GRAZ, Austria — There are about nine guns for every 100 people in Albania, according to the United Nations, so it shouldn't be a surprise that hunting is on the rise.

"Every fifth shepherd has one," said Martin Schneider-Jacoby, a project leader at Germany-based conservation charity EuroNatur.

Under communism, guns and hunting permits were tightly controlled in Albania. The current profusion of the weapons resulted from the looting of police and military arsenals during the country's political upheaval in the late 1990s. Now the tradition of hunting, for income and sustenance, has been revived here and in the rest of post-communist southeastern Europe, including Bulgaria, Romania and the former Yugoslavia. This is not good news for wildlife in what had become a region of unique biodiversity.

Southeastern Europe is home to a vast range of animals and plants, having been a last refuge for species displaced during ice ages further north. Then for years the privilege of hunting was reserved for Communist Party elites — Tito and Nicolae Ceausescu, dictators of Yugoslavia and Romania respectively, were both enthusiastic hunters. At the same time the pace of development was relatively slow, leaving it a biodiversity "hotspot" surrounding the Mediterranean and identified by Conservation International. Together, the world's 34 "hotspots" provide a home to half of land-based life while covering little more than 1 percent of the world's land area.

But hunting is a way to make a living in southeastern Europe, and conservationists now worry that its scale is threatening the region's biodiversity and ruining a vital bird migration route between Africa, Asia and Europe.

"In Albania there is not only widespread poaching, like in the rest of the region, but there is open hunting everywhere in the country. It is on a scale which simply hasn't existed before," said Schneider-Jacoby.

In practice, he said, there is no restriction on what animals are shot in Albania. There are, for example, only about a hundred lynxes left, yet they are sometimes found displayed in restaurants as ornaments and are among the quarry advertised to foreign hunters, like those travelling with the United Kingdom's Derek Crane Travel.

It is not a case of hunting for hunting's sake for many local people. "You can sell a duck on an Albanian street market for around 5 euros. You would probably have paid something like 1 euro for the bullet, leaving you with a margin of 4 euros ($5.50)," said Schneider-Jacoby. Bagging just three ducks would provide someone with an income equal to the average wage of 12 euros ($16) a day.

But to make serious money out of hunting means playing host to foreigners: Visitors booking a lynx hunting trip through Derek Crane Travel, for example, pay 240 euros ($330) each per day day. A local guide would make about €100 ($137) for one day of guiding travelers, said Schneider-Jacoby.

The consequences of Albania's combination of unbridled firepower and strong financial incentive is not difficult to imagine, but in some cases there is no need. Near Lake Shkoder, the Balkan peninsula's largest lake, straddling the Albanian-Montenegrin border, Schneider-Jacoby recalls seeing 24 cranes coming in to land during their migration. Only 17 of them escaped the hail of gunfire from hunters lying in wait.

There is also statistical evidence of the impact of hunting on migratory birds: In 2006, when the threat of bird flu deterred many hunters, the typical number of birds seen resting near Albania's Buna river rose from 200 a day in a normal year to 9,000. "Denying them places to land and rest obviously has an impact on their ability to breed," Schneider-Jacoby says.

The financial rewards for hunters are similar elsewhere in southeastern Europe. A guide could make 500 euros ($690) per hunter for a single day helping a group shoot brown bears in the Transylvanian mountains — that's more than 40 times the amount the average Romanian earns in a day. A day shooting speciality game like quail or turtle doves in Serbia's Vojvodina region pays the guide 150 euros ($206) per hunter, about 10 times as much as the average Serbian daily wage.

Bird hunting is particularly popular among Italians, many of whom have the carcasses shipped back to be eaten as delicacies. Hundreds of thousands of birds are illegally killed in central and southeastern Europe, then exported in an industry worth 10 million euros ($14 million) a year, according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. In 2003 an Italian court found that two hunting tourism agencies helped smuggle more than 2 million birds shot in Serbia into Italy over a six-year period.

In Albania, wildlife protection laws are almost universally ignored, Schneider-Jacoby said. At the Hutovo Blato bird reserve in Bosnia, for example, "they openly hunt birds from motor boats," and an official ban on hunting along Montenegro's coastal strip is completely ignored.

But not everyone is concerned about the hunting boom. Angus Middleton of the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE), a Brussels-based pro-hunting lobby group, does not think the picture is quite so bleak, saying that hunters successfully self-regulate.

"There are, of course, issues of illegal hunting and over-harvesting, which visiting hunters from abroad also take part in," he said. "Hunters can only regulate themselves. The illegal activities which do take place fall under the jurisdiction of the state."

What concerns Middleton is that the the issue is "being approached from a more western European approach of polarization, with protectionists in one camp and hunters in another."

Hunters do work with the government on regulation, such as in Romania, where hunting associations help government officials estimate bear numbers by reporting sightings of droppings. However this system, EuroNatur says, leads to overestimation and so artificially increases the numbers that can be legally killed. At present Romania allows 300 bears to be killed each year, but no one knows for sure if there really are 7,000 bears at large, as the authorities believe.

A similar spore-based estimate of the bear population in Slovenia was found by a later genetic study to have produced an overestimate, according to EuroNatur. Yet still, the number of bears that can be legally shot there has stayed at the same level. Like it or not, a degree of western European polarisation between hunters and conservationists has arrived. 

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