Drivers of shooting

The drivers of illegal shooting is still under investigation at BRC. Every year we do monitoring on illegal shootings, perform regular interviews and research on finding out the true drivers of shooting. This pages keeps our insights and latest results.

For his master dissertation, Johannes Jansen has investigated the magnitude of the raptor shooting throughout the eastern Black Sea bottleneck in autumn 2011 and 2012. His survey covered both the Adjara Autonomous republic and the Guria province in Georgia. This project builds on the expertise and data collected during the previous editions of the BRC and was conducted in close cooperation with the Georgian Centre for the Conservation of Wildlife (now Sabuko).

Based on geographical features of the landscape and migration patterns, a map of high mortality risk from shooting was constructed in GIS, and the magnitude of this risk was be examined in the field during September 2011. It included hunter counts, a questionnaire and counting and measuring of casualties.

The main goal was to obtain an overall picture of the impact of raptor shooting on migrating populations and to designate priority areas for conservation.

The Batumi bottleneck  in the republic of Georgia is a crucial migration crossroad for the raptor populations of north-eastern Europe and west-Asia. Every autumn a huge concentration of southbound soaring migrants gets funneled in the narrow stretch between Black Sea’s east-coast and the high mountains of the Lesser Caucasus. Recent monitoring has shown that up to 35 bird of prey species use this flyway and a total of 1,021,001 individuals passed through in only two months in autumn 2012. 

But the illegal shooting of all raptor species is a common practice in the area. The impact on the migrating populations is unclear and motivation behind this local tradition is poorly understood. To be able to predict the intensity and distribution of the hunting along the bottleneck, a probabilistic distribution model (MaxEnt) was applied,  based on geographical coordinates of the hunting spots and multiple topographical characteristics of the area. At sample sites the amount of raptors killed around the shooting stands were counted. On the obtained distribution map a generalized linear model was applied to estimate the total number of kills in the bottleneck.

The estimate totals 9046 ±1251 casualties on average per autumn season. The majority of the casualties are Eurasian Honey-buzzards (Pernis apivorus) and Steppe Buzzards (Buteo buteo vulpinus), and about 1,04% is expected to be culled of the total migrating population. More alarming is that 7,57% of the population of Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus), 7,35% of Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) and 9,07% of the Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) is expected to be shot down.  Questioning the hunters revealed that shooting occurs only in autumn, by local men who are not necessarily trophy hunters but shoot for the pot. The practice is found to be restricted to mountain ridges of certain altitude and orientation, close to the coast. Such hotspots are rare, but at these places very high numbers of raptors are shot, highlighting the urgent need for localized awareness-raising efforts.  With this model, a tool is provided to evaluate these conservation efforts.

A peer-reviewed publication is in preparation, but you can find more interesting findings in this interview also.

Thanks to the Ornithological Society of the Middle East who has granted 500 GBP to the project 'Assessment of hunting pressure on migrating raptors through the Lesser Caucasus'.


Here is an interview with Johannes Jansen about his work:

> What is the purpose of your thesis?

The general aim of the thesis is to estimate the impact of the (illegal) shooting of raptors on the migrating populations, map the range of the problem (only around our count stations or all over South-werstern Georgia) and identify the profile of the hunters and their motivation.

To achieve this I visited suitable hunting areas in our bottleneck randomly in blocks of 5x5kms, to identify and count victims found, count the hunters around and, if they were active, to see what species they shoot, how much of them get killed or wounded and to interview them. This data will be used in a GIS-model to identify the range, patterns in high shooting risk and to estimate the total number of individuals shot per species. A full final report can be expected in may 2012.

> Why do they hunt raptors and how much do they kill? What is the conservation impact of their actions and what are their ultimate drivers?

Most raptor hunters shoot raptors to eat them (90%) and/or for amusement (75%). Most hunters only take the body of the raptors to their homes, and cut the wings, heads and legs where they have shot the bird.

Knowledge about species is very poor and they call all medium sized raptors 'Irao' (containing honey and steppe buzzard, booted eagle, harriers, kites etc).They shoot first and then 'identify' the bird. Both employed and unemployed men hunt. They don't necessarily need it to prevent starvation, because they can eat well from garden-grown products, but meat in the shop is an expensive luxury and this raptor meat is seen as a nice extra to their diet. Ammunition is cheap and easy to buy. Some hunters shoot with home-made ammo by recycling old cartridges and filling it up with gun powder and lead.

They are in the first place interested in Honey buzzard (HBs) which is the most tasty and numerous raptor around. On an average day, a hunters returns back home with 1 or 2 irao. The raptors are the most vulnerable under unfavourable, rainy or cloudy weather conditions, and high numbers are shot on or just after peak migration days. The reported maximum 'high score' is 40 'irao' on one day by one hunter!

