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An illegal bow trap in Brescia, where bird poaching incidents are the highest in Italy. Photograph: WWF Italy
With five million birds a year illegally caught in Italy, activists in Brescia are teaming up with local police to trap the hunters
By Joey Tyson
After two hours of scouring the mountains of Brescia, Stefania Travaglia finally finds what she is looking for. Among the remote farmhouses of an alpine hamlet, a spring-net trap is partially hidden behind a grassy embankment and a few trees. Tangled in the wire mesh, an exhausted fieldfare thrush sits silent and unmoving.
Travaglia sets to work quickly and quietly, hiding two motion-sensor cameras next to the trap. Clear evidence of wrongdoing is needed to catch a poacher. “You have to see everything: you have to see the trap; you have to see the person; and if there is a bird in it,” she says.
As she sets up the cameras there is no one to be seen, but trappers typically work close to home and anyone could be watching. For someone in her line of work, this uneasy feeling is part of the job.
Travaglia is a member of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (Cabs), an anti-poaching activist group dedicated to bird conservation in Europe. It is estimated that between 11 million and 36 million birds are killed or taken illegally in Mediterranean countries every year, many of them while migrating. The group has been active in Brescia, northern Italy, since the early 1980s.
More than 5 million birds – the highest number of any European nation – are believed to be illegally hunted every year in Italy, according to Bird Life International. Brescia, part of the Lombardy region, is the worst-affected area. Here, protected bird species are routinely killed in arcane, brutal traps or snared alive in nets, to be used as decoys. Sometimes, they are simply shot. Based on almost 40 years of operations in the area, Cabs believes that between 400,000 and one million birds a year are poached in Brescia.
Despite being illegal, the trapping of songbirds has long been a persistent issue in the region. Travaglia says that the bird she found was likely to have become a live decoy, used by hunters to attract other birds towards their hunting hides – its melodious song unwittingly calling other birds to their death.
It is a lucrative business, with trappers able to make anything between €3 for a dead bird and €100 (£85) for a live bird, depending on the species.
Although it is against the law to serve songbirds in Italian restaurants, dishes such as spiedo (spit-roast songbirds), and polenta e osei (polenta with roast songbirds), are still prepared in rural areas of the north.
The problem is not just the number of poachers but the brutality and variety of their methods: Brescia is the last place in Europe where bow traps, or archetti, are still used. To the untrained eye, a bow trap is easy to miss as it looks just like a branch. When a bird lands on its catch, attracted by bunches of bright-red rowan berries left as bait, the trap snaps shut, breaking the bird’s legs and causing a slow, miserable death. They are almost exclusively used to catch robins, considered a delicacy in northern Italy.
Once Travaglia has laid the camera traps, she informs the local carabinieri forestale (forest police). Cabs has no jurisdiction to confront poachers; its goal is to collect information and evidence, which the police use to set an ambush, and catch the perpetrator. Joint operations between the forest police and Cabs began in 2001. Since then, a close working relationship has developed between the two groups, significantly reducing the number of illegal traps in Brescia.
While poaching is a year-round activity, the trapping season peaks in autumn, when billions of migratory birds fly through the narrow mountain passes of Lombardy on their way to Africa. The Cabs team spend October scouring the mountains of Brescia for illegal traps.
They have developed a vast database of potential sites, each plotted on a 3D satellite map, covering an area of more than 4,500 sq km (1,700 sq miles). Once recorded, the data is passed on to the police.
Andrea Rutigliano, a Cabs investigations officer, says the turning point came about five years ago when the trappers “felt the increased power the forest police had, thanks to our cooperation, because we were saving them time”.
Instead of taking two days to catch the trappers – one day to locate the traps, then a second for the ambush – the data provided by Cabs enables the police to act at once. As a result, fewer traps are being set. Last year’s operation recovered 78 bow traps – the lowest ever number – alongside 57 nets, compared with 12,104 in 2001.
In 2014, the group also helped to close a loophole in Italian law that allowed Tunisian sparrows to be imported into Italy and sold in restaurants. In the same year, after a long campaign, Cabs helped put an end to the use of roccoli – large nets designed to snare migrating birds in flight – which had previously been allowed on “traditional” cultural grounds.
A major issue for Cabs is the murky line between hunter and poacher. Trapping is always illegal, but hunters have a list of 39 birds they can legally shoot during the official hunting season. Seventy per cent of poachers caught have a hunting licence, according to Cabs.
This figure is disputed by the Italian Federation of Hunters (FIDC), which acknowledges that “100 to 120 criminal violations of the hunting law” occur every year, but maintains that the majority of poaching is carried out by unlicensed individuals.
Since 2018, Rutigliano has helped the police catch nearly 40 hunters. He says: “We don’t find so many trappers as we did before. So now we are shifting towards the shooting business. We have depleted that one field, that one source of illegality, and now we move to the next.”
Filippo Bamberghi, a WWF game warden, believes the illegal shooting of songbirds is the biggest issue facing Brescia now. Due to the vast number of licensed hunters in Brescia – some 20,000 – those killing protected species can do so with little fear of being caught, he says.
Even if they are caught, the laws do not go far enough to dissuade poachers, according to Bamberghi, with fines from as little as €500.
“The fine has been the same for 30 years. If you shoot a protected bird, it’s a very, very low fine,” says Filippo. “And the fine is the same if you shoot one bird, or 1,000 birds.”