The period between February and April is peak period for illegal wildlife poisoning across Europe, as we have seen with recent reports from Greece and North Macedonia. During this time authorities and non-governmental wildlife organisations are being vigilant and working hard to detect poisoning incidents to help protect vultures. In Spain the Guardia Civil recently undertook the seventh phase of their successful Operation Antitox, aimed at preventing, detecting and eradicating the use of poisoned baits.
Operation Antitox is an intensive operation carried out annually on dates that historically have corresponded to peak poisoning activity with the aim of strengthening the actions of the Nature Protection Service to prevent, detect and eradicate the use of poisoned baits.
Carrying out action across Spain
This phase of Operation Antitox saw the Guardia Civil carry out 201 actions in different protected areas, hunting estates, agricultural and livestock farms and establishments selling vet drugs and other chemicals in 21 Spanish provinces. Results have been staggering: 21 people detained or investigated, 25 poisoned baits discovered, numerous toxic products confiscated, such as aldicarb and carbofuran, and 70 poisoned animals found, including birds, game species and domestic animals. In total 876 instances of illegal hunting events were registered (with crossbows, limesticks, snares, traps, etc.). It was estimated that the amount of poison uncovered in this phase was nearly four times as much as the operation uncovered in the last phase of Operation AntiTox
Among the dead animals found was a young female Bearded Vulture reintroduced to the Picos de Europa mountain range in northern Spain as part of the LIFE+ Red Quebrantahuesos (led by the FCQ, Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos) and several Griffon Vultures, Red Kites and Imperial Eagles. These species are protected under Spanish law and Operation AntiTox saw the suspects who undertook the crimes against these animals arrested and/or investigated further.
Investigating illegal wildlife poisoning
The investigation of illegal wildlife poisoning is usually very complex due to the way this crime is carried out, with hardly any witnesses and sometimes in very remote places that are difficult to locate by authorities. These operations also requires specialised police training and coordination of different agencies such as the toxicological labs to carry out forensic and toxicological analyses of the animal remains and drawing up expert opinions that will provide vital evidence for criminal prosecution. Other parts of the Guardia Civil were involved in this operation such as canine anti-poison detection units, which were used to search and detect poisoned baits in the wild.
Officials from the Guardia Civil searching presmises and some of the illegal substances discovered (c) Guardia Civil
Operation AntiTox involved months of planning, coordination and intelligence gathering that deployed sophisticated investigation techniques that are typical of techniques used in the fight against organised crime.
Illegal wildlife poisoning in Spain
The illegal use of poison in the natural environment has been a common practice in Spain to resolve conflict between farmers, livestock owners and hunters and wild species (notably carnivores) and prevent damage these animals are perceived to cause. This practice has contributed considerably at one point to the near extinction of iconic Spanish animals like the Imperial Eagle and the Iberian Lynx. As well as posing a serious risk to the wider natural environment illegal wildlife poisoning has impacts on the food chain and is a serious risk to human health – and it is the main threat affecting vultures. Between 1992 and 2013, 35 Bearded Vultures, 305 Egyptian Vultures, 609 Cinereous Vultures and 1,656 Griffon Vultures have been found poisoned in Spain. These confirmed cases are just a small percentage of the actual scale of the deaths caused poisoning.
Spain has been at the forefront of the fight to control this threat to biodiversity, and we here at the Vulture Conservation Foundation collaborates widely with Spanish authorities and agencies, notably using the Spanish best practice to promote similar activities elsewhere. Spanish trainers will come to the Balkans this spring to train local enforcement agencies staff, as part of the comprehensive Balkan Anti-Poisoning Project we are coordinating with regional partners.