Aalmost two hours traveling the mountains of Brescia, Stefania Travaglia finally finds what she is looking for. Among the isolated farms of an Alpine hamlet, a spring net trap is partially hidden behind a grassy embankment and a few trees. Entangled in the wire mesh, an exhausted field thrush is silent and motionless.

Travaglia gets to work quickly and silently, hiding two motion sensor cameras next to the trap. Clear evidence of wrongdoing is needed to arrest a poacher. “You have to see everything: you have to see the trap; you have to see the person; and if there’s a bird in it, ”she said.

When she sets up the cameras, there is no one to see, but the trappers usually work near their homes and anyone can watch them. For someone in their profession, this feeling of unease is part of the job.

A songbird in Brescia, Italy
A field thrush caught in a net. Birds are sometimes trapped alive, to be used as decoys to catch others. Photography: Joey Tyson

Travaglia is a member of the Committee against the killing of birds (cabins), a group of anti-poaching activists dedicated to bird conservation in Europe. It is estimated that between 11 million and 36 million birds are killed or illegally captured in Mediterranean countries every year, many of them during their migration. The group was active in Brescia, northern Italy, since the early 1980s.

Over 5 million birds – the largest number of any European country – are said to be hunted illegally every year in Italy, according to Bird Life International. Brescia, which is part of the Lombardy region, is the most affected area. Here, protected bird species are regularly killed in arcane and brutal traps or captured alive in nets, to be used as decoys. Sometimes they are just shot. Based on nearly 40 years of operations in the region, Cabs estimates that between 400,000 and one million birds are poached each year in Brescia.

Although illegal, the trapping of songbirds has long been a persistent problem in the region. Travaglia says the bird she found had likely become a living decoy, used by hunters to lure other birds to their hunting skins – its melodious song unwittingly calling other birds to their deaths.

Plucked songbirds
Picked songbirds. Dead birds are sold for around € 3 each. Photography: Courtesy of Cabs

It’s a lucrative business, with trappers able to make between € 3 for a dead bird and € 100 (£ 85) for a live bird, depending on the species.

Although it is illegal to serve songbirds in Italian restaurants, dishes such as to spit (spit roasted songbirds), and polenta and osei (polenta with roasted songbirds), are still prepared in the rural areas of the north.

The problem is not only the number of poachers but the brutality and variety of their methods: Brescia is the last place in Europe where the arch traps, or bows, are still used. To the untrained eye, an arch trap is easy to miss because it looks like a branch. When a bird lands on its catch, drawn to clusters of bright red rowan berries left as bait, the trap closes, shattering the bird’s legs and causing a slow, miserable death. They are almost exclusively used to catch blackbirds, considered a delicacy in northern Italy.

Song thrush captured by poachers in Brescia and used to attract other birds
Song Thrush captured by poachers in Brescia and used to attract other birds.
Photography: WWF Italy

Once Travaglia has set the camera traps, she informs the local riflemen forest (forest police). Cabs has no skills to deal with poachers; its objective is to collect information and evidence, which the police use to ambush and catch the perpetrator. Joint operations between the forest police and Cabs began in 2001. Since then, a close working relationship has developed between the two groups, drastically reducing the number of illegal traps in Brescia.

While poaching is a year-round activity, the trapping season peaks in the fall, when billions of migratory birds fly through the narrow passes of Lombardy on their way to Africa. The Cabs team spends the month of October scouring the mountains of Brescia for illegal traps.

Stefania Travaglia searches for illegal traps in the mountains of Brescia
Stefania Travaglia searches for illegal traps in the mountains of Brescia. Photography: Joey Tyson

They developed a large database of potential sites, each plotted on a 3D satellite map, covering an area of ​​over 4,500 km2 (1,700 square miles). Once recorded, the data is transmitted to the police.

Andrea Rutigliano, a Cabs investigator, says the turning point came about five years ago when the trappers “felt the increased power of the forest police, thanks to our cooperation, because we were saving them time.”

Instead of taking two days to catch the trappers – one day to locate the traps, then a second for the ambush – the data provided by Cabs allows the police to act immediately. As a result, fewer traps are installed. Last year’s operation recovered 78 arc traps – the lowest number ever recorded – alongside 57 mosquito nets, up from 12,104 in 2001.

In 2014, the group also helped fill a loophole in Italian law that allowed Tunisian sparrows to be imported into Italy and sold in restaurants. That same year, after a long campaign, Cabs helped end the use of roccoli – large nets designed to trap migratory birds in flight – which were previously permitted for “traditional” cultural reasons.

A robin is freed from a net by a member of the Committee against the killing of birds
A blackbird is released after being trapped in a net. Photography: WWF Italy

A major problem for taxis is the blurry line between hunter and poacher. Trapping is still illegal, but hunters have a list of 39 birds that they can legally shoot during the official hunting season. Seventy percent of captured poachers have a hunting license, according to Cabs.

This figure is contested by the Italian Federation of Hunters (FIDC), which recognizes that “100 to 120 criminal offenses against the law on hunting” occur each year, but maintains that the majority of poaching is carried out by unlicensed individuals.

Since 2018, Rutigliano has helped police catch nearly 40 hunters. He says, “We don’t find as many trappers as we used to. So now we turn to the filming business. We have exhausted this field, this source of illegality, and now we move on to the next one. “

Filippo Bamberghi, a WWF game ranger, believes the illegal shooting of songbirds is the biggest problem Brescia is currently facing. Because of the large number of hunters licensed in Brescia – some 20,000 – those who kill protected species can do so without fear of being captured, he says.

Even if they are caught, the laws don’t go far enough to deter poachers, according to Bamberghi, with fines as low as € 500.

“The fine has been the same for 30 years. If you shoot a protected bird, it’s a very, very small fine, ”says Filippo. “And the fine is the same whether you shoot a bird or a thousand birds.”

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