No-fly Zone: For Birds, Too, the Mideast Poses a Growing Danger

BIRDLIFE report says Israeli conservation policy ‘virtual haven’ for migratory birds, but calls on states in the region to increase enforcement and prevent hunting for sport

Avocet birds fly over the Hula Nature Park in northern Israel November 22, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Around 17 million birds are killed or captured annually in the Middle East, causing great damage to migratory populations in the region and increasing the threat to species that are anyway at risk of extinction. These facts are presented in a new report by the international organization BIRDLIFE, one of the world’s leading bodies devoted to the protection of birds.

The new report assesses the harm done to birds in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. It determines that in these countries, three million birds are killed or captured every year. Saudi Arabia and Iran account for half of these. When these numbers are added to earlier assessments by this organization of the situation in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, the amount totals 17 million birds at least. Most of these countries are signatories to a treaty protecting migratory birds, which specifically prohibits killing, capturing or trading in these birds. In some countries, such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, there is a law which totally bans any hunting of wild birds.

An exception to this map of death is Israel. The number of birds that die here is significantly lower, due to policies devoted to protecting nature, which are advanced here even in relation to many European countries in the Mediterranean basin, such as Cyprus, France and Italy, in which birds are killed in large numbers. Nevertheless, there is a need in Israel too to protect some species, such as the goldfinch, which is captured in large numbers for the purpose of trade.

The main methods used for this extensive annihilation are gunfire or the use of traps, used mostly for catching the common quail. In many cases the birds are shot for sport, with the sole purpose of enjoying the killing of a bird in flight. In other cases, the birds serve as food. “In some places, hunting is an amusement, with people posting photos of their catch on Facebook or Instagram,” notes Yoav Perlman, the scientific director of the Ornithological Center of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “In some places it’s a status symbol, such as a Saudi sheikh having his picture taken with dozens of cranes he’s shot,” says Perlman.

The international organization collected data from different sources, such as local birding experts, and it emphasizes that this data is partial, and that it’s likely that the actual numbers are higher. Its people had no access to wide areas of Iran and Saudi Arabia, where extensive hunting is known to take place.

In some countries there are areas in which the harm was particularly severe. One is the Iranian shore of the Caspian Sea, described by BIRDLIFE as the “black hole” of migratory birds in Western Asia. Many birds are attracted there due to the large concentration of marshland in the area. In other countries along the Caspian Sea, such as Azerbaijan, there is also extensive hunting which threatens many bird species. Another area is the Iraqi part of the Kurdistan mountains.

Waterfowl and songbirds have been the main victims throughout the Middle East, with 413 different species known to have been affected. According to the new report, 15 percent of the population of the marbled duck, which is at risk of extinction, is killed every year, mainly in Iraq. Moreover, there is hunting of other species that are under threat of extinction, such as the great spotted eagle, the Dalmatian pelican and the sociable lapwing.

“There is extensive hunting of the European turtle dove, which is at risk of extinction” says Perlman. “This is expressed as a sharp decline in the number of these migratory birds arriving in Israel. Here, hunting is allowed with a permit, but we believe that due to the extensive damage to this species in the region around us, it should be protected, with no hunting allowed. Perlman also noted the dire situation of the Eurasian blackcap. It was considered to be quite common until now, but it’s been hunted in large numbers across the Mediterranean basin. There is real concern that if this doesn’t change, it too will face extinction.”

BIRDLIFE calls on states in the region to increase enforcement and prevent hunting for sport, as well as promoting education for protecting nature. This is not the first time the organization is doing so, with no positive responses seen so far. The political instability in this region makes it even harder to take the required steps that are needed for monitoring the state of these birds and for preventing hunting.