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Hunting surges in southeast Europe

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

There is also statistical evidence of the impact of hunting on migratory birds: In 2006, when the threat of bird flu deterred many hunters, the typical number of birds seen resting near Albania's Buna river rose from 200 a day in a normal year to 9,000. "Denying them places to land and rest obviously has an impact on their ability to breed," Schneider-Jacoby says.

The financial rewards for hunters are similar elsewhere in southeastern Europe. A guide could make 500 euros ($690) per hunter for a single day helping a group shoot brown bears in the Transylvanian mountains — that's more than 40 times the amount the average Romanian earns in a day. A day shooting speciality game like quail or turtle doves in Serbia's Vojvodina region pays the guide 150 euros ($206) per hunter, about 10 times as much as the average Serbian daily wage.

Bird hunting is particularly popular among Italians, many of whom have the carcasses shipped back to be eaten as delicacies. Hundreds of thousands of birds are illegally killed in central and southeastern Europe, then exported in an industry worth 10 million euros ($14 million) a year, according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. In 2003 an Italian court found that two hunting tourism agencies helped smuggle more than 2 million birds shot in Serbia into Italy over a six-year period.

In Albania, wildlife protection laws are almost universally ignored, Schneider-Jacoby said. At the Hutovo Blato bird reserve in Bosnia, for example, "they openly hunt birds from motor boats," and an official ban on hunting along Montenegro's coastal strip is completely ignored.

But not everyone is concerned about the hunting boom. Angus Middleton of the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE), a Brussels-based pro-hunting lobby group, does not think the picture is quite so bleak, saying that hunters successfully self-regulate.

"There are, of course, issues of illegal hunting and over-harvesting, which visiting hunters from abroad also take part in," he said. "Hunters can only regulate themselves. The illegal activities which do take place fall under the jurisdiction of the state."

What concerns Middleton is that the the issue is "being approached from a more western European approach of polarization, with protectionists in one camp and hunters in another."

Hunters do work with the government on regulation, such as in Romania, where hunting associations help government officials estimate bear numbers by reporting sightings of droppings. However this system, EuroNatur says, leads to overestimation and so artificially increases the numbers that can be legally killed. At present Romania allows 300 bears to be killed each year, but no one knows for sure if there really are 7,000 bears at large, as the authorities believe.

A similar spore-based estimate of the bear population in Slovenia was found by a later genetic study to have produced an overestimate, according to EuroNatur. Yet still, the number of bears that can be legally shot there has stayed at the same level. Like it or not, a degree of western European polarisation between hunters and conservationists has arrived.