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Samples - Planting seeds of awareness


Significant amounts of waterbirds die annually due to the ingestion of lead pellets used by waterbird hunters. Countries worldwide are looking for ways to avoid this - and an international waterbird agreement is advocating a phase-out of lead shot for hunting in wetlands. Now the message has to be spread.

Nienke Beintema

The picture looks far from nice. It shows an opened bird stomach on a dish, with the contents spilling out. Among the half-digested plant materials lie a handful of small round pellets. They are shot pellets, used by waterbird hunters, and swallowed by the duck in question.

“This is unfortunately a common sight in waterbirds around the world”, says dr. David Rodrigues, natural resources manager and lecturer at the Escola Superior Argrária in Coimbra, Portugal. Rodrigues, a conservationist at heart and also an avid hunter, has organised a workshop at his institution to address the problem of waterbirds being poisoned by ingesting lead pellets. His aim is to convince Portuguese hunters to start using alternative, non-toxic shot types, and to stimulate his authorities to ban the use of lead shot in wetlands.

“We sampled large amounts of ducks in wetlands in Central Portugaland came to some rather shocking conclusions”, continues Rodrigues. “In certain periods almost 60% of the birds we examined had elevated levels of lead in their blood, and more than 10% actually carried pellets in their stomach. One bird had even ingested 99 pellets.”

Death toll in the millions

Cartridges for hunting waterfowl each contain around 30 grams of lead. A hunter fires several cartridges for every bagged bird. Only a few pellets actually hit the bird; the rest fall to the ground or into the water. This is how thousands of tonnes of lead end up in wetlands around the world – each year. In Franceand Spain, the annual deposition is estimated to exceed 5000 tonnes per year. For many countries, including Portugal, the exact amount is unknown. However, as a rule of thumb, the annual lead deposition per hunter is somewhere between four and five kilograms.

Waterbirds have no teeth. In order to effectively digest their food, they ingest grit or even pebbles, which remain in the muscular stomach and help to grind the food. “Due to this habit, waterbirds tend to purposely pick up lead pellets from the wetland bottom”, explains Rodrigues. “They mistake them for grit. The acidic stomach fluids, combined with the grinding of the stomach, cause the pellets to dissolve. This is how lead enters the blood stream.” He shows a video which offers a disturbing sight: a duck that is staggering across a field, swaying heavily back and forth, and collapsing every few steps. After a minute or so, the bird sits down exhausted and lays down its head in the grass.

Lead is a highly poisonous metal. It causes anaemia and affects the nervous and circulatory systems, liver and kidneys. Birds that ingest ten or more lead pellets will die of acute lead poisoning within a few days. Even a smaller number will cause chronic lead poisoning, shown by weak limbs, green diarrhea, weight loss and atypical behaviour. Rodrigues: “This influences their ability to forage, to escape from predators, to reproduce and to migrate. These victims usually die within a few weeks.” If a bird swallows only one pellet, it usually survives, although its immune system and fertility are likely to be affected. Also, even low concentrations of lead cause irreversible brain damage. All in all, millions of waterbirds are estimated to die annually because of lead poisoning.

Affected birds are an easy prey for predators, such as raptors or foxes. These, and also scavengers, run a high risk of accumulating dangerous lead levels in their bodies. Around 15% of mortality in adult eagles – bald eagles in North America, white-tailed and imperial eagles in Europe– is contributed to what is called secondary poisoning.

High-quality alternatives

The second speaker at the workshop is Niels Kanstrup, director of the Danish Hunters’ Association, and president of the Miratory Bird Commission of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation. An animated speaker, Kanstrup is providing the thirty or so participants with the more optimistic side of the story. “The good news is that there is an easy solution. You don’t have to shoot with lead at all. Today there are really good alternative types of shot. The challenge is to convince hunters to start to use these.”

One way of approaching this challenge is to impose a ban on the use of lead shot. Seven countries – the USA, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands and Switzerland– have already done so. Many other countries have some legislation in place, concerning either certain species, certain areas or certain seasons. However, in the vast majority of countries, lead is still being used on a large scale.

International legislation is provided by the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), which aims to protect around 235 wetland species, including ducks, geese and swans, but also cranes, gulls, terns and even the South African Penguin. The AEWA range stretches from Greenlandto South Africa, and currently 49 countries have signed the agreement. These countries thereby obliged themselves to adhere to AEWA’s principles and resolutions. One of these resolutions is to ban the use of lead shot in wetlands. Portugalsigned the agreement in 2004, but, like many other countries, still has no lead shot legislation in place.

 “The problem is that laws alone just don’t work”, cautions Kanstrup. “Banning lead shot is one thing, but if you don’t get hunters to fundamentally agree, they will not respect the legislation, they will not be partners, and some may continue using lead anyway. You need to invest in education and awareness raising. It comes down to showing hunters the problem and its solutions, and meeting them where they are. Otherwise the prejudices against alternative types of shot will prevail.”

One of these prejudices is that hunters would have to buy new guns in order to use alternatives. Steel shot, the most common alternative, is a lot harder than lead shot and is feared to damage guns. Kanstrup: “This is hardly the case. Only very old guns might pose some problems. But I have never seen anyone getting hurt by a gun exploding in his face.” Learning how to shoot with steel shot does require some time and effort, he readily admits. “But regardless of the shot type, around 80% of the effectiveness of a shot is determined by the hunter himself, not by the materials he uses. Training is the key. Learning by doing is the only way forward. Hunters will discover themselves that steel performs just as well as lead.”

Fundamental principles

Another problem that remains is the availability of steel shot. It cannot be bought everywhere. Also, its price is generally slightly higher than that of lead shot. This might prove a decisive factor. “The legal framework provided by AEWA might be a first step in the right direction”, opines Kanstrup. “Increasing demand will lower the price and improve the availability of alternatives. This is what happened very succesfully in Denmark. But again, awareness raising is the key. Not just among hunters and policy makers, but also among ammunition manufacturers.”

Here too, AEWA has an important role to play. Its international network proves a powerful tool to share knowledge and expertise. AEWA supports research and monitoring, publishes information materials, and organizes workshops for hunters and policy makers. Also David Rodrigues’ workshop was supported by AEWA.

“We have a long way to go”, says Kanstrup after the meeting’s closure, “but workshops like this one are a very important first step. A seed has been planted today.” Rodrigues fully agrees: “The key people were present, including the president of the National Confederation of Portuguese Hunters and the Director of the Portuguese Hunting Services. We seem to have convinced these people that action is needed, and they resolved to work on concrete actions for phasing out the use of lead shot. And as for us, it remains our responsibility to keep pressure on it.” In the end, this will not only benefit waterbirds and their habitat, but also hunters themselves. After all, by protecting this natural resource they will safeguard their own passion for the future. Kanstrup: “This is our common goal. Wise use and sustainability are fundamental principles of hunting.”


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