A team working for the Berlin-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) have just uploaded a series of images from Lebanon. They show the massacre of migrating birds. Slaughter on a scale that few of us get to see firsthand. In a tweet describing the gunning down of Cranes in the coastal headland city of Tyre, CABS says that:
The reaction on social media is (as it has been since we all first learned about the massacre of migrating birds over Italy, Cyprus, Malta, Egypt, the Bosphorus, and now Lebanon) a mix of bewilderment, rage, frustration, shock…How can this be happening? How can men (it’s almost always young men) line up to blow these beautiful, evocative birds out of the sky like this? How can they show such indifference to the suffering and death? Why aren’t the authorities doing anything to stop it?
Before discussing that though, just imagine being there and witnessing this firsthand. If we feel frustrated sat on our sofas back in the UK or Germany or wherever it is, feel that knot of anger and helplessness rising, what must it be like to stand between men with weapons, in a country you clearly don’t come from, with nothing but a camera and a forced smile to protect yourself with? Kudos to the remarkable men and women who volunteer to put themselves in these impossibly difficult positions.
Let’s turn to the shootings and the photographs that CABS have uploaded. They’re all deeply depressing, but one of the images that seems to have particularly struck home is of two children, their faces blanked, posing with guns beside the corpse of a Crane. What kind of upbringing, CABS asks, must these children have had?
Okay, this is not excusing their behaviour in any way, but what kind of upbringing have they had? In fact, what kind of upbringing has a whole generation growing up in Lebanon had?
Lebanon is awash with guns. War is the norm for the last two generations at least. The country was torn apart by civil war from 1975 – 1990. Immediately afterwards it was followed by an Israeli occupation, then Syrian tutelage. Political assassinations, including the death of Rafiq Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005, brought new waves of instability. Another war with Israel started in 2006. The uprising in Syria in 2011 led to huge numbers of refugees entering Lebanon to escape: according to the UNCHR, “Lebanon is currently home to 892,000 registered Syrian refugees, and has the highest per capita population of refugees in the world “. Many of those refugees are in debt with little prospect of financial stability and may never return home.
The Lebanese economy is in tatters. The Lebanese lira, officially pegged to the dollar at a rate of about 1,500, has lost 80 percent of its value over the past year. Prices of many basic goods have skyrocketed, and more than half of the population is now estimated to be living in poverty.
And now the Lebanese are also dealing with Covid-19: the country recorded a record 1,006 COVID-19 cases on 20 September. More than half of the country’s 48,377 cases and 433 deaths occurred in the past month alone, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The country’s health system is already under a huge strain following decades of underfunding. When a vast explosion rocked the port of the city of Beirut in August this year, it killed at least 204 people, caused 6,500 injuries and US$15 billion in property damage, and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless. It also damaged seventeen of Beirut’s hospitals, leaving many of them to launch fundraising campaigns.
What kind of upbringing have these kids have? We have no idea how the specific individuals in the image were raised of course, but it’s fair to hazard a guess that for them and their friends life won’t have been especially easy…
Like we say, that’s no excuse for the senseless massacre of wildlife, but – as frustrating as it is to admit it – it’s not hard to see how people grow up without empathy in situations like these. Surrounded by guns, warfare, inhumanity, and despair. Besides while cranes, pelicans, bee-eaters, golden orioles, turtle doves and the rest are wondrous and hugely important to us, exotic, evocative species that we travel abroad to see, they’re everyday birds that appear in huge numbers over Lebanon every year. Much like, for example, the skeins of geese that reach our own coast every aurum…
We titled this post ‘Bird Slaughter | Lebanon/UK – any difference?’ very deliberately. What’s happening in Lebanon is appalling. It makes us ask questions about humanity. On top of global pandemic, the rise of populist politicians and their overt racism, the enormous disparity between the richest and the poorest, the war on wildlife we write about week in week out, this kind of utterly abhorrent gunning down of birds is almost overwhelming. Again, we have the most enormous respect for those people who go into the field to record events like these, who work on the ground, who face down armed men. They are heroic.
But, let’s think about this slaughter in a different way. Is it unique to Lebanon? Of course not. Millions and millions of migratory birds die every year in Europe (Birdlife International coined the term ‘The Killing Crisis‘ to describe the estimated 25 million birds illegally killed or taken each year across the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Caucasus). Hunters kill enormous numbers of ducks in North America and Australia. Millions of birds are netted in China – in 2013, for example, Chinese authorities seized two million songbirds in a single raid including Yellow-breasted Buntings a once-common species (even thirty years ago) but now Critically Endangered.
But let’s not forget about Great Britain. The nation of ‘animal lovers’. Scenes like those recorded in Lebanon could never happen here. Our ‘hunters’ wouldn’t break the law. Our government would ‘do something’. And dead birds would never be draped over vehicle bonnets by gloating shooters and posted online here. Unless you mean photos like these, for example, posted by the Countryside Alliance’s Tim Bonner. And children would never be taken out to shoot wildlife here in good old blighty. Right? Read on…
So how are we doing here in the UK?
