, poisoning – an average of 24 million birds are illegally slaughtered in the Mediterranean each year as they attempt their perilous migratory journey between Africa and Europe.

The strongest migrants – weakened and vulnerable, having already travelled thousands of kilometres – are shot out of the sky, trapped in glue or invisible nets, or fatally poisoned. Endangered species, already brought to the brink by climate change and habitat loss, are being edged ever closer towards extinction. From the Atlantic to the Adriatic, they are still flying into the face of danger. And all in open defiance of the law.

Since 1979, Europe’s wild birds have been legally protected by one of the strongest nature laws in the world: the EU Birds Directive. Over the last 40 years, this law has sparked some of the most inspiring success stories in nature conservation, such as the remarkable recovery of the White-tailed eagle. Yet huge gaps in the implementation and enforcement of the Birds Directive – and its sister law, the Habitats Directive – are leaving our birds needlessly at risk.

In Greece, poison is ravaging the “Land of the Raptors” – Dadia National Park in Thrace. This vital foraging area – part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network of protected sites – is home to the last breeding population of Cinereous vultures in the Balkans. It is also home to four of the five Egyptian vulture nests in all of Greece. Despite their protected status, these magnificent birds are falling foul of illegal poison baits – typically laid down to illegally target other species that occasionally predate on livestock. Vultures are particularly vulnerable to poison and its effects on their numbers can be devastating, as was shown in 2013 when a nearby colony of Griffon vultures was entirely wiped out by poison.

Controversial plans to build wind farms in Thrace have also been approved without proper assessments of the negative impacts on the area’s iconic vultures. Collision with energy infrastructure is a common cause of bird mortality – and one that could be avoided with proper spatial planning, such as no-go buffer zones around bird nests. Although the European Commission opened separate infringement cases (in 2013 and 2014 respectively) against Greece for these breaches of the Birds and Habitats Directive, actions by Greece to resolve these issues are not proceeding fast enough and both cases remain frustratingly unresolved.

Across the Ionian Sea, in Malta, a different danger awaits wild finches migrating along the islands’ coast in spring and autumn – the metal bars of the trapper’s cage. Though large scale finch trapping is illegal under EU law, the Maltese government made the controversial decision in 2014 to allow the trapping of seven finch species, including Goldfinches, Linnets and Greenfinches. Vast areas of land – the equivalent of 42 football pitches – are cleared annually to turn huge stretches of coastline into trapping sites. And the methods used means that thousands of other bird species are also indiscriminately caught. When this high profile case made it all the way to the European Court of Justice last year, and Malta was found guilty of infringing the Birds Directive, conservationists claimed victory. Yet almost a year later, the trapping continues in outright defiance of the court’s ruling.

Sadly, these cases are far from being the exception. Europe’s nature laws are being broken all across the continent. And the lack of enforcement by the European Commission in high profile cases such as these sends a weak signal to other Member States. BirdLife Europe joins WWF, Friends of the Earth and the EEB in calling on Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to use the remaining months left of his mandate to leave a lasting legacy for nature by intervening where EU governments are turning a blind eye.

Happily, there are also many inspiring examples to draw hope from. A decade ago, the poaching situation in south-west Sardinia seemed hopeless. In the forests of Sulcis, it was estimated that some 126,000 birds were illegally killed each year to meet demand for a local dish made with small song birds called Grive. Then local NGO LIPU (BirdLife Italy) began organizing an annual anti-poaching camp, where staff and volunteers removed the traps, snares and nets set along hidden paths in the woods each winter. LIPU’s conservation work and local campaigning efforts to raise public awareness about the problem in Sulcis has massively improved their relations and cooperation with the Regional Forestry Department and Carabinieri (police), leading to far better enforcement of the Birds Directive. The Sulcis success story shows that even the toughest situations can be turned around when conservationists, local communities and law enforcement officials work together to enforce our nature laws.

By Gui-Xi Young – Editor & Campaigns Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

Help save migratory birds by supporting our Flight for Survival campaign, which follows the journeys of seven flagship species and highlights the work of our Partners in combatting illegal killing at some of the worst “blackspots” along the Africa-Eurasian Flyway.

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