“Save that robin”: a day in the fight against poaching in Northern Italy

Text by Lucio Biancatelli – WWF Italy / Featured image by Gruppo Guardie Volontarie WWF Italy

“A report has just arrived from WWF Italy’s Antipoaching Guards: close to the city of Brescia, next to a house in an area of northern Italy, branches have been smeared with birdlime, a powerful glue where small birds, such as finches and other passerines, remain imprisoned . It is a private property, our intervention is required. This is how often the synergy between WWF surveillance and the the local police forces reveals itself”, says Domenico Tedesco, head of SOARDA, the Operational Section for Anti-poaching and Crimes against Animals.

Precisely in these days of October, the “Operation pettirosso” takes place to counter the poaching of small birds, exploited as live decoys or used in “traditional” dishes such as *‘polenta and osei’ or Brescian spit. We are in Valpredina, in the Bergamo Pre-Alps, where operators of the WWF Rescue Center called Valpredina CRAS, managed by WWF Italy, are engaged in real overtime.  About 300 animals arrived just in one week, because they were in need of care, and the vast majority of them are small birds engaged in the autumn migration. Birds which unfortunately find welcoming them, in the Brescia and Bergamo valleys, the traps and other illegal means set up by poachers.

The Valpredina facility welcomes over 3,000 wild animals every year, and it also collaborates in numerous scientific research activities related to conservation and public health. Right here we have the opportunity to even see many who didn’t make it. Small birds, weighing just a few grams, seized to poachers. It’s easy for hunters to hide them: into their pockets, sleeves, even underpants. There are even those who, when discovered, try to swallow the loot.

WWF’s Rescue Center in Bergamo aids over 3,000 wild animals every year © Emanuele Quartarone/WWF Italy

Other small birds are in cages, also seized by the police. They are intended for the trade of live decoys. Forced to sing in narrow cages to draw their counterparts in flight, towards the hunters’ lead. Live decoys: a cruel and anachronistic practice, but unfortunately legal if carried out with birds born in captivity and equipped with identification rings. But many are taken directly from the wild, perhaps with illegal nets.

“A live recall can cost about 150-200 euros. But some are auctioned off, for which they can even reach a thousand euros or more”, says Nicola Barresi of the Provincial Police of Pavia, engaged on Sunday morning, at dawn, in hunting checks in the nearby territory of Lomellina. Then there are the so-called “phonophiles”, the acoustic calls. The paradox is that their use for hunting purposes is prohibited, but these items are for sale in armories. “If I reproduce the song, for example, of a pipit, rest assured that – if there are individuals of that species nearby – in a few seconds they will be within the hunter’s range”.

“An illegal and very powerful system that today is increasingly difficult to counter, given that everything can be reproduced digitally and all you need is a mobile phone”, says Antonio Delle Monache, coordinator of the WWF Italy’s Volunteer Guards in Lombardy. “In our region we are 25 volunteer guards, we collaborate with the police and we have to face widespread poaching of small birds, including protected species such as finches, brambling, pipits, siskins”.

WWF Italy’s team with carabinieri forestale© Emanuele Quartarone/WWF Italy

All these efforts risk being jeopardised due to the absence of effective regulatory tools. “It is essential to increase the sanctions and make the magistrates aware of the real extent of these crimes, behind which serious criminal phenomena are often hidden”, underlines Domenico Aiello, Head of the WWF Italy’s Nature Legal Protection Office -. This is why the Life SWiPE Project was born, which involves partners in 11 European countries. The goal is to implement increasingly effective law enforcement actions against wildlife crimes through collaboration and synergy between the various stakeholders in the field, including the judiciary”.

*polenta and osei is a traditional and typical recipe of the northern area as Brescia, Vicenza in northern Italy. The dish was in the past created by the peasants who, during the holidays, sacrificed the cutest birds for their lunch. Polenta is the cooked cornmeal and is topped with small grilled birds as larks, finches, bramblings, thrushes, sparrows or quails.