Monday, November 13, 2006

Italy claims Swiss are killing protected wolves

By Peter Popham

ROME - Italy is this week to call on its European neighbours to put a halt to the "extermination" of wolves, which it claims is putting at risk decades of effort in bringing the beautiful but ferocious mammal back to the wild. Despite theoretical protection under EU law, wild wolves continue to be targeted in Europe; the most recent kill was in Goms, Switzerland, at the end of last month.

According to Italian conservationists, "decades of conservation work" are now at risk from the hunters, who despite the legislation do not hesitate to shoot wolves dead on sight. Tomorrow, at a meeting of the Convention of the Alps in Austria, Italy is preparing to take up the cudgels on behalf of the predator.

After disappearing from most of Europe early in the 20th century, wolves have gradually returned in small numbers and are found now in most parts of the Italian peninsula and in France, Switzerland and Germany. The species is protected by the Bern Convention of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, of which all EU members are signatories.

But this has not deterred hunters and farmers in France and Germany from attempting to wipe out the hated sheep-lifter all over again.

It is a repeat of the fate that befell Bruno the bear, whose unhappy story made news day after day in the summer. The brown bear happily and safely resident in Italy made the mistake of straying across the border into Baviara, where it was shot by a hunter, despite its status as a species theoretically protected across the EU.

"In Italy the wolves must be protected," commented Italy's environment minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, who also heads the Green Party. "In France and Switzerland on the other hand they are massacred. The situation is unsustainable. I have already raised the issue at the Council of European Ministers and with Stavros Dimas, the EU's Environmental Commissioner, who has taken on the task of drafting a directive for the protection of the species across borders.

"We have got to get out of this surreal situation as quickly as possible," the minister went on. "The EU finances the protection of the wolf and the EU member states kill them. This is no good. We don't accept a repetition of the Bruno saga, the bear which Italy succeeded in protecting but which, as soon as it set foot in Bavaria, was shot."

The appeal to the minister to do his bit to save wolves straying across Europe's borders was launched by Legambiente, Italy's largest environmental organisation. "One can't protect them by day and kill them by night," said Damiano di Simine, head of the organisation's Alpine observatory.

"In Bavaria no bear had been seen in more than a century and the first to arrive was riddled with shot. With chronometrical precision Switzerland does away with all wolves, and is charged with the killing of at least 25 wolf cubs, which amounts to a generalised licence to kill. France is proposing to eliminate six wolves."

Italy's own record is not spotless. "We ourselves have a problem with poaching," Alberto Meriggi told La Repubblica newspaper, a researcher at the University of Pavia and an expert on the distribution of wolves in the northern Appenines.

"But our decision to apply the law protecting wolves without exception has allowed the Appenine wolf to return vigorously throughout the peninsula. The first traces were in 1986 in the province of Genoa, then three years later in the maritime Alps, in the province of Cuneo. Today once again the Italian wolf is in resurgence. We must be careful not to allow the destruction of decades of work."