Wildlife Crime in Spain

Spain is, without doubt, a geographical haven for a diverse spectrum of wildlife. The Iberian Peninsula as a whole is blessed with more than 68,000 animal species, representing over 50% of the species present in the European Union and with the total estimated number of taxons exceeding 100,000, Spain is considered to have the richest biodiversity in Western Europe. In 2007 there were more than 120 distinct habitats, representing over 65% of habitat types listed in the European Directive 92/34 and over 50% of habitats considered a priority by the Council of Europe. Spain has at least 1,600 protected natural areas, declared as such under either national or regional government regulations, with nearly 12% of the national territory protected, to one degree or another, in the interests of wildlife.

Despite these provisions, wildlife protection in Spain is complicated by the fact that each autonomous region has its own law; for example, Ley 11/2003, de 24 de noviembre, de Protección de los Animales which is in force in Andalucía and constitutes a comprehensive range of infractions and applicable penalties. Protection specific to avifauna was brought about by the introduction of the EU Birds Directive, 2009/147/EC, in force since 1979, which “bans activities that directly threaten birds, such as the deliberate killing or capture of birds, the destruction of their nests and taking of their eggs, and associated activities such as trading in live or dead birds.” Enforcement of these laws is largely the responsibility of SEPRONA, a section of the Spanish Guardia Civil police force, created in 1988, and dedicated to the protection of nature.

The main threat to wildlife in Spain is arguably illegal poisoning despite the introduction, in 2004, of the National Strategy Against Illegal Use of Poison Baits in Environment in Spain. Data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment covering the period 2000-2010 show that 2,355 Red and Black Kites, 2,146 Griffon Vultures, 638 Black Vultures, 348 Egyptian Vultures, 114 Spanish Imperial Eagles, 40 Lammergeier, 7 Brown Bears and 858 specimens of other species were killed by illegal poisoning.

This framework of governmental and legal protection offers some security for the fauna of Spain but, as in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, it continues to live in the shadow of an unnatural and unnecessary threat, wildlife crime. The threat comes from a variety of sources but the main areas of concern are illegal poisoning, primarily on private hunting estates and by farmers, and from poaching/illegal trading.

Hunting, in its many forms, is big business in Spain and hunters come from afar to indulge their sport. In Andalucía the ‘target’ animal species include Spanish Ibex, Fallow Deer, Roe Deer, Wild Boar, Red Fox, European Rabbit and European Brown Hare. Birds that are hunted include Red-legged Partridge, European Turtle Dove, Wood Pigeon, Common Quail, Common Snipe, Duck spp., Thrushes spp., and Starling spp. Illegal poisoning in Spain is largely carried out in response to real, or perceived, threats to game species (mainly rabbit and partridge) and livestock. Recent declines in rabbit and partridge populations, country-wide, and an increase in the population of wolves, for example, in Catalunya, plus poor management practices leading to more vulnerable livestock, has led to a parallel increase in the persecution of perceived predators. Add to this the fact that modern poisons are generally more effective than those used in the past and the magnitude of the threat from poisoning is clear to see.

The main threat to wildlife in Spain is arguably illegal poisoning despite the introduction, in 2004, of the National Strategy Against Illegal Use of Poison Baits in Environment in Spain. Data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment covering the period 2000-2010 show that 2,355 Red and Black Kites, 2,146 Griffon Vultures, 638 Black Vultures, 348 Egyptian Vultures, 114 Spanish Imperial Eagles, 40 Lammergeier, 7 Brown Bears and 858 specimens of other species were killed by illegal poisoning.

The main threat to wildlife in Spain is arguably illegal poisoning despite the introduction, in 2004, of the National Strategy Against Illegal Use of Poison Baits in Environment in Spain. Data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment covering the period 2000-2010 show that 2,355 Red and Black Kites, 2,146 Griffon Vultures, 638 Black Vultures, 348 Egyptian Vultures, 114 Spanish Imperial Eagles, 40 Lammergeier, 7 Brown Bears and 858 specimens of other species were killed by illegal poisoning.

The biggest ever case involving the use of illegal poisoned baits in Spain resulted in the presidents of two large hunting reserves, plus three co-defendants, being charged with the poisoning of over 120 birds of prey between the months of April to July 2012. In July 2013 three people were sentenced to 14 months in prison for poisoning nine Marsh Harriers in a private reserve in Navarra. In June 2014, a farmer was placed on 800,000 Euro bail for the suspected poisoning of six Spanish Imperial Eagles in Ciudad Real and another recent case was heard where a gamekeeper was charged with poisoning three Black Kites in Cádiz.

