Last July, novelist and bird-watcher Jonathan Franzen wrote a devastating account for National Geographic magazine about the mass slaughter of migrating birds across the Mediterranean. The situation, he wrote, was especially dire in Albania, which lies along a major migratory flyway. Due to indiscriminate hunting, the skies above Albania were literally being emptied of birds.
But not anymore. Thanks in part to Franzen's article, the Albanian government has declared a two-year ban on hunting. "This is really good news," says Franzen. "If you were to stop hunting in one place in Europe, you would want to stop it in Albania."
National Geographic spoke with Franzen about the ban and what it means for the future of migrating birds.
Why is Albania so important for birds migrating between Africa and Europe?
There are three major flyways that migrating birds take to Europe. A really important one in the eastern Mediterranean is the Adriatic flyway. Along that entire Balkan coast, it's pretty much mountains and a few small deltas where rivers come out—except in Albania, which has the greatest system of wetlands, I think, in the entire Mediterranean. It's a resting place for birds that have crossed the Mediterranean. They're about to go over the mountains to get to central and eastern Europe. For forever, they've been able to rest there and feed and fuel up for the final push over the mountains so they can reproduce.
How has hunting affected these migrations?
Every spring and fall millions of birds fly into Albania and very few get out alive. You have spectacles like 50,000 geese coming to escape an especially cold European winter and every last goose getting wiped out, including endangered species. You can see ducks flying back and forth offshore, unable to come in. They've just flown across the Mediterranean, flown across the Adriatic, but every time they try to come in to rest and feed, there are hunters all along the beach to shoot at them. People pull over at the side of the road and leap out with guns and fire at some bird they'd seen on a wire. These are totally unsustainable levels of shooting.
Albanians weren't the only ones doing the shooting, though.
Albania had become a destination for Italian tourist hunters because in the European Union, at least on paper, there are much stricter controls on what you can shoot and when you can shoot. I was there in March. These glorious wetlands, which should have been full of tens of thousands of birds, maybe hundreds of thousands, were essentially devoid of birds because there were these tourist hunting parties going out in boats day and night and shooting it up.
How will the government be able to enforce the ban?
It's rather easy. If you hear a gunshot anywhere now, you know that the law is being broken. The only way to approach the problem when you are a relatively poor country with reduced enforcement ability is a total ban. Some years ago, when Albania banned small boats off the shore because of problems with smuggling, this approach really worked. Even if you were legitimate, there was a ban, so you couldn't go out. I think the hunting ban is likely to have a substantial impact.
What do you think the future looks like for bird migrations in Albania?
A year from now, these wetlands that should be full of birds will be at least half full. The really critical habitat in Albania is already protected. The people in the environment ministry were smart. They said, "Even though we don't have the manpower to enforce this, we're going to get these preserves set up, on paper at least, so that when we have a ban or better enforcement they're there." The habitat that is protected now is sufficient to sustain millions of migratory birds.
How long do you think it would take for the bird populations to completely recover?
I'm not a scientist, so I don't know how long it would take to get stable or even increasing populations of these various migratory birds, but they're very resilient. If a duck is allowed to rest, feed, and recover for a few days in Albania before going on to its breeding ground, it can produce five or six offspring—half of which usually survive to return next spring. Birds reproduce well if they're given half a chance.
Where's the next place that you would like to see a hunting ban?
In terms of numbers of birds killed in the Mediterranean, Egypt is certainly the worst place. Given the political situation there, though, it's very difficult to imagine any kind of serious ban. What you can hope for in a place like Egypt is that there would be a ban on certain kinds of unfair technologies that are radically unsustainable—like the use of electronic playback [of birdcalls] and high invisible nets that catch everything coming off the water. If those were declared illegal, that would have a huge impact just by itself.
This interview was edited and condensed.