The use of lead ammunition in hunting activities poses a severe threat to eagles and vultures across Europe. A recently published study, conducted by ERSAF – Stelvio National Park and the Province of Sondrio, “Bruno Ubertini” Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna and ISPRA, revealed the scale and scope of lead contamination in tissues of large avian scavengers in south-central Europe.
The threat of lead poisoning to birds of prey
Birds of prey and scavenging birds like vultures often feed on the meat of shot game species that are not retrieved by hunters or on the offal (internal organs) that hunters leave on the ground. Once lead ammunition hits the targeted animals, large numbers of lead fragments form, which spread into the several tissues of the prey, often far away from the impact area, facilitating lead ingestion by scavenging animals.
Furthermore, it often happens that large birds of prey search for the viscera of ungulates left on the ground by hunters. This is what has often been observed in the Alps, where Golden Eagles even follow the movements of the hunters, knowing that they can count on an easy meal as soon as they have left the hunting ground.
Such a high prevalence of lead poisoning causes serious consequences on raptor populations, many of which are very rare, characterized by a scattered distribution and are subject to conservation programmes financed by the European Union and the various Member States. In order to overcome this problem, it is necessary to introduce a definitive ban on the use of lead ammunition for hunting purposes in the terrestrial habitats as soon as possible, very much like what has already happened with hunting in wetlands in early 2021, where the EU has already decided for a widespread ban on the use of lead ammunition (now going through a final transition period) to prevent waterfowl poisoning.
Results of study expose the grim reality
Out of a sample of 252 Golden Eagles as well as Bearded, Griffon and Cinereous Vultures collected wounded and dead within a large area of south-central Europe, ranging from the Pyrenees to the Apennines, as many as 44% (111 individuals) showed chronic lead values higher than normal and 26% (66 individuals) had clinical poisoning levels.
This level of impact certainly has demographic consequences for some species, thus confirming that lead poisoning has population-level impacts on some of these scavenging species.
Video demonstrates saturnism in birds of prey
It is urgent to replace lead bullets with completely non-toxic material such as copper for game hunting to minimize lead contamination in birds of prey across the Alps and in other parts of Europe.
Since 2011, a culling program for the local population of red deer has started in the South Tyrol and Lombardy sectors of the Stelvio National Park (whose territory harbours about 60% of the Italian population of Bearded Vulture and also hosts 30 pairs of Golden Eagles). Between 2013 and 2019, about 3,300 red deer were shot in this area using only non-toxic bullets, with almost 350 hunters involved and satisfied with the culling plan.
Our goal is to use this successful experience in the coming years as an example of “best practice” for several other protected areas of the Italian Alps and neighbouring territories as part of a LIFE project entitled “AlpsLeadFree”, led by the Vulture Conservation Foundation, which is currently being evaluated by the European Union.
The definitive ban on lead from hunting ammunition is about to be discussed in the following weeks also in the Province of Sondrio, the first Italian province which has strongly highlighted the problem by banning the use of lead from ammunition for ungulates in the Stelvio red deer culling programme. Decision makers in Sondrio will soon decide if they are ready to extend the ban to the whole province.
At the European level, the EU itself has already started a process within the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) to introduce a restriction on the use of lead in hunting ammunition.
Petition to ban lead ammunition in the Alps
Sondrio was the first Italian and probably European province to partially ban lead ammunition for hunting ungulates since 2011.
However, this restriction did not prove to be effective enough as the number of intoxicated Golden Eagles has doubled! To solve the problem at its roots, Italian environmental associations with the support of international organisations ask for the TOTAL ban of lead from hunting ammunition.
Raptors and vultures have no borders. Please sign the petition for the ban of lead ammunition in the Alps. SIGN THE PETITION.
Bassi, E., Facoetti, R., Ferloni, M., Pastorino, A., Bianchi, A., & Fedrizzi, G. et al. (2021). Lead contamination in tissues of large avian scavengers in south-central Europe. Science Of The Total Environment, 778, 146130. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.146130