Serbia: Open hunt on protected species
Serbia: Open hunt on protected species
“Bird” mafia in Serbia and Montenegro
It was an Italian police raid “Balkans Birds” way back in 2001, revealing smuggling operation of tens of thousands of dead birds mostly belonging to endangered or protected species, that showed the existence of well organised ‘bird mafia’ in Serbia and Montenegro.
In Serbia, where the birds had been killed, no one among the authorities was publicly “outraged”, and we have been waiting for four long years for the first charges to be raised in relation to this raid, until May 2005, when the Sombor Municipal Prosecutor started criminal proceedings against Ivan Borovac from Sombor and Mira Milićević from Kruševac.
According to a ruling of the Italian court in Vicenza, the two owners of hunting agencies ‘Lube YU’ and ‘Eric Mir’ were guilty of conspiracy to commit crime, crime of smuggling and illegal import of wild animals and protected bird species. The court found that these two companies alone had smuggled into Italy, from 1995 to 2001, over two million birds killed in Serbia.
The Italian police raid at the Gorica border crossing with Slovenia in November 2001 was the biggest ever single capture of a bird load consisting of 120,702 dead birds and at the same time the biggest recorded slaughter of wild bird species in recent European history.
Money and structure of criminal
Regardless of the strong echoes of this well-known affair, in the meantime the birds in Serbia had fallen into oblivion again, precisely because they had no influence over the pensions’ amount, foreign affairs direction and as well as corruption or conflict of interest. Some officials have also made an effort to play down the importance and scope of these criminal activities.
From the Institute for Nature Preservation in Serbia (a state institution in charge of monitoring the condition of protected natural resorts and undertaking steps for their active and passive preservation) we thus saw estimates claiming gross exaggerations had occurred in terms of the scope of criminal activities. At the same time, some politicians openly stated the birds were not endangered and even advocated a “slaughter” of certain bird species.
However, some facts remain undisputed, such as reports by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). According to these reports, trade in wild and exotic animals annually yields profits of up to some $ 20 billion US, which puts it right behind the drugs and arms trade.
Serbia and Montenegro are among the top five countries in Europe in terms of this type of crime. In trafficking, many animal smugglers sell specimens whose kilo is “worth” more than the same weight of cocaine or heroine, claims a CITES statement, urging the national government to take stronger action against the poachers and smugglers.
According to the estimates of several local organisations which are directly or indirectly involved in bird care, close to one million of different bird specimens disappear in our country every year due to illegal bird smuggling, and over half of them are goldfinches, nightingales and other singing birds.
Singing birds - most often from the family of finches, thrushes and warblers, buntings, sparrows, warblers, tits, and larks - are sold or smuggled dead or alive; per individual bird the price starts at € 5 and might reach as high as € 150, depending on the market.
In terms of a frequency of abuse, the second most affected group are the water birds - ducks, geese, herons, grebes, cormorants, waterfowl and other; they are mostly sold dead on the black market, from ten up to € 100 per specimen.
The so-called bastards, birds produced by genetic engineering – crossbreeding wild singing birds with certain exotic birds, are sold for much less money and still alive, with their price ranging from € 100 to € 200 per specimen.
Birds of pray, most often from the family of falcons and eagles, hawks, harriers and kites, are naturally sold alive, with their price ranging from € 500 to incredible € 50,000. Presuming that just one million of the “cheapest” singing birds disappear from Serbia and Montenegro every year, sold at the lowest price of € 5 per specimen, we get to the amazing figure – this business yields the annual turnover of at least € 5 million.
As birds are bought for all kinds of purposes, ranging from consumption to breeding, it is actually not possible to give an estimate of their ultimate financial value, claims the top expert on this issue, Aleksandra Tadić, the Chairperson of the Society for Preservation of Wild Birds in Serbia and Montenegro.
