Eight million birds killed illegally every year at 20 eastern Mediterranean locations

A Red-backed Shrike caught on an illegal lime stick is an all-too-common phenomenon around the eastern Mediterranean region. Photo: Mindy el Bashir (Nature Conservation Egypt).
A Red-backed Shrike caught on an illegal lime stick is an all-too-common phenomenon around the eastern Mediterranean region. Photo: Mindy el Bashir (Nature Conservation Egypt).
BirdLife International scientists have estimated that just 20 locations in the eastern Mediterranean may be responsible for eight million individual birds being illegally killed or taken alive each year.

In the paper 'Preliminary assessment of the scope and scale of illegal killing and taking of birds in the Mediterranean' published this week in the scientific journal Bird Conservation International, the authors present a detailed analysis of how many individual birds and which species are impacted, where the 20 worst locations are and why different species are targeted in each country. 

“We were shocked to discover that 25 million individuals of over 450 species are estimated to be illegally killed or taken alive in the Mediterranean region per year, mainly for food (eaten as a delicacy or sold for profit), sport and for use as cage birds or hunting decoys,” Dr Anne-Laure Brochet, lead author of the report, said. “Importantly, eight million birds are estimated to be killed or taken at just 20 locations. Given the uncertainty around these numbers because of the difficulty in documenting illegal activities, the total could be anywhere from five to 11 million.”

These 20 worst locations are found in just four countries: Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. They include the Famagusta area of Cyprus, where 400,000-1 million individual birds are illegally killed or taken each year, and the El Manzala area of Egypt, where 30,000-1.1 million individuals birds are illegally killed or taken each year. Trapping and killing is also prevalent in Greece, and Birdwatch is raising funds to tackle this problem by entering a team in this year's Champions of the Flyway competition in Israel. 

The highest estimates of birds illegally killed or taken in the Mediterranean region were for Italy (3-8 million birds), Egypt (300,000-11 million) and Syria (3-5 million), while the density of illegal killing or taking was highest in Malta (18-667 birds per year per sq km), Cyprus (146-351 birds per sq km) and Lebanon (161-335 birds per sq km).

“It was disturbing to find that despite the positive impact of EU legislation, half of the top 10 countries with the highest levels of illegal killing are Member States of the EU. This indicates the need for greater effort to ensure that the EU Birds Directive is fully implemented at national level,” said Willem Van den Bossche, co-author of the paper and Flyway Conservation Officer for Europe and Central Asia at BirdLife Europe. 

The species affected by illegal killing include Blackcap (1.2-2.4 million individuals per year), European Turtle Dove (300,000-900,000 individuals per year) and Song Thrush (700,000-1.8 million individuals per year), along with many others.

The data were collected by BirdLife Partner organisations across the region using a variety of sources, including targeted monitoring data, police records, publications, reports and expert opinion. In many cases, the numbers were extrapolated from data or estimates of the number of mist-nets, shooting incidences, recoveries in animal hospitals and rehabilitation centres, and illegal lime stick traps used to ensnare birds with sticky glue.

“Illegal killing is a complex conservation problem, with key methods of killing, targeted species and motivations varying between countries,” explained Dr Vicky Jones, co-author of the paper and Senior Flyways Officer at BirdLife International. “Addressing this issue requires action on a local, national and international scale, involving law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, hunting associations, national government authorities, non-governmental organisations and international policy instruments.”

National action plans to tackle illegal killing have recently been developed by a wide range of stakeholders in Egypt/Libya and Cyprus, with the aim of strengthening legislation and its enforcement, improving monitoring and supporting efforts to take action for individual species.

“Unsustainable exploitation is one of the major threats to the world’s birds, and much of this is illegal. Our study is the first to compile detailed quantitative estimates of the scale of the problem in the Mediterranean. Our identification of the worst locations will help to focus efforts on the ground to tackle the issue,” said Dr Stuart Butchart, co-author of the paper and Head of Science at BirdLife International.