BLOG | Songbirds for dinner: Forgotten European delicacies & illegal bird trade in the Western Balkans

BIOSEC Research Fellow Teresa Lappe-Osthege explores the geopolitical implications of the illegal trade in songbirds & its established links with the EU.

Teresa Lappe-Osthege is a BIOSEC Research Fellow leading a mini-project researching the illegal bird trade in the Western Balkans. Exploring how it affects political stability in the region and security in the EU, Teresa aims to generate much-needed empirical data on a lucrative – and under-reported – branch of the illegal wildlife trade. 

 

The headlines about the illegal wildlife trade seem to revolve around the ‘usual suspects’: from South African rhino horn and Indian tiger skin as key ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, to Kenyan elephant tusks as crucial materials for the preservation of a century-old carving tradition, from Tanzanian pangolin meat as a delicacy in the Vietnamese cuisine, to Mongolian snow leopard fur as status symbol of the Russian high society. These headlines give the impression that the issue of illegal wildlife trade, both in terms of its sources and its consumers, only affect countries that are far away from European homes.

But have you ever heard of the Italian delicacy polenta e osei? Or the French speciality ortolan? Or even the Cypriot ambelopulia? Some more familiar with the French, Italian, and Cypriot cuisine will have heard of these dishes that all acquire their high-class reputation from their key ingredient: rare songbirds, such as larks or buntings. While former French presidents allegedly enjoyed a roasted ortolan bunting on special occasions, polenta with roasted larks or thrushes was a signature dish in the North of Italy, especially around Bergamo. Now banned in their respective countries but still prepared and consumed in secret, these dishes maintain their popularity due to the air of tradition and high-class, luxury cuisine that they convey.

Image: Eurasian Sylark (Alauda arvensis)

This might explain why, against worldwide comparison, the EU15 account for approximately 77 percent of global imports of CITES-listed live birds. In 2008, TRAFFIC estimated the value of illegal bird trafficking at EUR 10 million. Closer investigation reveals that this branch of the illegal wildlife trade has established links within the EU itself. While much more research into the extent of the networks is necessary, some preliminary observations can be made.

Songbirds, such as goldfinches, thrushes, larks and buntings, are trapped or killed as they migrate through South-Eastern Europe. Poached in EU candidate countries like Serbia or Albania by means of invisible nets or glue-covered tree branches, the birds are often skinned and beheaded to make them harder to identify and then trafficked through Croatia or Slovenia to Italy and France. Even EU member states like Romania and Bulgaria can be found on the list of source countries, as they are popular with Italian hunting tourists.

While indeed the scale of illegal trade in birds is dwarfed by the illegal rhino or ivory trade, its geopolitical implications should not be underestimated. Europol and the OECD have found that wildlife is often trafficked along established drug and small arms trafficking routes from the Western Balkans, and that it fosters corruption and undermines the rule of law. But too little is still known about the nature of the illegal bird trade from the Western Balkans into the EU to assess exactly how it affects security along the EU’s South-Eastern borders more generally, and EU accession processes in the Western Balkan countries more specifically. In this context, both the role of the EU in this process – and that of its member states – is uncertain.

The aim of my research project is therefore to provide answers to these questions, generating much-needed empirical data on this lucrative – and currently under-reported – branch of the illegal wildlife trade.

You can contact Teresa about her research on t.lappe-osthege@sheffield.ac.uk