Some birds are definitely intended for the restaurants in Italy, where the price of certain dishes may be as high as € 200, so that it is in any case very difficult to make an estimate as to the actual profit of the “bird mafia”.
- There are three main branches of the bird mafia, says Tadić. – Firstly, there are people who sell live or dead singing birds, and closely related to them are legal and illegal hunting tourism agencies (dead birds smuggling); and the people who sell birds of pray, alive.
The first two branches often have very close relations and tight cooperation, as the agencies engage small poachers and traffickers to transport their goods across the border, or to catch birds, which they normally use for making the hunting easier for their clients. Tadić believes that the Italian tourist hunters are not the only ones behind all this, but that it also involves a criminal network with a structure organised in a way similar to the narcotics mafia. The hunters are at the lowest level of this structure, and the bird processing also includes the local farmers.
Illegal, transportable, makeshift facilities have been erected around the villages in Vojvodina, which – according to Tadić – is where the birds are being processed. The facilities designed for this type of activity are often moved. These are illegal facilities from which even species of birds protected by law leave plucked, headless, with giblets removed.
Tadić claims that approximately one thousand people are engaged in the illegal smuggling, and in addition to hunters and local farmers, it involves workers from the hunting grounds and various state institutions, customs, ministries...
All elements of organised crime are out there. There is a conspiracy to commit crime, since the organisations have the authentic features of the mafia, with huge profit figures, a set up command structure, with clearly defined hierarchy of who gives the orders and who executes them.
The birds mostly ‘travel’ through Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and since not long time ago somewhat less frequently towards Croatia, since the Croat customs service has introduced stricter controls. The border crossings they use are mostly those with no veterinary control.
Novica can do anything
The recordings of the phone conversations which the activists of the Society for Preservation of Wild Birds claim they had recently had with members of the Association of Bird Breeders in Serbia, pretending to be potential buyers, corroborate some of the Tadić’s allegations.
In one of the conversations, for which the Society activists claim took place with the author of the book “Standards for bird evaluation“, the current Chairman of the Executive Board of the Association of Breeders’ and judge for evaluation of the birds, Slobodan Kulić, you can hear:- And if something is not available at the moment, Novica can catch what you want, I just need to tell him... It is possible to get the forest birds at the breeders’, with some minor precaution, since as you know that is forbidden – but nobody will check you at home... I find goldfinch to be perhaps the most beautiful bird species... Well, I wouldn’t discuss the price over the phone... And at the Faculty of Agriculture in Novi Sad they also use my book – says among other things Kulić to the ‘potential buyer’.
A guide - insider
A long-time employee in the hunting tourism (a source who wanted to remain anonymous), who had recently left this profession, says in a statement he gave us that the business of bringing internationals for hunting trips to Vojvodina is very profitable.
He says that an average three-day (weekend) stay of a hunter coming from abroad (mostly from Italy, Germany, Holland) for the so-called “small game hunting“ in Vojvodina, can cost over € 2,000, not including some additional costs, such as travel, visa costs, etc.
The agency charges some € 2,000 per client and depending on the ‘arrangement’, the client must also pay for the guides, who charge at least € 50 a day – states our source.
The owner of the agency which employed him was in very close contact with the former US President, George Bush the senior; another frequent user of the services of this global agency for hunting tourism was also Silvio Berlusconi, the current Italian Prime Minister. So, the list of “high” and “medium” level clientele of this agency is rather long.
He explains that the agency provides the hunting ground in a very simple way. With an hunting association, which possesses the right to manage a hunting area, the agency signs an internal contract on ‘leasing’ the hunting ground, that is hunting permits for the period when certain species are ‘in season’ (for instance, quail and turtle dove from 1 August to 20 September).
The agency is also able to get the hunting area for use from the Ministry of Agriculture. At the same time, deals are made with regards to accommodation, international hunters stay at hotels in Vojvodina, and sometimes the agency hires the entire hotel, or resort, which in that case becomes the ‘closed to public’ type accommodation. Of course, only the accommodation facilities close to the hunting area are considered for this purpose.