In Andalucía in the mid- to late-1990’s the wild populations of both Red Kite and Black Kite and more worryingly, the populations of globally-threatened Black Vulture and Egyptian Vulture, saw significant losses as a result of poisoning. In regions such as Andalucía and Extremadura, vast areas that incorporate a wide array of landscapes and ecosystems that are home to a multitude of globally-important species, there is a particular issue facing those working to end the practice of poisoning in that it has been a culturally acceptable practice for centuries. To eliminate the use of poisoned bait in areas such as these will require a significant re-education effort on behalf of those tasked with enforcing the law. This, coupled with the apparent high degree of impunity afforded to offenders, due to poor levels of prevention, surveillance and investigation, is one of the main obstacles to bringing an end to this illegal practice across many regions of Spain.

One major campaign dedicated to reducing the fatalities brought about by illegal poisoning in Spain is the SEO/Birdlife (www.seo.org) Life+ VENENO  project  (www.venenono.org) which aims to “achieve a significant reduction in illegal poison use in various autonomous communities…. where this problem is one of the main causes of non-natural mortality in some of the most endangered species in Europe, such as the Spanish Imperial Eagle, Monk (Black) Vulture, Red Kite and Egyptian Vulture …”. The objective is to achieve this through the use of effective and innovative techniques that are included within the National Strategy Against the use of Poisoned Bait in the Natural Environment.

The use of limed sticks for trapping birds, known as parany or barraca, is prevalent in the autonomous region of Valencia, Catalunya and Aragón. Between 1988 and 2001 the regional authority of Valencia authorized the annual trapping of thrushes in more than 5,000 parany. Approximately 1.5 million thrushes, mostly Song Thrush and Redwing, along with half a million other birds, many of which were protected species, including raptors, were trapped annually. Despite the practice being at odds with the EU Birds Directive, successive governments of the Comunidad Valenciana supported bird trapping claiming that only small numbers of thrushes are caught and that other species are unaffected and, as such, that they are acting legally within a derogation of the law.

The authorisation for ‘legal’ trapping ceased in 2001 but trapping is ongoing in at least 2,000 illegal parany. In 2013 the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) (www.komitee.de) released footage that showed clearly the brutality involved in parany. In specially cultivated ‘trapping gardens’ trees are spiked with hundreds of small limesticks that adhere to the birds’ plumage with the slightest contact, rendering them flightless. After a futile and painful struggle, unable to escape the ‘harvesting’ tunnel, the birds are ultimately strangled by the hunters.

 A series of regional, national and international courts have declared that the practice of parany contravenes nature protection laws, but the Comunidad Valenciana governments have deliberately overlooked these judgements. It is this lack of political will, and the reluctance of the local authorities to prosecute offenders, that continues to hamper efforts to stop this particularly barbaric method of illegal killing. In Andalucía, although systematic methods such as parany are not prevalent, the use of lime sticks for trapping birds does exist; in Málaga province, I have found finches killed in this way within the last decade.

The killing or taking of birds for collection is a widespread and important issue in Spain, as well as in Portugal and the UK. Recent cases involving Spain include the following: a Belgium court sentenced four people to heavy prison sentences and fines after it found them guilty of illegal trade in protected and endangered birds, including vultures. It was proven that eggs and birds were caught in the wild, in countries that included Spain, France and Turkey. The four defendants were sentenced to 4 years (1 year suspended), 2 years (1 year suspended), 18 months (suspended) and 1 year (suspended). The court also imposed fines of 12,000€. In June 2014, the Guardia Civil arrested a 58-year old man in Castile-La Mancha for the crime of keeping in captivity three birds of prey that had been taken from their nests; they were a Common Kestrel, a Common Buzzard and a Long-eared Owl.

Killing protected species for ‘leisure’ has a significant conservation impact on species in more than 18 European countries. Following the release of their statistics for 2011, a SEPRONA spokesman stated that he has “…noticed a spike in poaching, but more related to the achievement of the trophy (rather than for food)…further exacerbating the crime, as they are hunting for the pleasure of having the animal’s head”. In February 2014, agents from the Association of Environmental Agents [Aamaa] of the Junta of the Andalucía in Spain seized an arsenal of over 700 illegal hunting items in the province of Córdoba. Foothold traps were found in areas where Iberian Lynx, exhibiting injuries consistent with illegal trapping, had been found dead previously. Traps such as these pose a serious threat for any person or animal that steps on them and they are outlawed due to the slow and painful death that results from their use; animals that manage to escape face the loss of a limb and the subsequent risk of death through infection or malnutrition.

In July 2014, 17 illegal hunters were arrested in Sevilla province for hunting Iberian Lynx after the bodies of three of the world’s most endangered feline species were found in the wildlife reserve town of Aznalcazar; two of the animals were riddled with bullets and one had died from blood loss after its paw was severed by a Lynx trap.

