BirdLife’s research has revealed that an estimated 25 million birds are illegally killed or taken each year across the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Caucasus. Here, we delve deeper into the shocking discoveries that galvanised our Flight for Survival campaign.

By James Lowen

Eurasian Golden Oriole © Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock

A boy clutches a fistful of Eurasian Golden Orioles Oriolus oriolus: he seeks buyers for his haul. What looks like a fishing net sags on the ground at a marketplace, but its wriggling contents are avian, not aquatic: Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe. A tiny cage is crammed with more European Turtle Doves Streptopelia turtur than some birders see in a decade. A Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca dangles from a branch, toes snared inescapably in a glue-like substance. Four men beam with pride, shoulders cloaked in weaponry, feet nudging the corpses of 30 White Storks Ciconia ciconia.

The images are both rife and sickening, and the species caught are as varied as the countries in which illegal bird killing occurs. Too many of them are globally threatened species, whose declining populations cannot support this additional pressure. No country seems exempt – from the Atlantic to the Aegean, the Arctic to Africa, but also seemingly in Asia and the Americas. No matter what legislation is in force, every nation is to some extent culpable. But over and beyond such breadth and depth, it is the sheer numbers that terrify. Diligent investigations led by BirdLife International reveal that an estimated 25 million birds are illegally killed every year along the Mediterranean coast, through Northern Europe and into the Caucasus.

BirdLife lifted the lid on the illicit massacre in 2015, when researchers led by Dr Anne-Laure Brochet published evidence from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Their ground-breaking scientific paper in the journal Bird Conservation International morphed into a shocking report entitled The Killing. Two years later, Brochet and colleagues confirmed in another paper that the practice was also rife throughout Northern Europe and into the Caucasus.

“When I first did the sums and realised how many millions of birds were dying each year, my first thought was – how is it possible that there are still birds in the sky?” recalls Brochet.

Compiling the reports was no mean feat – reliable information on illegal activities is always hard to source. For most countries, little official data is available.

“Most governments downplay the issue rather than approach it neutrally on the basis of evidence,” says Willem Van den Bossche, BirdLife Flyway Conservation Officer. Instead, BirdLife Partners and local ornithologists compiled the information to produce country estimates for each species.

Van den Bossche has personal experience of this devastation. He once stood within two metres of a poacher using a M16 machine gun to blast Great White Pelicans Pelecanus onocrotalus from Israel’s sky. For those of us who prefer their birds alive, Van den Bossche’s encounter begs a burning question: why? Why are birds killed in such unsustainable numbers?

“Drivers differ between countries, regions and species,” says Van den Bossche. “Most birds are illegally killed for food – culinary delicacies rather than subsistence – and so-called ‘sport’, but persecution motivated by ‘predator control’ is also important for birds of prey.”

In Italy, large numbers of Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs and Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis (Near Threatened) are destined for the pot. The chaffinch is also eaten in France, where the Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana is particularly prized as an unlawful delicacy. Subsistence may be involved at the margin, but mostly the driver is commercial: birds mean money.

In 2018, Slovenian customs officers discovered a huge illegal shipment of dead birds – including a thousand Red-throated Pipits Anthus cervinus – hidden in a bus exiting Romania. They were bound for Italian restaurants. In Cyprus, Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla is among the species caught and cooked for a dish called ambelopoulia. This is dangerous work, and even involves organised criminals. For them, birds are just another commodity to be trafficked.

n Cyprus, Eurasian Blackaps are trapped for an illegal culinary delicacy © BirdLife Europe

In Malta, dead raptors frequently serve as trophies. Poachers often like to mount and display Booted Eagles Hieraaetus pennatus that they have unlawfully killed. In Greece, illegal activity is more about sport or caged birds than food. Meanwhile, the second iteration of The Killing report announced that illegal killing fuelled by “hunting tourism” is rampant across central Europe, where hunting legislation is reportedly ineffectively enforced.

In northern Europe, the main motivation behind illegal bird killing is persecution for “predator control” – most notably of raptors in locations where livestock or gamebirds are reared – and “pest” control, including songbird flocks that feed on crops. In the UK, a recent government-funded report revealed that Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus are ten times more likely to die or “disappear” in areas managed for Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus, a species which is legitimately shot for sport. This is most likely the result of illegal killing.

The range of birds being killed is mind-boggling, and the impact on their populations potentially catastrophic. In each of the two regions examined by Brochet and her team, two-thirds of species assessed are killed illegally in significant numbers.

The most frightening and tangible example is European Turtle-dove (now Vulnerable). More than one million are killed illegally each year – and this on top of the allowance that is given legally. Set in the context of a 30% decline in the dove’s global population since 2000, one cannot but think of Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, which went extinct in 1914, victim of the fallacy that no level of exploitation could imperil such an abundant animal.

In numerical terms, waterbirds, seabirds and passerines (true perching birds) are among the most markedly affected by illegal killing. Among songbirds, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Blackcap and Song Thrush all top the million mark. In Syria, Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis and Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis fare particularly badly. Such migratory birds are particularly vulnerable along the African-Eurasian flyway, as exhausted travellers typically congregate in large numbers before or after crossing natural barriers such as the Mediterranean or Sahara.

