The grim footage shows hundreds of birds struggling against a web of nets as poachers prepare to slaughter them. Environmental activists in Shadegan, a region in southwestern Iran, made this video to document the cruel practice of illegally hunting migratory birds. In this part of Iran, criminal networks carry out poaching on a near-industrial scale in total impunity, going so far as to build artificial lakes to capture their prey.
In the video, the birds seemed trapped and clearly suffering – there is blood on the water. When it was posted on social media on February 24, there was an immediate public outcry.
This was the first video that circulated on social media. The footage was taken by local activists.
Numerous species of migratory birds from Eurasia and Europe winter near the lakes and wetlands between Iran and Iraq. But thousands never return to their summer homes instead, they are poached and then sold in markets in the cites of Ahvaz, Susangerd or Shadegan, in southwestern Iran's Khuzestan province.
After the video was published, the authorities were forced to act: on February 25, the government body tasked with protecting the environment in Khuzestan said that they had posted reinforcements in the wetlands around Shadegan and that the amount of poaching taking place in the region had actually dropped in the past few years. The authorities also claimed that the video had actually been filmed in Iraq, though they provided no proof for this statement.
In response to the statement from the authorities, local activists posted additional information to prove that the videos had indeed been taken in Iran, including footage of a sign stating “protected zone” in Persian and photos of birds being sold at local markets. One photo shows a hand holding tomans, the Iranian currency.
People pay for birds using Iranian tomans in this photo taken at a market in Khuzestan.
In this video filmed by activists, you can see a sign written in Persian as well as the poachers’ hideout (from which they pull the net.)
According to our Observer, an environmental activist in the region, the birds gather in an immense area of more than 58,000 hectares. Nikfalak says that more manpower is needed to control the poachers.
"It’s literally poaching on an industrial scale”
This isn’t about an individual doing a bit of poaching. Here in Khuzestan, it’s literally poaching on an industrial scale. They actually construct artificial lakes and wetlands. To do this, they dig channels to deviate water from diverse sources, like a nearby river, a canal used by farmers to water crops, wetlands or even irrigation ditches created to remove waste from a local sugar factory. This turns fields and plains into swamps or shallow lakes, which can measure anywhere from 30 to 200 hectares.
They run a well-oiled operation. The poachers spread out massive amounts of food, mostly seeds, on the land that they are going to flood and then the birds come pick at it as the water level is never very high.
"When the poachers decide that there are enough birds on the site, they pull their nets"
Teams of guards, often armed with hunting rifles, keep an eye on the chosen site so no one can get close. The birds flock to these calm wetlands full of food and, each day, their number grows. When the poachers decide that there are enough birds on the site, they pull their nets, which they placed on the site before flooding it, and that’s it, they’ve caught them.
These poachers have money these large-scale traps are expensive. I’d guess that even a small one might cost around 20 million tomans (about 3,700 euros).
This type of poaching has been practiced for at least 30 years. They go after many different species, including flamingos, greylag geese, fuddy shelducks, Eurasian coots, ferruginous ducks and crested ducks. Some of these birds, like the marbled duck or the lesser white-fronted goose, are actually endangered. Each year, we see fewer birds in our area.
Despite bans on the sale of these birds, the poachers have no trouble finding buyers. There are intermediaries who buy the birds and then resell them to merchants who, in turn, put them up for sale in local markets.
Most people buy them to eat, but some are sold to collectors.
Birds are sold in this local market.
>>READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Iran’s wetlands: a ‘real massacre’ for migratory birds
Earlier this year, Iran actually banned all hunting of birds within its territory, mostly over fears that some species carry avian flu. But this hasn’t stopped poachers from flaunting the ban.
"Between 1.2 and 2 million birds are sold in the region each year”
Last year, I worked with other activists to survey local markets. We found that between 1.2 and 2 million birds are sold in these markets each year [Editor’s note: The count includes both migratory birds and species that spend all year in the region.]
These game birds don’t come cheap: two ducks usually go for something between 20,000 and 70,000 tomans (3.70 to 12.9 euros). A goose might cost up to 9, 000 (16.60 euros). In comparison, a chicken costs about 1.40 per kilo. Most people who eat these game birds are wealthy.
Poachers capture and decapitate the birds caught in their net. (Footage filmed by local activists.)
"Many people here live off poaching”
The local environmental authorities say that they don’t have the money or human resources they need and depend on the support of local residents. But that may prove tricky as many people here live off the poaching system. If the police break up the network, many of these people will lose their source of income and find themselves with even fewer resources than before even though this region is already struggling. The sellers, for example, are often women who don’t have another source of income and who have a family to feed. In summary, the authorities don’t want to disrupt the status quo to save the birds.
In 2016, Iran increased poaching fines: if you are caught hunting migratory birds, you can be fined up to 1.2 million tomans (220 euros) and spend three months to three years in prison.
Border guards took this photo after they found traps (a rare occurrence.) The lake shown here is natural.