Anti-poaching between Sicily and Calabria
Fabio Crisafulli and Anna Giordano standing on top of a bunker used by poachers to shoot raptor in the 80s. These type of bunkers are not used anymore thanks to the work that Anna and his team did in the past 30 years.
Every spring, 40 to 50 thousand birds of prey travel through the Strait of Messina, located between Sicily and Calabria, with sometimes as many as 9,000 birds seen in a single day. For Honey Buzzards, Marsh Harriers, Black Kites amongst others the journey is tough: They fly more than 8,000 kilometers from the south side of the Sahara Desert to nest in Northern Europe, Italy is their first stop after they’ve crossed at least 140 kilometers of open sea. It’s a race of who’s going to arrive first to get the best spot for nesting—but the journey is made harder because some of them are stopped by bullets.
Anna Giordano first learned about the problem when she was 15 years old, in 1981. After a professor told her that raptor migration was happening in her Sicilian backyard, Anna couldn’t believe it and she went to see it herself. In the few hours she counted 34 raptors, 17 were shot. From then, her life goal to protect raptor migration began. In 1984, at 17, she organized an anti-poaching camp to monitor the migrating birds; that year, she counted 3,198 raptors and heard 1,185 gunshots.
In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. Anna was a young woman working in an male-dominated organized crime society. The poachers were very aggressive: In 1986, her car was firebombed; once, a dead raptor was left in their camp with the note “You courage will cost you dearly”; another time, she and some volunteers were shot. In time, her efforts were noticed. Police started helping her identify poachers, and the first arrest
happened in the 1984. Since then the collaboration between the camp volunteers and
the forestry police continued, and to great effect. In the spring of 2005, they didn’t hear
any gunshots for the first time since the project started.
On the other side of the Strait of Messina, a similar story was playing out. It was 1977 when 15-year-old Giovanni Malara was on the Calabrian beach playing soccer with his friends, and a big flock of raptors flew by, very low. As Giovanni and the kids ran towards the village, he saw people shooting from their balconies, and several falcons fell to the street. “That was for sure a trauma,” Giovanni recalls. In 1983, at 21, he and some friends organized Calabria's first anti-poaching protest to try to bring awareness to the raptors' plight. The night before the demonstration, a bomb exploded in the venue of Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli (LIPU, or BirdLife Italy), where Giovanni volunteered. The bomb did not stop them, the protest continued.
After a year, Giovanni and some friends went to Anna’s first anti-poaching camp because they wanted to learn from the Sicilians and start their own. The poachers were shooting from concrete bunkers built in the 1960s; Giovanni counted more than 2,000 of the bunkers lining the Calabrian side of the strait. The Calabrian poachers were dangerous, just like those in Sicily. In 1990 a police car was shot with a lupara shotgun, a typical weapon used by local organized crime; one of the policeman was wounded. In the same year some of the volunteers were on a beach while following the raptors they got robbed and forced to swim offshore. After these events, more than 50 national police guards worked with the camp volunteers to lead stakeouts and find poachers. Under Giovanni, the camp started using camera traps to film poaching activities. Over the years, police and volunteers working together brought poaching at minimal levels.
Poaching in these regions is fierce because of a long tradition of hunting raptors for trophies, food, or to show off how macho a man could be. If a Calabrian man didn't kill any raptors during migration season, a local myth states, your wife will soon cheat on you. Anna and Giovanni have been working in parallel from the two sides of the strait to save these majestic raptors, but today they're using two different methods to save the migratory birds. In Sicily Anna hosts an eco-tourism camp where the participants come from all around Europe to have a close look at raptors. The camp serves indirectly as supervision: “If control is missing, they’ll start shooting again” Anna says. Meanwhile, in Calabrian, poaching is still practiced—but at far lower rates. "The damage is less, but it’s harder to get them,” Giovanni says. Prevention for Giovanni is arresting a poacher to let the other people know that they are here, fighting for the safe of the birds.
The result is an epic raptor migration, far safer for the birds thanks to these dual efforts, in 2018, when this photos were shot, was the year when they recorded the highest number of birds ever seen, more than 50,000. “Today was amazing: 1,800 raptors in 3 hours, rivers of falcons!" Anna wrote to me after I came back, 40 years ago "it would have been a massacre.”
A Kestrel from the Rehab Center for Wildlife Animals. Possibly shot it was find wondering in a field. Messina, Italy.
Falchi Pecchiaioli migrating through Dinnamare, Messina, Italy.