A number of LIFE projects are tackling the problem of wildlife poisoning using a range of methods. Several shared their experiences at a recent platform meeting in Athens.
The event's host project, 'Return of the Neophron' (LIFE10 NAT/BG/000152), is focused on improving the conservation status of the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) in Greece and Bulgaria. Together, these countries account for almost 70% of the Balkan vulture population (62-71 pairs). The project aims to secure the protection of all the remaining pairs found in 15 Natura 2000 sites in Greece and in 12 sites in Bulgaria. Major threats include a high mortality rate caused by poisoning and contaminated food, amongst others.
Project coordinator for Greece Victoria Saravia said a network of stakeholders has been established to raise awareness of the problem. These include private individuals such as farmers and hunters, as well as forestry services, the police and enforcement agencies. The project has tried to help provide alternatives to poison, for example, shepherd dogs and electric fences for farmers and livestock breeders. "The creation of anti-poison dog units was another important action," Ms Saravia noted. In addition, Return of the Neophron is supplying kits to the forestry services to collect evidence of poisoning in order to improve evidence collection for prosecution.
The project, which runs until December 2016, is expected to stabilise the Egyptian vulture population in Greece and Bulgaria, reducing deaths caused by illegal use of poison in the Natura 2000 sites and providing significant amounts of safe food through a series of delivery methods.
Several LIFE projects are using dogs in the fight against wildlife poisoning, such as 'ANTIDOTO' (LIFE07 NAT/IT/000436), which was completed in 2014, and its follow-up project 'LIFE PLUTO' (LIFE13 NAT/IT/000311). ANTIDOTO aimed to achieve effective preservation of large carnivores - wolves and bears - and various species of scavenger raptor, in areas of Italy and Spain where they were under threat, particularly from poisoning. The project set up Anti-Poison Units to oversee reductions in the use of poison against large carnivores and raptors in Gran Sasso National Park and Aragón and to encourage the adoption by Italian national bodies of measures to prevent such poisoning.
The projects' representative Anna Senarini said ANTIDOTO enabled the creation of the first two anti-poison dog units in Italy, operating in Gran Sasso National Park. Between September 2010 and March 2014, these units carried out over 200 inspections. They have continued operating after the project's end thanks to special financing from the Ministry of Environment. LIFE PLUTO will enable the creation of six additional anti-poison dog units, run by the Italian forest service. Together, the eight units will operate over all of central and southern Italy, covering 11 regions in total. They will carry out routine inspections in the areas most at risk, as well as urgent inspections once a poisoned carcass or bait is found, in order to clear the territory of other poison.
Ms Senarini added, "One of the main weak points in the fight against the illegal use of poison is lack of expertise and knowledge." Therefore, other ANTIDOTO project actions included an information campaign and training on strategies to prevent and control illegal poisoning in Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga national parks, Andalusia and Aragón through seven courses for targeted stakeholders (e.g. forestry staff, veterinarians and technical officers of public administrations).
'HELICON' (LIFE10 NAT/HU/000019) also has a dog unit, formed in 2013, which sometimes assists the police in carrying out search warrants, according to project manager Márton Horvath. The overall objective of HELICON is to maintain the increasing population trend of the eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) in Hungary by significantly reducing non-natural mortality rates. The eastern imperial eagle is a globally threatened species, with a total population of only a few thousand breeding pairs. Hungary is home to the largest population in the EU, however the eagle's favourable conservation status there is threatened by an exponential increase in deliberate killings, especially by poisoning.
The project aims to provide safe feeding places and to improve the public's understanding of the importance of imperial eagle conservation and the possible consequences of persecution incidents. Another goal is to raise stakeholders' awareness about the overestimated impact of raptor species on game populations and about alternative eagle-friendly game management methods. HELICON also wants to increase the chance of detecting illegal activities and imposing criminal sentences. As a result of these actions, it is hoped the Hungarian breeding population of eastern imperial eagles will increase by more 20% during the project period and that the number of deaths due to persecution will decrease.
The 'LIFE ARCPIN' project (LIFE12 NAT/GR/000784) targets the Dinara-Pindos sub-population of the brown bear (Ursus arctos), the third largest brown bear population in the EU, as well as the southernmost distribution of the species in Europe. The bear population in the project area (the Northern Pindos national park and the municipality of Grevena) is an estimated 140 individuals, representing some 35% of the total brown bear population in Greece. Bear-human conflicts are becoming an increasing problem and could jeopardise efforts to bring the species to and maintain it at an "adequately favourable" conservation status. The project aims to minimise bear-human interference and conflicts, and maintain human caused mortality at a sustainable level (i.e. not exceeding 4% of the minimum estimated population) in the project area.
Project representative Spyros Psaroudas said several different actions are being combined to tackle the problem of poisoned baits, such as law enforcement, prevention measures and improving public awareness.
The 'VENENO NO' project (LIFE08 NAT/E/000062), which was completed in 2014, developed some effective and innovative methods of tackling wildlife poisoning in Spain, especially where endangered raptor species are at risk. These methods included prevention and deterrence, prosecution of the crime, and refining knowledge and information. The project's overall objective was significantly to reduce illegal poisoning incidents affecting protected species in Spain. Priority species targeted included the Spanish imperial eagle, the Lammergeier vulture, the red kite and the Egyptian vulture (including the Canary Islands subspecies). In particular, it targeted the use of poison baits, laid to kill predators such as wolves and bears in farming and livestock rearing areas.
Project representative David de la Bodega said a major aim was to reduce the culture of impunity around wildlife poisoning, by encouraging legal action against the perpetrators. VENENO NO facilitated the efforts of its NGO beneficiaries in judicial and administrative procedures in cases of wildlife poisoning. "We have taken part in 24 criminal proceedings and obtained 11 convictions," Mr de la Bodega explained, with those found guilty seeing fines and, in some cases, prison sentences imposed. To help bring cases to court, the project created a Poison Investigation Unit (UNIVE) in Castilla-La Mancha; it supplied UNIVE and environmental officers from participating regions with equipment for investigating the illegal use of poison. Courses on investigating the illegal use of poison, attended by more than 500 officers of seven Spanish regions (Aragón, Cantabria, Canary Islands, Castilla-La Mancha, Cataluña, Murcia and the Basque country) helped improve the surveillance and detection of cases.
On top of these measures, six plans involving protocols or strategies against the use of poison were approved and put into place - in Aragón, Canarias, Castilla y León, Cataluña, Navarra and Valencia - thanks to VENENO NO. The project coordinator, Sociedad Española de Ornitología, also developed a manual aimed at wiping out the illegal use of poisoned-baits, which is now available in English here. VENENO NO was named a Best of the Best project for 2015 at the recent LIFE Best Awards ceremony at EU Green Week in Brussels.