By Teresa Lappe-Osthege, a BIOSEC Research Fellow leading a mini-project researching the illegal bird trade in the Western Balkans. Exploring how it affects political stability in the region and security in the EU, Teresa aims to generate much-needed empirical data on a lucrative – and under-reported – branch of the illegal wildlife trade.
Small, often family-run corner shops selling a plethora of basic food and household items are an integral part of the urban landscape in the Albanian capital of Tirana. During a recent research trip, I could not help but feel surprised – although I had visited a several times before – by the number of these corner shops selling cages of live birds, such as Common Quails or goldfinches, sometimes even more exotic parrots, and other animals like puppies or kittens next to bottles of Coca Cola and packs of cigarettes. Indeed, the keeping of songbirds is widespread throughout all of Albania; they often decorate the terraces of bars or hotels. Many are trapped and sold illegally; just how many is difficult to say.
Before I left for Albania, I conducted research into the illegal trade in birds from Serbia into the EU. It appeared that one of the main drivers of the trade was the hunting tourism industry, catering particularly to hunters in EU-Member States, such as Italy or Malta, and severely affecting threatened as well as non-threatened species (e.g. European Turtledove or Common Quails).
Albania provides a striking contrast in this regard, having introduced a nation-wide hunting ban in 2014, initially for a duration of two years, but extended by an additional five years in 2016. A widespread availability of weapons since the unrests of the late 1990s, combined with a flourishing regional hunting economy and international pressure eventually forced the government to take drastic measures to halt the negative effects of hunting on wildlife. As a recent study by Daniel Ruppert and Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) has shown, while the ban has indeed had a positive effect on population sizes in protected areas, it resulted in “complete ineffectiveness” beyond their borders due to a lack of enforcement.
However, another picture seemed to emerge from my interviews and conversations with Albanian stakeholders. While the hunting ban has indeed not been entirely successful, it appears that it has succeeded in undermining one of the most lucrative pillars of the illegal bird trade in the Western Balkans: the hunting tourism industry. Although official seizure data is often lacking or unavailable, it appears that while a small-scale regional trade does exist, the illegal trade in birds in Albania is much more domestic than in Serbia, focusing on the trapping of songbirds, particularly in the suburbs of Tirana.
Arguably, the fact that these birds are sold openly in the streets of the capital, often without official checks and controls, and used to decorate places often frequented by tourists, underlines a deep disparity between what is declared as illegal conduct on paper (often within the framework of EU accession processes) and what is considered illegal conduct in the eyes of the wider population.
This discrepancy in interpretations of illegality is by no means unique to the Albanian case, and in fact leads me to highlight an ethical conundrum of conservation itself. Let us consider the example of the goldfinches. As with Common Quails in Serbia, goldfinches are not considered threatened by the IUCN. Unlike the illegal trapping and trade in Albania and the Western Balkans of other species, such as the critically endangered Balkan lynx, my interviews have shown that the illegal trade in goldfinches is not considered a priority by national stakeholders. After all, as Jonathan Franzen wrote in a recent article, “[b]irds aren’t furry and cuddly”, and their population numbers are often of little concern. So, given that there is no pressing urgency in stepping up conservation efforts, how much attention should we actually pay to the illegal trade in goldfinches and other non-threatened bird species in Albania? Such a conundrum certainly applies to other species and contexts, but it needs to be taken into consideration when exploring the wider impact and relevance of the illegal bird trade from the Western Balkans into the EU.