In a few places special interest also goes to shoot down aquila-eagles (mostly Lesser Spotted Eagle) because they are heavy and hold a lot of meat. Some of them call them 'big irao' others know that they are eagles. Hunters in these locations know their phenology very well (peak on the 25th of september), and even have special ammo (with heavier lead) to shoot them.

The meat of steppe buzzards is not liked everywhere that much, but still they are very numerous and shot almost everywhere (but a little less than HBs). Harriers are also shot everywhere but some hunters do not shoot them because they are to slim and also not so tasty. Black kites are very rarely shot at, because they smell terrible and they are disgusting to eat. Sparrowhawks, falcons, bee-eaters and orioles are mostly shot by young hunters or on days with low raptor migration, when hunters are bored.

The success rate of their shots is quite high, 1/3 of their firing hits the raptor, 65% of all killed birds is found afterwards. Though the majority of kills found are honey or steppe buzzards (65%), almost 10% of the victims are of conservation concern (all eagles, Levant sparrowhawk, Montagu's and Pallid harrier).

> what proportion of the local population are hunters, what proportion of the population are against hunting and what proportion couldn't care either way?

95% of the hunters shooting raptors in the hills are locals, and hunt within 5km from their house. Only men go hunting, both young and old. The proportion was not investigated, but it is for sure a minority of the local community. Even among the hunters group (including waterfowl or game hunters) the ones that shoot raptors is low. In every village there are individuals obviously against the hunters, but most of them don't care or don't know.

> Is the shooting of raptor a common practice all over Georgia or is it restricted to region around Batumi, the autonomous republic of Ajara?

For entire Georgia, the Ajara can be considered of high importance for raptor persecution. This has to do with its strategical position in the bottleneck but also because it's a autonomous republic with a bit looser attitude towards rules and law. The province just north, Guria, has also a lot of keen raptor poachers, but conditions are less favorable to shoot that much raptors. In this bottleneck hunting only occurs in a stretch of avg. 10km wide and with a road within 2km. Hunters only hunt in autumn, in September and October, not in spring (“then the birds are pregnant and carry an egg inside” so it is not ethical to shoot them).

In central and east Georgia the persecution of wintering raptors is a problem. The situation in Abkhasia (north-west georgia, also along the black sea, independent from Georgia) is unknown, hunting might be on a similar level as in Adjaria, only the bottleneck effect in autumn might be not that strong.

> What laws do they have in place in Georgia? What police or other agencies are actually responsible for enforcing this law?

Georgia has signed the European Birds Directive, CITES and Bern Convention and so the persecution of all Birds of Prey is forbidden by Georgian law, also in Adjaria.

The 'ministry of environment and national resources' of Adjaria is responsible for the enforcement, coordinating with the eco-police that have to go into the fieldIn the past the environment department has done some effort to control the hunting by having a press release before the hunting seasons showing what species can be shot and in what occasions you will get a fee. Their main business is to prevent illegal logging and during that period they were understaffed and the raptor shooting was never given priority.The ecopolice rangers should be trained first, because they don't know anything about birds, their migration or suitable places for shooting.

There is one official hunters association in Georgia, but no regional section exists in Adjaria. For hunters there is no course to be taken or exam to be passed before you can hunt. Just paying the fee every season (10 GEL in Adjaria, ~4€ ) gives a hunter the right to shoot up to 10 birds per day. This is only applicable to game birds (quail, doves, waterfowl, etc) as described in the hunting legislation.

> Would the hunters mind that much if they were banned from hunting raptors if they could still hunt other species?

In most locations, hunters go shooting for the sport of it. They have very little opportunities to study, find a job or amusement. But they can only practice this hobby in September and, in some locations, also in October. They would be offended if they would be banned from shooting raptors. After opening the hunting season (20th of august), the buzzards are the most numerous birds around. Other species that can be shot are quails (but only in coastal hills), bee-eaters, doves, orioles and rollers.

Important to note is that most hunters know that what they do is wrong or at least illegal, but none of them ever had control. Hunters that only shoot raptors and don't go hunting in the wetlands (where the license is controlled occasionally), also don't possess a valid license.

> Did the Soviet authorities in Georgia allow this hunting and if not what did the locals feel about that? What is the historical context of the hunting?

Yes, hunting during Soviet times was allowed and most hunters took over the gun of their fathers. Almost every household in this region has a gun.  Most of the hunters encountered carried an old "Baikal" rifle, some of them in terrible condition (and risking their own life when shooting with them), but most were in very good condition for their age. The tradition of shooting raptors is, compared with the 2000year old tradition of falconry, quite young, but is already in place in the region for at least 100years. According to the stories of some older hunters, there were many more raptors migrating trough the bottleneck some decades ago and also the amount of hunters was higher.