In May 2014 the Guardia Civil, as part of an operation to dismantle a group organising illegal hunts and the trafficking of hunting ‘trophies’, detained three people and questioned a further 20 after discovering an illegal hunt in Málaga province.  During searches they found the bodies of 18 deer, four mountain goats, two game birds, one mouflón and four wild boar plus 17 items of illegal hunting equipment.
In addition to illegal hunting per se, it appears to be common practice that, when game birds or ducks are present in large numbers, some hunters don’t stop hunting when they reach the proscribed limits; to avoid being sanctioned by the authorities they simply take the birds away, return to the hunting area, and continue shooting.
Illegal construction has been shown to have a serious impact on flora and fauna and in Spain, and in Andalucía particularly, this has been evident over the past five decades. A report by the campaign group nosevende.org in 2009 calculated that more than 10 billion square metres of land had been urbanised in just three decades, much of this in sensitive coastal areas and in many cases illegally built in areas protected by European, national and regional laws; the fact that many regional and municipal authorities colluded in granting approvals for illegal construction only serves to makes things worse. With respect to coastal areas, the past 20 years have seen the loss of an area equivalent to eight football pitches per day. In addition, the continued construction of golf courses in a country with diminishing natural water supplies can only have had a detrimental effect on the local wildlife.
It may come as no surprise to find that opportunities to learn lessons from the construction failures of past decades have not been taken. The recent planning fiasco concerning the Algarrobico hotel, built within the Cabo de Gata nature reserve, is a case-in-point. Environmentalists have argued that the construction of the hotel contravenes the 1994 Natural Resources Plan in addition to being built within the boundaries of a protected nature reserve.  In 2005, central government determined that the hotel flouted the Ley de Costas 1998, as it was built within 100m of the sea, and ordered that it must be expropriated and demolished. Nine years later, and after 20 judicial decisions declaring its illegality, the Andalucía Supreme Court has ruled that the hotel was built on land zoned for construction and is, for the moment, at least, legal.
Wildlife crime is also perpetrated at the highest levels of public office as the following two recent examples illustrate: Firstly, in July 2014 the European Commission took Spain to court for two breaches of environmental legislation; the first case is in relation to poor waste management as, despite repeated warnings from the Commission, numerous Spanish landfills are still operating in breach of EU landfill legislation. The second case is a planned rail link between Sevilla and Almería in the Campiñas de Sevilla.

One final area of concern, that is often overlooked, is that of arson; the setting of fires in the countryside, whilst generally not a crime specifically targeted at wildlife, can have a devastating effect on populations, particularly at a local level. In 2012 alone there were 15,902 incidents in Spain affecting nearly 300,000 hectares. August 2014 saw a fire covering 200 hectares of pinar mattoral that was perilously close to the Sierra Nevada National Park, a vital biosphere reserve. Past history suggests that at least 80% of these fires were likely to have been started deliberately and the impact of them on precious habitat and the wildlife that lived within it must have been considerable.

This area is protected under both Spanish and EU legislation and is an area of such importance for birds that it is designated as an SPA (Special protection Area). Despite all of this, no adequate environmental impact assessment has been performed and the risk of the project causing a substantial negative impact on wildlife, particularly birds, is a major concern.  Secondly, in Cádiz province, the 14,000 hectare Almoraima estate, a significant wildlife haven of ancient cork oak, pine and olive trees, is being offered for sale by its owners – the Spanish government – with the option to build a luxury resort consisting of two golf courses, a 5-star hotel and a private airfield. The publically-owned estate, 90% of which falls within the Los Alcornocales Natural Park, was designated as a Natura 2000 site in accordance with both the EU ‘Habitats’ and ‘Birds’ Directives, and was described in a parliamentary question to the European Parliament as “one of Andalucía’s largest biosphere reserves whose environmental, economic and cultural value is incalculable”.

 Paul O’Neill – ABS Member


It is clear then that, as in the UK and other European countries, Spain continues to have a significant concern regarding wildlife crime. There are some positive signs, for example, improved vigilance from authorities such as SEPRONA, and campaign groups like Ecologistas en Acción (www.ecologistasenaccion.org) and Asociación Silvema Serranía de Ronda (www.silvema.org), and there are some fantastic targeted efforts that include the anti-illegal poisoning project Life+ VENENO. There is also a growing realization within the general population of the value, both aesthetic and commercial, of the natural world and the vital role of the community as its caretaker is gradually being recognized and acted upon. A number of those who commit wildlife crime are being brought to justice and proportional custodial and fiscal sentences are being given but there is still a pervasive culture of non-prosecution that must be tackled and, in this respect, the difficult obstacles of traditional cultural practice and economic aspiration must both be overcome.  In a country that offers an enormous amount to wildlife in terms of habitat there is still much to be done before wildlife in Spain is afforded the respect it deserves and the natural environment can truly be considered a haven for the vast array of species that have made it their home.

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