Slow-breeding species such as raptors also suffer disproportionately. And for globally threatened species, the toll imposed by illegal killing may be too much to bear, especially when piled on top of pressures from habitat loss or food shortage. The White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala (Endangered) and Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax (Near Threatened) are cases in point: the latter may lose one-tenth of its global population to illegal killing each year.

10% of White-headed Ducks (Endangered) are illegally killed every year © Mike Prince

However, the practice is not uniformly distributed. It occurs at what Van den Bossche calls “industrial scale” in certain Mediterranean countries. Italy tops the list with 5.6 million casualties, but over two million birds are also killed illegally in Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. In Malta, Lebanon and Cyprus, on average, at least 248 birds per square kilometre are killed illegally each year – an order of magnitude higher than anywhere else.

One-third of birds killed illegally in the Mediterranean – that’s eight million – die at just 20 problem areas. The death toll at Egypt’s Lake Burullus, for example, is utterly daunting in scale.

“Almost half-a-million birds being extracted from a single spot every year is a huge, nerve-wracking phenomenon,” laments Alex Ngari, BirdLife’s Africa Flyways Coordinator.

And yet Lake Burullus is only ninth on the list. The top eight spaces are occupied by locations in Cyprus (two), Egypt (one), Lebanon (two) and Syria (three). The worst of the problem areas is Famagusta in Cyprus, where an average of 689,000 birds are estimated to be killed illegally each year.

Across northern and central Europe and the Caucasus, far fewer birds are illegally killed. But here, too, the unlawful killing is concentrated. The six worst locations are all in a single country, Azerbaijan. The top 20 overall are crammed into just five more: Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany and the Netherlands.

Thus far, you would be forgiven for thinking illegal bird killing to be a problem solely in and around Europe. But despite scant current evidence, there are ample indications that huge numbers of birds are being killed worldwide. BirdLife will soon publish their investigation into illegal bird killing in the Arabian Peninsula, Iran and Iraq. And the issue spreads further still.

“We have received information that the inner Niger delta is a hotspot for avian slaughter”, says Ngari. “We need to investigate what is happening in the rest of the African continent. This could be the tip of the iceberg.”

Turning our attention to Asia, at spots across Sumatra (Indonesia), local people hunt the Eyebrowed Thrush Turdus obscurus, shorebirds such as the Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris (Endangered), and waterbirds. In the Philippines, migrants funnelling through Luzon’s mountains have been taken by local people for decades. It remains to be determined whether such killing is within the law. In parts of south and east China, shorebirds migrating along the East Asian-Australasian flyway are certainly illegally mist-netted for food. In 2013, Chinese authorities seized two million songbirds in a single raid – Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola (Critically Endangered and considered a delicacy in Cantonese cuisine) among them. Asia’s problem is sufficiently worrying for BirdLife to help the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership and Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) to establish a task force on illegal hunting and trade.

A poster prepared by BirdLife to raise awareness of the Yellow-breasted Bunting’s plight

In parts of the Americas, including Barbados, migratory waders are hunted. “Birds are being killed everywhere,” says Van den Bossche, “but outside countries with strong legislation, it is less straightforward to determine what is legal and illegal. Globally, a better definition might be unsustainable killing and trapping.”

When this magazine wrote about illegal bird killing in the eastern Mediterranean in 2015, Richard Grimmett, BirdLife Director of Conservation, stressed that the issue had reached “a scale where we cannot stand back and let it continue. The killing is undermining conservation efforts taken elsewhere on the African-Eurasian flyway.” The array of BirdLife achievements in the four subsequent years is characterised by this zero-tolerance attitude to illegal killing.

Many good things are happening all along the African-Eurasian flyway to save migratory birds from an untimely death by shotgun, limestick or mist-net. The BirdLife Partnership has been at the forefront of changing the political culture around illegal bird killing. They have worked with the CMS task force to ensure that European and North African governments take responsibility for illegal killing happening in their countries.

The pressure appears to be working. “The Killing changed the attitude of the Italian and Cypriot governments,” says Van den Bossche. “Italy took our findings seriously and is now implementing a national action plan.”

In Cyprus, thanks to covert surveillance and effective enforcement, illegal trapping on a UK military base dropped to a 10-year low in 2018, with a 75% reduction in the number of songbirds caught since 2016. And then there’s Lebanon. With so many hunters in the Lebanese electorate, it would take a politician as rare as a Northern Bald Ibis to make a stand. One came along. In 2017, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun spoke out in heartfelt terms against the illegal killing of birds. He called for a “peace treaty between Man and birds, because we continue to transgress on them”. If birds can have hope in Lebanon, perhaps they can have hope everywhere.

There remains plenty to be done, of course. There always is. Whether for food, fun or finance, birds are still being hunted in defiance or ignorance of the law. “Illegal bird killing is difficult to wipe out as the drivers are strong and enforcement often too weak. It’s crucial that governments maintain a zero-tolerance approach,” says Van den Bossche.

BirdLife’s Flight for Survival campaign aims to make the issue concrete for people. And “people” includes us. If we care, if we truly prefer life in our birdlife, if we have had enough of stork and oriole corpses – then we too have a responsibility. As more and more people speak out about illegal bird killing, conservationists and governments will get the support they need to finish the work they have started. Over to us.