Bird crime in Serbia

An Interview with Milan Ružić

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Milan Ružić wants to build an effective system against bird killing in Serbia.

© BPSSS

An estimated 200,000 birds a year needlessly lose their lives in Serbia. They are being shot, poisoned or captured illegally. Milan Ružić and his fellows from the Serbian nature conservation organisation BPSSS want to stop the killing of birds. In an interview, Milan reports how they succeed in the times of COVID-19 and why the corona crisis is not only affecting people but also wildlife. 

 

 

Normally you are very present in the field. Were you able to work at all during the strict restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

We were slowed down, but we didn’t just sit back! We continued to document and report cases of bird crime to the official authorities wherever we could. From mid-March to early May alone, that was a lot. 

“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us conservationists from working in the field for two months. But nobody stopped poachers and bird hunters from doing their mischief!”

Official controls and prosecution of illegal hunting are more than poor in Serbia. We are trying to fill this gap. A bit like private detectives helping to stop crimes against birds. 
 

But the people who shoot, catch or poison birds were obliged to stay in their homes, too. Foreign hunting tourists were not allowed to enter the country. Weren't there any controls?

During the COVID-19 lockdown in Serbia we had the biggest increase in bird crime ever! In all the cases we have recorded since mid-March, the perpetrators were locals. 

"People have gone berserk because they were not allowed to leave their homes. Some have shot at birds with air rifles around their houses and apartments." 

At the same time, there has been more poisoning of birds of prey than usually. Yes, people noticed that controls by police and rangers were reduced even further. 

Poisoning birds of prey is widespread and a big problem in the Balkans. Can you give an example of such a case?

We recently had a ghastly case near Bačka Topola, a town in Vojvodina in northern Serbia. Over 70 poisoned birds were found there, including more than 20 marsh harriers, but also deer and foxes.  The local population of ravens was wiped out completely. As we now know, the criminal hid many of the poisoned animals. This means that the number of victims is likely to be much higher. 

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Poisoned marsh harrier in Bačka Topola, North Serbia. More than 70 animals were found dead in this area from early April to mid-May, including 20 marsh harriers. 

© Tibor Rekecki

How did you find out about this case?

We were facebooked on Good Friday by a local ranger who found a dead marsh harrier. Next to the carcass was a piece of poisoned meat and about 100 metres away a dead buzzard. I immediately informed the local inspectors. 

“It turned out that someone had spread at least 15 kilos of meat poisoned with carbuforan. Along a road of death about 20 kilometers long, he used his bait to kill all animals that came in contact with it.” 

Together with the local police and conservation authorities, we combed a huge area for a month and a half. Poisoned animals kept turning up. This case of poisoning was even the top story in the Serbian news twice. Someone from the community finally named the suspect. He is a hunter who owns a quad bike and probably wanted to wipe out the predators of pheasants. Traces of his vehicle were found in the field. His house was searched, but the officers could not find any poison. Instead, there is evidence of links between the suspect and a police officer from Bačka Topola, who is also a hunter. The two are probably trying to cover up for each other. 

This means that the poison bait has been causing damage there for almost two months. Could you have prevented this without the Corona restrictions?

Yes, that's a good example of where Corona thwarted us. In cases of poisoning, it is very important to find all dead animals and all poisoned bait. A major problem was that our colleagues from Hungary could not enter the country with their search dogs. If they had been there, we could have covered the whole area within two days. Without dogs, this is very difficult. Our policemen would have needed the dogs during the house search, too. Maybe the officers just didn't find the bait. Now it will be hard to prove anything against the man. 
 

Your network still seems to be working fine. After all, you were able to uncover and report many cases of birdcrime to the authorities in the middle of the Covid pandemic. 

If I had to single out one thing we are really proud of, it is our network! In the past five years we have built more than 10,000 contacts.

"Our network kept us informed even during the crisis – by phone, e-mail, Facebook or Instagram. Up to five cases of bird crime were reported to us every day! We have more and more eyes and ears in the field. This is exactly what we need." 

At the beginning of the Corona crisis, we created a Facebook group. We started with about 1,000 members. In just two months that number tripled. It's a lot of work to maintain and care for these contacts. But it gives us access to the necessary field data and our network is growing steadily. 

Can you also give an encouraging example of how cooperation with official bodies such as the police, the public prosecutor's office and the judiciary is improving? 

Yes, also in the middle of the Corona crisis there was a case in central Serbia where someone set up illegal traps for birds and mammals. I reported this to our very reliable and committed contact person at the CITES office (Editor's note: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in Belgrade and they in turn contacted the local public prosecutor. However, he said that there was an order from the government to deal exclusively with cases of the following categories during the COVID-19 pandemic: suicide, murder, robbery, or when people are on the street without a permit. 

"Our contact at the CITES office made it clear to the prosecutor that wildlife crime is not a joke and that our case cannot wait."

In fact, the officers showed up the next morning. Usually this takes days, weeks or even months. Not this time. Our personal cooperation with trusted contacts is the key. 

Milan, thank you very much for this interview!

Interview: Katharina Grund

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