- Cars meet the groups of clients at the Surčin Airport and both us and them try to attract as little attention as possible during their stay in our country and the best hotels for that purpose are those with restricted access to them – says an insider who did not want either to confirm, or deny stories on the agency’s connections with brothels and prostitution; on hearing this he just laughed and replied: “Well, we serve the people“.
- For entertainment of the international tourists hunters in Vojvodina, the best drinks are always provided, says the insider, and the best food – venison. The only trouble is that they want to take with them what they catch. This is where hunting and hunting tourism definitely cease, and the smuggling starts. Known and unknown tourism chains
And Tadić explains what one such hunting trip looks like: - It involves all sorts of things, prostitutes and drugs, and the hunters shoot all over the place, and as drunk and as high as they usually are they can’t hit anything, so they engage someone to bring the catch – she says adding that the “Balkans birds“ affair concluded seized larks couldn’t have been hit while flying, but that their wings were broken prior to that. - They were actually thrown into air or released to run like chickens, so the bad hunters would enjoy shooting easy targets. And the fact that some exotic bird species, which resemble goldfinches, were found in the load tells us that in some locations they had run out of domestic species, so they had to “engage” the exotic ones.
- Whoever wants can still open an agency here, though the Ministry of Agriculture was announcing they would introduce a serious monitoring of the hunting agencies. These agencies do not have to report who they bring in, or when, it’s enough that they have a registered business – says Tadić. – Hunting agencies are the beginning and the end of the “bird mafia” story, she states.
By checking over the phone, we learned that the “Donavista“ agency from Novi Sad (www.donnavista.co.yu) at the moment quite regularly offers hunting of quails, turtle doves and water birds.
It is interesting that this agency, regardless of the fact that it is obviously a potential criminal offence, has posted on its web site, as part of its offer, the exact number of birds that the buyers of a tourist arrangement get, as well as the service of exporting, plus certificate issued by a vet. Of course, this is all posted in English.
It literally says: “40 quails shooting and export“. When I asked the agency employees if my friend from abroad could also take the catch with him, I was first told that they do not recommend that, but subsequently also that “everything can be arranged after we book the trip and agree the details“. Only in person, not over the phone.
The agency “The Royal Quail” (“Re di Quaglie” - www.rediquaglie.com), from Doroslova near Sombor, operates quite alright these days, claim the sources from its surroundings, although its owner Count Pjero Arvedi d'Emilei, according to the police, has not visited the country since the end of September last year, when he was arrested under suspicion of intending to smuggle birds to Italy.
At the Tovarnik border crossing, the Croatian customs service seized a load of 8,300 quails and 1,479 turtle doves, weighing a full tone, in a refrigerated trailer truck, which allegedly transported wood. D'Emilei was released from detention and found himself on a plane to Italy within a couple of days.
According to information from Italy, the police there know of d'Emilei, however the Serbian police had not delivered any evidence against the Count to date, oor requested any investigation, so d'Emilei still walks free. This Count and his connections with smuggling of the dead birds were widely reported by the media, and it is also known that he had been present in Vojvodina since at least 1998.
Still, the most interesting fact is that in 2002 the Ministry of Agriculture has awarded the “Gornja šuma“ hunting ground to the Count’s company for management, at the time when the then Minister Dragan Veselinov was a frequent guest at “The Royal Quail” complex. The then Assembly Speaker of the AP Vojvodina, Nenad Čanak, has on several occasions received the Italian Count, who at the time was introduced as a big investor into the development of the agricultural and hunting tourism at the north-east of Bačka.
Much less known in the media, but not on the global bird hunting scene, is the “"Safari International", registered in Sremska Kamenica, as part of the “International Safaris Corporation“, owned by Sergio Dimitrijevic.
