A dangerous journey over the Ionian Islands

They travel thousands of kilometers across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea nonstop, heading for Central Europe to lay their eggs and nest for the summer. As they fly over the islands of Zakynthos and Paxoi, poachers lie in wait, their hunting rifles pointed at the sky, From mid- to late April, dozens of species of migratory birds, including turtledoves, pass over the Ionian Islands, where hundreds of hunters from all over Greece are waiting for them – illegally, as the hunting season ends at the end of February. According to conservative estimates, up to 15,000 birds fall from the skies each day due to poachers’ bullets. The birds have already mated and are on their way to nest. The relentless slaughter stops the birds from making their first landfall on their long journey, increasing the likelihood they will not reach their destination due to exhaustion. For many years, the problem was mainly in the Strofades, a complex of small islands 44 nautical miles south of Zakynthos. Poachers arrived by yacht or even helicopter on these barren islands. After campaigns by environmental groups, hunting was banned on the Strofades and, with the help of hunting organizations, the islands are patrolled more frequently at this time of year. Zakynthos, Paxoi and Antipaxoi are still favorite firing ranges for poachers, however. «Hunting is a deeply entrenched habit with them and a source of income for the islanders who rent out good sites to hunters from the mainland,» said Maria Ganoti, vice president of ANIMA, the wildlife protection agency which, along with the Hellenic Ornithological Society, is appealing for a ceasefire in the Ionian Sea. For years now, forest rangers on the Ionian Islands have all gone on holiday just when the hunting season ends. Appeals by Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos to the Ministry of Agricultural Development to stop the devastation have also fallen on deaf ears. The Hunting Confederation of Greece this week drew attention to the «critical nature of the period» and called for the «mobilization of all services involved as the Game Wardens’ Federation cannot carry out the huge task of preventing poaching on its own in the name of other state authorities.» The orders don’t appear to be passing down the line. It is strongly rumored that a specific game warden is to be on holiday over the next few days «because if we leave him at his post, he will be lynched.»

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