Hunters as ecologists?

Adecision by the Environment and Public Works Ministry to fund two environmental protection programs to be carried out by the Sixth Hunting Federation of Macedonia and Thrace has led to strong protests, chiefly from environmental organizations. One of the programs is aimed at protecting a species of pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) in the Nestos river delta forest and reintroducing it into other parts of northern Greece. The other program concerns protecting fauna in the Rhodope region of northern Greece. Funds of 25,000 euros and 30,000 respectively have been made available from the ministry’s Special Fund for Town Planning and Zoning. This is the first time the ministry has officially recognized hunting clubs as agents of environmental protection and as non-governmental organizations. In a statement, the Panhellenic Network of Environmental Organizations (PADIOO), an umbrella group for 55 such groups in Greece, charged that if the money was eventually given to what it referred to as the «plunderers of nature,» both the ministry’s political leadership and the government would bear a great responsibility. Another 16 environmental groups have also sent a letter of protest to the ministry. The hunting federation’s spokesman, Kyriakos Skordas, said the funds would prove to be very useful, as the species of pheasant in question, not a game species, is threatened with extinction in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. «In Greece, there are only about 400-500 of these birds in the Nestos region. The first program is aimed at helping the birds breed and spread to other areas. The other program is aimed at fighting poaching, so what is the problem?» asked Skordas, who added that half of the money is coming from the hunters themselves. Critics of the ministry’s decision do not question the programs’ goals, but PADIOO claims the programs are being used to give the hunting clubs legitimacy as environmental groups. It is true that hunters’ associations have been going to great lengths to present themselves as protectors of the environment. The Macedonia-Thrace hunting federation’s annual journal «Pan-Thiras 2002» claimed that «hunters have justifiably earned the title of the prime social group involved in a coordinated way in protecting the environment, from a time when the words ecology and environmental protection weren’t even in the dictionary.» One wonders just how much a person who shoots birds for a hobby can really care about nature. Meanwhile, hunting associations’ interest in protecting nature is restricted to creating conditions in which game populations can survive so that there are sufficient numbers for the associations’ hundreds of thousands of members to fire on each season. It is no coincidence that these organizations take exception to specific measures to protect nature. For example, the Hellenic Ornithological Association’s president, Costas Papaconstantinou, told Kathimerini that last winter the hunting season ended on January 31, in accordance with a European Union directive, in order to protect migrating ducks. This season, however, hunting clubs managed to get the season extended until mid-February. Hunters are also questioning the Natura 2000 program, since the regions it covers «include the best hunting grounds in Greece.» «We recognize that there are people in hunting associations who are truly interested in protecting the environment,» said Papaconstantinou. «But the hunting federation’s policy is irresponsible. They want to fanaticize the hunters and launch them on a struggle against environmental programs such as Natura. We are not asking that hunting be banned, but that it should be carried out responsibly. There is a big problem with poaching, which is keeping some populations at very low levels,» he added. Skordas claims that hunting associations are taking action against poaching by setting up a game wardens’ association which they themselves fund – a little like setting the wolves to guard the sheep. «We are trying to overcome any nepotism. For example, the game wardens have fined a former president of our association,» said Skordas. He said that throughout Europe, hunting associations are recognized as non-governmental organizations and as institutions by the European Union. However, it appears to be up to the hunters themselves to prove just how environmentally aware they are and whether they are interested in doing more than ensuring they have enough game.