To be more precise, this is Srđan Dimitrijević, who brokered the sale of the Serbian “Telekom“ to an Italian partner, for which he had, according to his own account to an Italian Parliamentary Commission set up due to the irregularity of the whole transaction, received a commission in the amount of 16 million Deutsch marks.
Photographs and offers on the site of this corporation explain what it does. Its activities range from hunting in Tanzania, through Mongolia, Armenia, to Ukraine and Siberia. Croatia and Serbia, and Vojvodina in particular, take up a larger portion of their hunting tourism offer.
As part of a very popular “Salaš 137“ close to Novi Sad, otherwise a meeting place of “ethno-culture“, hunting and fishing fans, a hunting agency is also very active (hunting.co.yu). According to Dejan Đapić, from the Eco Society in Stanišić, the largest number of hunting tourism agencies are located in Sombor and the surrounding area.
End of summer – time for ‘open season’ hunt on quails and turtle doves
Adam Bugar, the Chairman of the Hunters’ Association of the Srednji Banat, who has personally witnessed the organised illegal hunting in the Specialised Nature Reservation “Carska bara“ (where this is, of course, strictly forbidden), says that in the hunting season for quails and turtle doves, from 1 August to 30 September, in the reservation area one can find illegal decoys, and cartridge cases from birdshot bullets used for small game hunting, i.e. birds.
Since a hunter accompanied by a dog using a traditional method can catch three to ten quails in one morning, the organisers of the hunt are using the help of the tape recorded decoys with love call of male birds.
When they hear male bird voices, the quails consider that location safe and gather there during the night. In the morning the hunters arrive to carry out a slaughter, killing up to 300 birds which instead of bird dogs are picked up by retrievers.
The catch ends up in the hunting lodge’s freezers where it is kept until the agreed quantity is collected. One cannot help establishing that hunting, and therefore illegal hunting as well, currently takes place at practically all good-quality spots in Vojvodina, since reports on illegal hunting tools are filed continuously.
Reports are filed frequently for the area of the hunting associations "Zapadna Bačka", "Kurjačica", "Subotička peščara", that is Ada, Senta, Sombor, hunting grounds in the surrounding area of Bač and Zrenjanin, and in 2003 particularly intensive in the Biserno Ostrvo near Bečej.
At the moment it is impossible to get accommodation in the “Sibila” hotel, located inside the Specialised Nature Reservation “Stari Begej – Carska bara” near Zrenjanin, as everything is booked until the end of September. The ornithologists’ associations have on several occasions informed the Ministry that there are hunting associations and hunting & tourism agencies which fully specialise in this type of poaching and that their representatives advocate legalisation of this type of kill.
Quail hunting is at the same time fatal for many specimens of the globally endangered corncrake (there is a permanent hunting ban on this species), lark, pipit and many other singing birds, since during the migration they use the same habitats as the quail.
- We are asking for the turtle doves and quails to be put under the regime of permanent closed hunting season, the same as it has been done in other European countries – says Dejan Đapić, from the Stanišić’s Eco Society. – Quails and turtle doves are protected in most parts of Europe, and during the migration period we feed them – they use fields and meadows to rest and this is where they are killed on a large scale. Protection by law is necessary also because under the pretence of hunting quails and turtle doves, the species protected by Regulation on protection of natural rarities are also killed.
The Institute for Nature Preservation in Serbia, supports this initiative launched by the Serbia and Montenegro League for Ornithology Action, Society for Vojvodina Birds Protection and Study, and the Eco Society form Stanišić, since there is a continuous fall in population numbers of these species in our region, which is a clear indication of how seriously endangered they are.
According to the data obtained from ornithologists’ associations, during the two months of the hunting season last year, 38,000 quails were killed, which surpasses the size of quail population nesting in Vojvodina. Dragan Simić from the SCG League for Ornithology Action says that over last 15 years alone, the population drop in Serbia and Montenegro is 20 percent for the quail and 15 percent for the turtle dove.