Here in the UK our own government has licenced the slaughter of over 150,000 badgers – a protected species. Last week a culler was photographed in the field with two young people (we’re not reproducing the image here). Dead badgers are piled up in plastic bags before incineration. Few are ever tested to see if they carry BovineTb. Badgers are being pushed to the brink of local extinction, and the UK has been requested by the Bureau of the Bern Convention to “provide further information and views on the number of badgers killed, the areas of England under culling licences, and monitoring measures in place“.
Here in the UK hunting wild mammals with hounds was banned by the passing of the Hunting Act 2004. Yet thousands of fox hunts, under the guise of so-called ‘trail hunting‘, take place every year. Foxes are killed every week. The government even exempts them from local Covid-19 ‘Rule of Six’ restrictions. Hunting has its own system to recruit young people too of course – the pony club. Many hunts have affiliated pony clubs where youngsters get to ride with members of the hunt. Some don’t even bother to hide their intentions: the Vine Hunt saying on their ‘Hunting tips for beginners’ web page, for example, that “Our local hunt is The Vine and Craven they have a Junior Hunt Club which was set up in 2013 to encourage young people to give hunting a go“. The Vine even provides experienced “mother hens” for the kiddies, who are happy to accompany capable riders on a days hunting.
Here in the UK our so-called wildfowlers greet migrating wildfowl with volleys of shots. Tens of thousands of wintering ducks and geese are shot for ‘sport’ every year. Is there really that much of a difference between yobs in Lebanon slaughtering migrating Cranes and ‘sportsmen’ slaughtering migrating ducks and geese here? As the shooting lobbyists BASC put it on their site: “The main quarry are wild geese and ducks which mostly migrant from the Arctic Circle, Scandinavia and the Low Countries in the autumn before returning to their breeding grounds in the spring“. Or not returning, of course…
Here in the UK our ‘hunters’ don’t even have to follow their intended prey to headlands or bottlenecks. Here they are driven in style across purposely-designed ‘killing fields’ where they hide in holes and slaughter Red Grouse as groups of men flush the birds out in front of them. 750,000 grouse a year are killed like this. Countless numbers of native predators are snared and trapped. The whole rotten system is underpinned by wildlife crime. The grouse shooting industry doesn’t appear to care about laws protecting birds of prey here any more than do the yobs in Lebanon. Just as in Lebanon, grouse shooters don’t shoot one or two birds. Most ‘hunters’ might expect to kill fifty or more (and expect to pay heavily to do it). Unlike in Lebanon, grouse shooters here often have a ‘loader’ with them in their hole so they don’t even have to pause to refill.
And of course here in the UK, our shooting industry releases, according to their own figures, a staggering 60 million non-native farmed pheasants and red-legged partridges. Between them they weigh more than all the other birds in Britain put together! They are released solely to be shot. It’s an industry. Deliberate, cynical, slaughter for profit. It is, as Wild Justice puts it, an ‘ecological assault‘. It may even be illegal, and a case is waiting to see if our ‘Department for the Environment and shooting’ (Defra) might be breaking the law by not considering the impact of such enormous releases on protected sites and species. But at least our children don’t have upbringings blighted by guns and taught to have no empathy with wildlife. Yeah, right…Shooting needs a regular supply of ‘young guns’ which it recruits every year – and of course our own ‘conservationist’ Prince was chastised for taking his seven-year old son on a grouse shoot.
These won’t be popular comparisons of course. ‘Sport’ is not the same as casual slaughter, the shooting industry will say, only there’s really not that much difference to the individual bird, fox or badger, not much difference when you compare the lack of empathy, the waste, the destruction. The truth is that we actually slaughter wildlife on a huge scale here, killing millions and millions of birds and mammals every ‘season’. We’ve normalised this slaughter and we’re expanding the industry every year. Yes, in the Lebanon birds with poor conservation status are shot down (ironically Common Cranes have decreased but are still listed as Least Concern by the IUCN), but let’s not forget shooting’s toll on Hen Harriers here (Red Listed in the UK). On the Grey Partridge (Red Listed in the UK). On woodcock (Red Listed in the UK) and snipe (Amber listed in the UK).
Here in the UK we don’t have the ‘excuse’ of poverty, political instability, or civil war. We can’t claim ignorance of collapsing wildlife populations, biodiversity loss, or say that we’ve never heard of animal sentience. We know (even if many pretend not to) that their ‘sport’ – be it shooting or fox hunting – is riddled with crime.
Yes, we should be angered by the images CABS uploaded. We should admire the teams who do what they can to report on these abhorrences (just as we admire the sabs and monitors who are out in the field every day). But we should never forget that the same thing is happening here. It is, and what’s more here it’s sanctioned, established, lauded in the media, and protected by politicians. It’s so everyday that many people don’t even notice it happening. And even more disgustingly, it’s organised. This isn’t some sort of random killing of wildlife that pops up and disappears again frustrating the authorities. This is organised by hunts. Organised by landowners like the National Trust and Forestry England. Organised by estates. Organised by agents and lobbyists.
Organised, indeed, by our own bloody government…
Please consider donating to CABS – details can be found at komitee.de/en/donate/
- All images copyright CABS.