There are some stories that have a happy end. Given the modern times we live in, it’s hard to believe and you may think that only the kids’ fairy tales could end so well. However, I have a real story that after many years of real fight could now be happily considered a true success and something to be proud of. A story of synergy, of international cooperation, of German-Swiss-Austrian-Italian joint efforts.
I believe in constructive discussions (as opposed to those so frequent destructive ones from social networks) to improve our knowledge and results. Alone, on your own, you’ll never reach the greatest and the hardest targets. You may be a good birder for example, but never a great, top birder without help from others, without sharing knowledge and experiences. Sicily is a magical island. And for ages and ages, every wandering people, every migrant population reached this fantastic island at some point, and that’s why it is nowadays such an incredible, incomparable mosaic of history, culture, archeology, food variety, dialects and people.
But there are more than five million people living on this island, and many many others have lived here and passed through; this is one of the regions with the highest rate of animals extinction in Europe: Eagle Owl, Little Bustard, Bottom Quail, White-headed Duck, all the woodpeckers (apart from the Great-spotted, which is still pretty common), Red-crested Pochard, Black, Bearded and Griffon Vultures and so on, but also the Sicilian Grey Wolf (Canis lupus cristaldii) and other mammals, as well as reptiles and amphibians and so on.
The same goes for the Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata). It was a very common bird of prey in Sicily in the Fifties and Sixties of the 20th century, when there were more than 100 breeding pairs all around the island. But it was greedily sought after by all European bird collectors and hunters during the late Sixties to Eighties, with a big number of poachers hunting it as a trophy, bird collectors paying them to kill or for taxidermy. Later on, it became a target species for falconers from all over Europe. Illegal falconry practice was to steal the young from almost all nests and sell them all over Europe, but also in the Arabian countries for a huge amount of “black” money. The black market behind was (and still is) enormous and dangerous. No more than 20 pairs were left in the Nineties and about nine to twelve in the late Nineties to 2000/2005. It was clear that the bird was on the verge of extinction by then. Something had to be done before it was too late, and it had to be done quickly.
But how? Italy is a great country, but this is mostly thanks to its history and art; sure it is not an easy place to find money for environmental protection, even less for bird preservation and understanding of these problems. Therefore, a group of desperate and motivated enthusiasts, bird lovers, birdwatchers and zoologists (Andrea Ciaccio, Giovanni La Grua, Angelo Scuderi, Nino Patti, Massimiliano Di Vittorio, Giuseppe Rannisi and many others) decided to do something during the course of the breeding season 2011 – and to do it at the risk of their domestic finances, of their mental sanity and integrity (or even their life given the fierce opposition of some powerful, influential rich or mafia-style falconers): they founded the GTR (Gruppo Tutela Rapaci – the Group for Raptor Protection).
For the first years, they were volunteers, sacrifying their spare time (or risking their job) and money, then they got help from the Italian birdwatchers association (EBN Italia) and from LIPU (Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli). But the turning point came when several European associations and foundations joined the battle: SPA (Stiftung Pro Artenvielfalt), EBN Italia, the Spanish GREFA and several others bird protection associations and clubs.
A great help came from the EU in 2016, when the GTR started a LIFE project – the LIFE ConRaSi (LIFE14 NAT/IT/001017) – focused on the study and protection of Bonelli’s Eagle, Lanner Falcon and Egyptian Vulture in Sicily. More than 450 volunteers coordinated and established a continuous surveillance of the breeding pairs and their nests, also using photo-traps GPRS and other modern technology.
Thanks to these action plans the breeding populations increased annually more than 9%, with up to 45-50 occupied territories during the spring/summer 2019. During the period of the LIFE ConRaSi, 31 juveniles were marked, of which 28 were equipped with a satellite transmitter GSM/GPS to follow up their movements and protect the fledglings. International cooperation, love, passion – all this made it possible.
In the sunny, humid, hot day of the Sicilian spring and summer, when the blurring air makes it hard to check and control the breeding sites, it is crucial to have a good view of the nests in order to see if the young are all in the nests and are growing well or if they have been stolen by falconers. It is also essential to have the top optical instruments to control any person around the breeding cliffs and, in case, to read the car’s number plate to identify the poachers and the falconers in order to help the forestry guards and police to find and arrest them.