In Serbia, there was a 63 percent increase in the hunting activity on quail over the last years, which is, following the drastic changes in habitat, the second largest danger for the survival of this species in our country.
In most European countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia) turtle dove and quail have been placed since long ago under a permanent regime of closed hunting season, while our legislation allows the shooting of both species from 1 August to 30 September.
Another particular problem is a violation of the legal regulations in hunting. The ornithologists estimate that over 90 percent of birds are killed using forbidden methods (using tape recorded decoy and the five-bullet guns without blocker in the chamber).
Why is Serbia so attractive?
In line with our legislation, hunting, owing and trading in protected wild bird species, as well as trading in unprotected birds, are all criminal offences punishable by prison sentence of up to five years. A user of a hunting ground cannot give the ground or part thereof to another user for management or lease.
By law, hunting for international tourists is organised by local hunting associations and these are mostly organised in Vojvodina. However, law enforcement is what is missing, and the profit is huge, in particular for the Italians, so that they are all too happy to smuggle birds out of Serbia.
Of course, the profit of the local "executors" is much smaller that that earned by the hunt organisers and the agency for hunting tourism. And birds are ordered by quite “ordinary” Italians as well.
Thus the “Balkans birds“ affair uncovered that among one hundred implicated Italians birds were ordered or previously killed by Ansaloni Vittorino from Modena, a tile-layer, Arfini Giuseppe from Valenza, a jeweler, Albiero Renato from Broglia, a professor, Ederle Giuseppe from Verona, Pietro Miglioli from Brescia, Lorenzo Parisi from Latin...
- Hardly anyone knows that hunting of about only 20 species of birds is allowed in Serbia, and these can be hunted under strictly prescribed conditions, says Tadić. – Though they are not on the natural rarities list, quails are also protected by different regulations – closed hunting season, use of allowed types of guns, ban on decoys, etc.
- The problem is not in the law, but in the fact that the hunting associations – hunt whatever they want. Although hunting of the birds of pray, singing birds, herons and some other species is forbidden, they still hunt them, explains Tadić, adding however there is also some hope for the enforcement of the law.
In October 2004 in Niš a sentence was delivered for trafficking and illegal hunting of the birds for the first time in Serbia, and since then 15 more suspended prison sentences were delivered. The real ‘precedent’ was the decision of the Fifth Municipal Court in Belgrade from January this year – a suspended sentence delivered for a single killed bird.
- However, all those held responsible so far are small fry, says Tadić. – Delays in the process for the “Balkans birds“ affair was not done to protect Ivan Borovac and Mira Milićević alone, or hundreds of minor criminals who had killed and caught birds for them, or carried out other business for them, but, rather, in order to avoid mentioning the names of individuals holding various state positions, with whose help the smuggling of our birds has been going unhindered for decades, all of which could be expected at a trial such as this – says Aleksandra Tadić and concludes: - Ministers come and go, but the ‘service’ [Security and Information Agency, former State Security Service, ed.] – does not.
Causes of biodiversity impoverishment in Serbia
In Serbia today there are around one hundred million birds, 382 species, which makes up 74 % of the bird fauna in Europe. The excessive exploitation in hunting is one of the basic reasons for the disappearance of certain endangered bird species. Recently from Serbia the following species have completely disappeared: black vulture (Aegypius monachus), bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala), little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), common crane (Grus grus), and great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus). Criminal activities committed over wild bird species have resulted in a horrifying 20-80 percent range drop in most of our bird species, threatening complete extermination of some of them soon.
(The author of the article was in the first generation of participants attending the “Investigative journalism and organised crime” course of the Mediacentar Sarajevo and Centre for investigative journalism from Zagreb. The programme is funded by: the FOD BiH, Swedish Helsinki Committee and UNESCO)You can see the sccanned texts of investigative story “Serbia: Open hunt on protected species” here:Picture1, Picture2, Picture3, Picture4, Picture5, Picture6