REVIEW | ‘If it flies, it dies.’ Reflections on the 3rd Adriatic Flyway Conference

Teresa Lappe-Osthege reveals the shocking extent of bird crime in the Western Balkans, arguing that amongst other factors, activities of EU citizens and the weak regulatory powers of EU institutions play a crucial role in driving bird crime in the region.

BIOSEC researcher Teresa Lappe-Osthege gives her insights from the 3rd Adriatic Flyway Conference, which she recently attended in Serbia. 

“If it flies, it dies” – This gloomy statement seemed to function as the rather pragmatic motto of the 3rd Adriatic Flyway Conference held in the Fruška Gora National Park, Serbia (19-23 March). Muffled in the hallways, discussed over coffee and frequently reappearing in presentations, this statement powerfully summarised the extent of bird crime in the Western Balkans, while simultaneously highlighting in just a few words the pressing need for coordinated action to combat it. The conference, organised by EuroNatur and Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia (BPSSS, BirdLife Serbia), brought together international organisations and activists from across the Western Balkans and Europe to discuss the degree, impact and responses to widespread bird crime in the region, which puts severe pressure on the populations of migrating birds along the Adriatic.

To give you an illustrative example, hunting tourism is one the main drivers of illegal bird killing in the Western Balkans. One hunter can easily kill 100-150 Common Quails in one day. Milan Ružić of BPSSS put this number in perspective for me: the population of Common Quails in Sweden is believed to have decreased to approximately 50 breeding pairs. By means of using semi-automatic rifles and illegal recording devices to attract birds in greater number, one hunter is therefore able to wipe out the whole of a country’s Common Quail population in one day. Although this practice is banned in most EU countries and in the Western Balkans, weak law enforcement means that it can still be practised in countries like Serbia, often without the danger of prosecution. Such a degree of lawlessness combined with cheap prices make this region particularly attractive to tourists from Italy or Malta.

Image: Building an automatic gunshot detection device under guidance from BIOM Croatia. Credit: Teresa Lappe-Osthege.

Anyone looking for a more prominent example should consider the case of former Italian parliamentarian Gabriele Cimadoro who, by chance, was caught poaching in Serbia and was convicted with one of the highest sentences ever to be given on a case of bird crime in the country. The readiness to engage in illegal activity in the Western Balkans is therefore not confined to the average citizen but seems to extend into the sphere of high politics.

While I attended the conference with some previous knowledge on the various kinds of illegal killing and trade of birds in the Western Balkans, I was not aware of the large extent to which it permeates social and political structures within and beyond the region. In fact, listening to the stories of those activists fighting bird crime on the frontline, it soon became evident to me that bird crime (which includes the illegal trapping, hunting, and poisoning of birds for food, sports, pleasure or tradition) is merely the tip of the iceberg and a symptom of much deeper ills.

The equation here seems fairly simple: corruption + weak (legal) institutions + opportunity equals an increased likelihood of bird crime occurrence. While this undoubtedly seems to hold true to a certain extent, what is less clear in this regard is the role of poverty and wealth as drivers of illegal activity and the potential linkages to other forms of crime (e.g. prostitution or drugs trade). The difficulty in determining these unknowns stems from a significant lack of data. Admittedly, the illegal killing and trade of birds in and from the Western Balkans has received much more attention over the last couple of years. And rightly so. However, while often mentioned in synergy, it appears that the focus on the illegal killing of birds overshadows its less visible commercial dimension which has close links to a regional and international black market for illegal bird products.

Nonetheless, what has become clear over the week in Fruška Gora is that EU citizens play a crucial role in driving bird crime in the Western Balkans. Not only are hunting companies openly advertising illegal conduct to attract hunters from EU countries with the appeal of offering a package that they would not get at home (including, for example, the shooting of an unlimited amount of birds). But also does their appetite for songbirds as delicacies or pets encourage illegal activity all across the region. The scale of this illegality – and the profits associated with it – is difficult to estimate. But failing to eliminate EU citizens as the main driver of demand for illegal bird products from the Western Balkans certainly has geopolitical implications on a wider scale. As one interviewee has put it: “It is important to see … how it [bird crime] affects not only ecosystems, but how it decreases the credibility of the EU being able to protect itself and apply its [own] laws.” Seen against the background of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, which depends to a large degree on the EU’s positive image as a pull-factor, such a failure should not be underestimated.

Although we still know much too little about the nature and extent of the illegal bird trade from the Western Balkans into the EU due to lacking data, the shocking extent of bird crime in the region and the involvement of EU citizens underlines the severe weakness of EU conservation regulations. After all, lacking consideration for underlying drivers merely shifts illegal activity from the EU to the Western Balkans. In many cases, it is then up to the regional activists to contain the damage.