25 Million Birds Are Illegally Killed in the Mediterranean Every Year

Researchers find that the animals are being shot and trapped for food and the pet trade, with the majority of the deaths occurring at just 20 sites.

A European turtledove, whose numbers are plummeting across the Mediterranean. (Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

Mar 10, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

A new study finds that an estimated 25 million migrating birds are killed as they fly over Mediterranean countries each year. The deaths—by gun, net, or glue-covered traps—include several threatened species. Most of the birds end up being eaten as delicacies. Some are shot for sport, while others are captured alive and sold in the caged-bird trade.

Many bird species living in the Mediterranean are in decline owing to habitat loss, said Stuart Butchart, head of science at BirdLife International and a coauthor of the study. This mass killing could further threaten many species while also affecting the region’s environment.

“Birds play an integral role in ecosystems, from pollinating plants and dispersing their seeds to controlling populations of insect pests,” Butchart said. “Disturbing the balance of ecosystems by substantially changing bird abundance through illegal killing and other impacts will certainly have impacts beyond the birds themselves.”

He cited the example of India, where some vulture species have declined by 99 percent or more because of poisoning by the veterinary drug diclofenac. The drug is used to treat livestock and contaminates vultures when they feed on dead animals. “This has led to a rapid increase in the feral dog population, as vultures no longer dispose of animal carcasses, and consequent increases in rabies cases among people,” Butchart said.

The pet trade in the Mediterranean affects more than 450 species, according to the study. Some birds—such as the blackcap, the European turtledove, and the song thrush—are being taken from the wild in numbers approaching 1 million or 2 million each.

Butchart said the trade puts several species at risk. The Eurasian curlew and the ferruginous duck, for example, are both considered “near threatened,” while the European turtledove is “vulnerable,” meaning it is close to being endangered. “All are taken in numbers that are of concern given the size of their populations,” Butchart said.

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The killings and trade appear to exist throughout the Mediterranean region, including in five European Union nations. The country with the highest number of bird deaths was Italy, with at least 3 million killings. Malta, Cyprus, and Lebanon had the highest density of bird deaths—as many as 667 birds per square kilometer. The bird trade in Cyprus became infamous after a 2010 New Yorker report by Jonathan Franzen.

Cyprus, according to the researchers, was one of the four worst countries for Mediterranean bird deaths. Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria also appeared on that list. The researchers found that just 20 sites in those four countries were responsible for the bulk of the killings—as many as 8 million birds a year. Syria may be on the list because of the political unrest in that country. “It is difficult to know, of course, but the breakdown in security may well have made things worse in terms of illegal killing of birds,” Butchart said.

Identifying these sites may be critical to saving the birds. “The fact that 40 percent [of the deaths] come from just 20 locations is quite significant,” Butchart said. “It actually presents a conservation opportunity, because it possibly makes it easier to focus efforts to try and address the problem.”

Indeed, plans developed by BirdLife and other conservation groups in Egypt, Libya, and Cyprus aim to reduce the number of birds killed in those countries. BirdLife said the goal is improved regulations and better monitoring, as well as actions to help specific species.

Butchart said it’s too early to know if the plans are doing any good, “but we hope that they will help. The major challenge is to raise awareness so that people realize the much wider consequences of their illegal actions, often beyond their national borders.”

That’s going to take some effort. Previous surveys have revealed that the people of Cyprus don’t see bird trapping as an issue, perhaps because they do not see the broader impact. BirdLife has spent the past few years campaigning there to change public perception, including making presentations at schools in the hope that the next generation of Cypriots will help to make a difference for the birds flying over the country’s killing fields.