Europe remains a major bird killer | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 24.10.2017

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Europe remains a major bird killer

Despite legal protection, birds are still illegally killed across migration routes – particularly in the Mediterranean. Experts are meeting this week in Manila to tackle this and other threats against migratory species.

Bird migration is one of nature's most fascinating charms - but for birds to reach their destinations is becoming ever more difficult. And humans have a lot to do with that.

Every year,about 25 million birds are killed across migration routes in the Mediterranean - whether shot, trapped or glued.

In addition, up to 2 million birds are killed illegally in Northern and Central Europe together with the Caucasus region, a new study conducted by BirdLife International has shown.

Surprisingly, most of the birds are slaughtered for "fun," lead author of the study Anne-Laure Brochet told DW.

In order to further improve law enforcement and raise awareness, illegal bird killings will be on the spotlight at the 12th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP12) happening this week (October 22 to 28) in Manila, Phillippines.

White-headed duck

White-headed ducks are largely targeted in Europe and the Caucasus

The deadly risk of flying

While for most birds the Mediterranean remains the deadliest part of the route, thousands of waterbirds and raptors also struggle to overcome parts of northern Europe and the Caucasus.

In Azerbaijan alone, up to 900,000 waterbirds may be illegally killed every year, the study concludes. Raptors, or birds of prey, are the bird group with most species affected by illegal killing: 51 out of 52.

Even in countries like Germany, the number of raptors killed remains extremely high.

"In Germany, raptors are the most threatened species – about 50,000 to 100,000 are killed per year," German ornithologist Peter Berthold told DW.

Moreover, seven of the bird species with the largest population killed per year in northern and central Europe and the Caucasus are have the global status threatened or near-threatened, such as the rock partridge or the white-headed duck.

Infographic birds killed in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Caucasus ENG

Why are birds killed?

In most areas, the lead driver behind illegal bird killing is hunting as a sport. In that context, raptors become a main target.

"Hunters see raptors as direct competitors for game species such as pheasants," Brochet said. 

Raptors can also seen as a hindrance for wind farms – if predators fly in the area, permission may not be granted, Berthol explained. 

While taxidermy is globally of minor importance, it is of great concern for raptors in Spain – particularly for rare species.

In the Caucasus, birds are largely caught for food and commercial interests. All kind of bird species are sold along roadside near protected natural areas "under the guise of being 'chickens,' 'geese' or 'domestic ducks,'" BirdLife International reports.

Listen to audio 06:38

Living Planet: UN task force tackles illegal bird killing

Illegal bird slaughtering is also done to avoid certain birds from feeding on agricultural crops – farmers in northern Europe describe this as "pest control."

The Mediterranean 'hotspot'

Egypt is the most dangerous hotspot for migrating birds – 5 to 10 million birds are killed every year in a trapping zone about 800 kilometers (500 miles) long – the total length of Germany, Berthold pointed out.

However, the CMS points to the Mediterranean area as a successful example of tackling illegal bird killing, based on the work of its Intergovernmental Task Force on Illegal Killing, Taking and Trade of Migratory Birds in the Mediterranean region - created in 2014.

"The task force has been quite successful in raising awareness on the problem and has facilitated international cooperation in the area," Borja Heredia, responsible for birds at the CMS, told DW.

During the conference in Manila, the CMS expects to create a new task force for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – one of the world's greatest migratory paths – where birds are massively killed and trapped for food and trade.

Die Weidenammer ist massiv vom Aussterben bedroht

The yellow-breasted bunting is threatened with extinction due to mass trapping in China for food

An ongoing lack of enforcement

Despite several laws tackling illegal killing of birds, perpetrators do not respect them.

"The legislation is not properly enforced, and penalties are ridiculous," Heredia said. "If someone is caught hunting illegally, he pays the fine – and is hunting again the next day."

For Brochet, there is a need to work closer with national governments to increase law enforcement and motivate civil society to urge their political leaders to take action. This is exactly what the CMS is working on, Heredia explained.

As a measure to make pressure on governments, experts are working to set a "scoreboard" during the conference in Manila, to evaluate countries on their efforts enforcing laws and protecting the migratory species.

Brochet and Berthold highlight that tackling the illegal killing of birds is essential – but should not belittle greater threats for our flying friends.

"In comparison to the 80s or 90s, there are fewer birds killed – but also fewer birds alive in the world, due mainly to intensive agriculture and habitat degradation," Brochet said.

Stopping illegal killing is important, but improving the situation of heavily weakened breeding populations is even more urgent, Berthol concluded.

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