Killing of eagle highlights Italy's wild bird slaughter

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A mature golden eagle brought down by shotgun fire in the wilds of northern Italy has become a symbol of the devastation wreaked by hunters on the nation's disappearing birdlife. With a six-foot wing span and capable of diving at up to 100 miles an hour, the golden eagle is one of the most splendid but also most endangered species in the peninsula. So when one of the few remaining examples was shot in the hills of Val Biondino, not far from Lake Como, there was fury and disgust: it was said to be the last remaining male golden eagle in the valley.

"The heart and brain of the person who shot it dead must be inversely proportional to the prodigious qualities of this predator," spat a writer in La Stampa. The eagle's remains were found alongside those of a dead sheep which had apparently been used to lure it. The bird had been shot from close quarters.

"Despite the work of the national parks in protecting endangered species, we still witness acts like this of gratuitous brutality and culpable ignorance, which wreak serious damage on the environment," said Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, Minister of the Environment and head of the Green party. "This latest example of poaching shows there is still a lot to be done in Italy with regard to protecting and respecting animals, particularly those which are increasingly rare."

Three-quarters of a million hunters fan out across Italy during the hunting season, many of them targeting rare species such as greater flamingos, black storks, ospreys and eagles. The hunting organisations protest at the blackening of their name by the actions of poachers, and when another eagle was shot and injured outside Bergamo last November, the Hunters Federation said they would take legal action against the man responsible.

But still the carnage goes on. Lipu, the Italian League for the Protection of Birds, takes delivery of about 7,000 wounded or dead birds every year, brought in by bird-loving members of the public. In the north of Italy, hundreds of thousands of traps are set every year to catch small birds - quite illegally. The birds are sold to restaurants or as caged birds, or used as decoys by hunters.

The struggle between hunting supporters and opponents has been going on for years. Silvio Berlusconi tried strenuously to increase hunters' rights and expand the hunting season, but, in 2002, Lipu managed to block his efforts. The organisation also took action against regional governments which had passed local laws allowing many protected species to be shot.

The number of Italian hunters has declined from two million 20 years ago, but the rare bird population is shrinking even faster. Lipu runs 15 centres around the country to look after wounded birds and, if possible, return them to the wild. Italy's branch of the WWF has a corps of Voluntary Hunting Guards consisting of about 100 volunteers who, in the past 10 years, have seized 150,000 illegal traps and more than 500 guns.