A bird-smuggling racket between Malta and parts of Italy has been dismantled by the Italian police and the EU’s law enforcement arm.
Europol said thousands of rare and protected birds were being sold to poachers and restaurants across Italy as part of a smuggling network that also had ties to Malta.
The organised group behind the crime, from Reggio Calabria in southern Italy, was uncovered by the Carabinieri’s anti-poaching unit in cooperation with the Calabrian Police and Europol.
Nine people – all Italian – have been arrested on suspicion of belonging to a criminal network aimed at illegally trading protected wildlife – mostly songbirds. They are believed to have smuggled thousands of song birds into Malta, with a value estimated at more than €400,000.
“In recent years the criminal group built up a network of illegal buyers and sellers of protected birds in Italy and Malta,” Europol said.
Maltese police sources meanwhile said the racket had long been going on in Malta and seizures of shipments were made by the local authorities from time to time.
“This is something we are aware of. Birds are brought to the island illegally from Sicily and sold as lures or for aficionados,” the sources said.
In 2016, five Maltese men were detained in Sicily after they were caught trying to smuggle scores of finches in atrocious conditions.
When they were intercepted by police between Modica and Ragusa, the hunters were believed to have captured more than 500 birds.
Media reports detailed how the birds had been crammed into restricted spaces to prevent them from chirping in a bid to circumvent Customs controls before boarding the catamaran to Malta.
According to Europol, the latest group arrested also used similar methods.
The law enforcement agency said that poachers would first identify areas with a high bird population and put out food to attract as many as possible.
Electronic lures were also common place.
Europol estimated that a single poacher could capture 200 to 300 birds a day, but as just a few species were profitable on the illegal market, the majority of them were left for dead.
During police operations across Sicily in 2016 around 3,800 dead specimens of various protected species were recovered and last year almost 3,000 birds – due to be smuggled – were seized by border officials and police.
Europol says more than 80,000 such birds have been sold in recent years causing significant environmental damage to the region.