Vast numbers of European birds and other wildlife will be spared from illegal slaughter, thanks to a two-year moratorium on all hunting enacted by the government of Albania.
The Balkan country, which lies along a major migratory flyway, encompasses wetlands and other habitats that provide crucial refueling stops for millions of migrating birds. But poor law enforcement, a surge in gun ownership, and an influx of foreign hunters had made Albania essentially a year-round shooting range. Targets were not just game species but also eagles, cranes, shorebirds, and even small songbirds.
"Albania was a death trap for migrating birds," said Gabriel Schwaderer, executive director of the conservation organization EuroNatur.
It wasn't just birds that suffered, according to Schwaderer. To study the critically endangered Balkan lynx, EuroNatur set up automatic cameras in mountainous areas, documenting all passing animals. Mammals such as roe deer and chamois that should have been recorded in significant numbers were rarely spotted. "This shows that game animals are in very, very low densities," Schwaderer said.
The new law, approved on January 30, suspends all hunting licenses and use of hunting areas for two years. The government will use this hiatus to study ways to reform conservation regulations and control what had become almost complete lawlessness. Hunters in Albania have long been unafraid to shoot anything that came within range—even in national parks, where wealthy hunters, the majority of them from Italy, bribed poorly paid rangers to serve as guides.
Election, Exposure Prompt Action
While many Albanians, including a substantial number of hunters, realized that the situation had to change, the government showed no interest in strengthening conservation laws, or even in enforcing the regulations that were in place. But elections last June brought a new party to power, with government ministers more sympathetic to conservation.
Spase Shumka, a board member of the environmental group Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania, said an article by writer Jonathan Franzen that appeared in the July 2013 issue of National Geographic ("Last Song for Migrating Birds") "very much had an effect" on the debate over hunting.
"The National Geographic story served as a main reference," Shumka said. "People distributed the article in the ministries, and it was received very positively. It fit in very well with the transitional government period."
Shumka said he and others in Albania "are optimistic that things will change positively because, for the first time, in this law we have effective integration of enforcement."
Before, responsibility for regulating hunting fell solely on the Ministry of Environment, which had little power. "People who were caught illegally hunting or camping or cutting wood in a protected area would be fined, but only one in a hundred would actually pay the fine," Shumka said. "Now the laws will be enforced in cooperation with the state police, which is very important. It's the only authority which has power."
In addition, the law implementing the hunting moratorium requires the cooperation of the Ministry of Finance. "This will mean additional funding for the Inspectorate of Environment," Shumka said.
"It's really an impressive and groundbreaking decision that Albania took," Schwaderer said. "I can imagine that some of the hotel owners are not so happy, because probably they will have fewer visitors, especially hunters from Italy. But on the other side, they have a great opportunity, because only if they stop this crime will they receive bird-watchers and other visitors interested in ecotourism."