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Hunting surges in southeast Europe

After the fall of communism, hunting became an economic imperative in the Balkans, worrying conservationists.

A brown bear cub plays on the road in the outskirts of Sinaia, Romania, June 15, 2009. A Romanian hunter can earn more than 40 times the amount the average Romanian earns in a day by guiding tourists on a bear hunt. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

GRAZ, Austria — There are about nine guns for every 100 people in Albania, according to the United Nations, so it shouldn't be a surprise that hunting is on the rise.

"Every fifth shepherd has one," said Martin Schneider-Jacoby, a project leader at Germany-based conservation charity EuroNatur.

Under communism, guns and hunting permits were tightly controlled in Albania. The current profusion of the weapons resulted from the looting of police and military arsenals during the country's political upheaval in the late 1990s. Now the tradition of hunting, for income and sustenance, has been revived here and in the rest of post-communist southeastern Europe, including Bulgaria, Romania and the former Yugoslavia. This is not good news for wildlife in what had become a region of unique biodiversity.

Southeastern Europe is home to a vast range of animals and plants, having been a last refuge for species displaced during ice ages further north. Then for years the privilege of hunting was reserved for Communist Party elites — Tito and Nicolae Ceausescu, dictators of Yugoslavia and Romania respectively, were both enthusiastic hunters. At the same time the pace of development was relatively slow, leaving it a biodiversity "hotspot" surrounding the Mediterranean and identified by Conservation International. Together, the world's 34 "hotspots" provide a home to half of land-based life while covering little more than 1 percent of the world's land area.

But hunting is a way to make a living in southeastern Europe, and conservationists now worry that its scale is threatening the region's biodiversity and ruining a vital bird migration route between Africa, Asia and Europe.

"In Albania there is not only widespread poaching, like in the rest of the region, but there is open hunting everywhere in the country. It is on a scale which simply hasn't existed before," said Schneider-Jacoby.

In practice, he said, there is no restriction on what animals are shot in Albania. There are, for example, only about a hundred lynxes left, yet they are sometimes found displayed in restaurants as ornaments and are among the quarry advertised to foreign hunters, like those travelling with the United Kingdom's Derek Crane Travel.

It is not a case of hunting for hunting's sake for many local people. "You can sell a duck on an Albanian street market for around 5 euros. You would probably have paid something like 1 euro for the bullet, leaving you with a margin of 4 euros ($5.50)," said Schneider-Jacoby. Bagging just three ducks would provide someone with an income equal to the average wage of 12 euros ($16) a day.

But to make serious money out of hunting means playing host to foreigners: Visitors booking a lynx hunting trip through Derek Crane Travel, for example, pay 240 euros ($330) each per day day. A local guide would make about €100 ($137) for one day of guiding travelers, said Schneider-Jacoby.

The consequences of Albania's combination of unbridled firepower and strong financial incentive is not difficult to imagine, but in some cases there is no need. Near Lake Shkoder, the Balkan peninsula's largest lake, straddling the Albanian-Montenegrin border, Schneider-Jacoby recalls seeing 24 cranes coming in to land during their migration. Only 17 of them escaped the hail of gunfire from hunters lying in wait.