In the net of corruption

In a vast criminal enterprise, a million or more wild birds are being poached from Serbia's forests and nature reserves every year. Vesna Peric Zimonjic reports on a deepening ecological crisis
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The Independent Online

When night falls in Serbia, thousands of men set off to work in a lucrative, illicit trade. You will find them treading stealthily through the forests of the northern Vojvodina province, or the ancient woodlands that cover the mountains of southern Serbia, or even hiding in the undergrowth of the country's official nature reserves.

Armed with shotguns, catapults, nets and glue, these men are poaching birds for export. It's a line of work that can earn them around €30 (£21) a day, in a country where the average income is less than €200 (£140) a month.

The trade came under the spotlight last week when Croatian customs officers in the small town of Tovarnik on the Serbia/Croatia border found 1,000kg of dead birds in a refridgerated lorry bound for Italy. Experts estimate that at least one million wild birds are exported from Serbia every year, among them quails, nightingales, starlings, larks and turtle doves. The trade has reached such a level that some bird populations have plummeted by up to 80 per cent over the past decade.

"In Serbia, there are no bird species whose numbers are rising," says Alexandra Tadic, the head of the Serbian Society for the Protection of Wild Birds, the only organisation that has taken a stand against the widespread practice. "On the contrary," she adds, "they're all in decline."

Well-organised smuggling rings involving local residents, government officials and Serbian customs and police officials sell huge numbers of birds to foreign traders. Most end up in Italy, but many reach markets and restaurants as far afield as Belgium and Germany. The cargo intercepted in Tovarnik was found in a Renault freezer truck with Italian license plates. It was filled with 8,302 dead quails and 1,479 turtle doves hidden under a pile of logs. The birds were frozen and neatly packed in plastic bags. Croatian customs officers, who arrested the Italian driver, said the consignment was worth at least €30,000 (£21,000) on the black market.

Following the seizure, the Serbian customs office issued a statement asserting that "the customs procedure was respected completely". But when asked whether it was normal for refrigerated trucks to be carrying logs, they refused to comment. "This amounts to organised crime," says Tadic. "We want the Serbian authorities to admit that it is a kind of organised crime and to fight it." According to Tadic, over the past 50 years no one in Serbia has been found guilty of bird poaching, despite it being a criminal offence punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.

For many, the trade has run in families for generations. It thrived in the decade under Slobodan Milosevic's rule, as did smuggling of every other kind. But the ousting of Milosevic has brought little change, while corruption has flourished in law enforcement and the judiciary. "It is all about the money," says Tadic. "The poachers live either in villages near the forests and nature reserves, or in the mountains in the south." The birds are extremely valuable; figures suggest that the Serbian poaching trade is one of the five most lucrative in the world.

Tadic rose to national prominence last year when she protested against plans to stage a techno music festival on War Island, a nature reserve at the confluence of the Sava river and the Danube just outside Belgrade. The festival eventually went ahead, despite the society's warning that it would harm Serbia's last untouched natural habitat near the capital. More than 100 bird species living and nesting on War Island somehow survived the invasion of 100,000 visitors for four nights, although the deafening music forced whole populations to flee, a scene many visitors reportedly found funny.

Three years ago, a more deadly ornithological outrage was uncovered when Italian customs officials seized a Serbian truck carrying more than 120,000 frozen birds with an estimated value of €1.5m (£1m). "That was the biggest massacre of wild birds in recent history," Tadic says. The Italian courts have since sentenced four people for the crime, while the Serbian authorities have yet to make an arrest. "It was not the Italians who killed all those birds...those were our people," says Tadic. "You could describe them as 'the bird mafia'. They have the resources, the infrastructure and the help of corrupt officials."

The Society for the Protection of Wild Birds has given customs officials a manual on how to recognise and combat the smugglers. In addition, they have provided police and the Serbian government with a CD of recorded telephone conversations between people involved in the trade. Activists posing as buyers made contact with dealers and discussed when, how and at what price birds could be supplied. The dealers named prices for different species, and discussed the quantities that they could provide. Despite giving their names, addresses and other personal details, the Serbian authorities have so far remained silent about the evidence and appear to have done nothing to prevent further smuggling.

On the contrary, Tadic has proof that the business is flourishing. The society's activists have discovered at least ten mobile factories in the northern province of Vojvodina, where birds are killed, decapitated and cleaned before being shipped to restaurants. Quail with a honey, chestnut and sherry sauce is a popular dish in some up-market Italian eateries, while nightingale may end up being used to make nightingale tongue pâté. It takes hundreds of boiled tongues to make just 50g of the delicacy, which is later spiced with herbs and pepper and can be sold for a huge premium in the top restaurants.

When asked about the latest seizure of smuggled birds, Miroslav Nikcevic, the head of environmental protection at the Serbian Ministry of Science and Environment, said: "Why do you ask me about such things? I'm not responsible." Other ministry officials have remained unavailable for comment. Some of them admit, off the record, that it's hard to establish what is happening inside Serbia's 7.5 million hectares of official hunting grounds. The country has around 90,000 registered hunters, while only 80 inspectors work in the field. And in the northern province of Vojvodina, an area renowned for its natural resources, hunting licenses can be obtained for a mere €10 (£7). "Once hunters get in the field, we don't know what they do," says Alexandra Pantelic from the Serbian hunting union.

Environmentalists say that the extermination of large numbers of birds is destroying the ecological balance in some parts of the country. Insect populations are soaring as their natural predators are wiped out, which has knock-on effects for the local vegetation. "It's not only that we won't hear the birds in certain areas or that we'll see more mosquitoes," says ornithologist Goran Sekulic from the Serbian bureau for nature protection. "This is important for Europe, as most of the birds killed here are migratory birds, that travel from north to south and spend only part of the season here."

But it is not only dead birds that leave Serbia. Live nightingales are bought by foreign traders for just a handful of euros, then sold on in wealthier countries for between €200-300 (£140-210). Larger birds find their way to foreign markets too; eagles and falcons caught in the mountains of southern Serbia often end up in the Middle East, where they are sold for up to €60,000 (£41,000) to local noblemen. Meanwhile, in Serbia, an eerie quiet is beginning to descend on the nation's forests and woodlands.