Hunting is regulated by Tunisia’s Forest Code of 1988 and implementation provisions. According to the text, for which the former Director General of Forestry had promised a new version by the end of 2017, « hunting aims for a balance between wild animals, plants and human activities. To this end, hunters are required to practice this activity with rationality and responsibility and to conserve the balance and sustainability of ecosystems ». Hunting for tourists is possible only through a « Tunisian agency or hotel establishment authorized by the National Tourism Office and General Directorate of Forests » and in accordance with the decree updated annually by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Under the 1988 Forest Code, the High Council of Hunting and Conservation of Game was responsible for submitting its recommendations to the Ministry of Agriculture for the annual decree fixing hunting quotas and zones. This body was replaced by the Consultative Commission of Hunting and Game Conservation whose 17 members, headed by the General Director of Forests, convene once a year to discuss proposed modifications for the decree. Members include representatives from the Ministry of Tourism, the National Federation of Hunters Associations, the National Federation of Hotel Establishments, the Tunisian Federation of Travel Agencies, the National Environmental Protection Agency (ANPE) and the Friends of the Birds Association (AAO).

White swan in migration

The need for better management of hunting

Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf is executive director of the AAO, a non-governmental organization created in 1977 « for an improved management of hunting and also to combat poaching ». The Association cooperates with actors at every level, from international and Tunisian conservation organizations to hunters, law enforcement officials and state institutions. The AAO is also in contact with other interest groups, such as tourism operators, for whom hunting is not so much a question of ecology, but economy. While conservation may not be a political or economic priority, this does not put the Association at odds with these groups. Azafzaf clarifies that the point is « not to condemn hunting in and of itself, but to manage it in a sustainable way. So long as hunting is well-managed, it can even contribute to the stability of populations ».

A less digestible perspective for the AAO in its collaboration with different groups is that hunting as it is practiced today does not present a risk for wildlife. « We do not agree on this view », Azafzaf asserts. Indeed, this was the sore spot that the Lebanese Hunting Group touched when they brandished the “souvenirs” of their hunting trip. « It was practically an invitation. Like they were saying, ‘If you want to hunt like us, come to Tunisia to hunt thrush and starling’ », recounts Azafzaf.

A member of Lebanese Hunting Club brandishing his “souvenirs” in Tunisia

Limitless hunting for migratory species

In fact, hunting quotas in Tunisia only exist for sedentary species, or animals that spend the entire year in Tunisia. For birds, this means Barbary partridge and sandgrouse. According to the decree for 2017-2018, « the number of individual sedentary game (partridge and hare) that a hunter can capture in one hunting day is limited to six partridge, two hare and 10 sandgrouse ».

There are no quotas, on the other hand, for migratory species. « This includes birds that spend several months during the winter in Tunisia before returning to Europe or Asia to reproduce. During this interval, they can be hunted without limit », Azafzaf tells us. Part of the problem for certain species, such as starlings and thrush, is that they are considered pests. These birds fly over from Europe and spend the winter months in Tunisia, when they cause damage to olive trees, a source of one of the country’s main export products. But both species are on the decline in Europe, unable to find habitat for reproducing and because their food source has been contaminated by pesticides. For such animals, says Azafzaf, some hunters wonder « why, if they aren’t capable of protecting these species abroad, are we responsible for protecting them here? »

Common falcon

While it may not be the case for a number of migratory species, establishing yearly quotas for birds is feasible. « For water birds at least, we know more or less the size of populations because birds spend summer in Europe where there is a perfected monitoring system. They come to Tunisia in the winter and we do a census each January, so we can then calculate a reasonable quota. Of course, we must also know the number of active hunters who target these animals. We are in constant discussion with authorities over this point. We are always told that there aren’t many hunters, but we see a different reality in the field », says Azafzaf.

Azafzaf notes that the absence of a national red list in Tunisia presents another challenge for elaborating quotas. Until now, decision-makers refer to the international Red List of Threatened Species, which is useful but inadequate, since « a species that is threatened on a global level is not necessarily threatened the same way in Tunisia », according to Azafzaf. She says that an initiative to establish a national red list was at one point launched by the Ministry of Environment. A list was created, but never released : « Because the initiative reflects all biodiversity—mammals, reptiles, birds and plants, the consultation process failed to gather the experts concerned in order to identify Tunisia’s threatened species and the project was abandoned », regrets Azafzaf.

Information panel at the bird reserve in Lac Sud, Tunis

Quotas are good, but how to enforce them?

Even more daunting than setting quotas is enforcing them. All the more so because, as Azafzaf explains, those responsible for hunting control on the ground make up a constantly shrinking corps as people retire and are not replaced. Azafzaf notes that each governorate disposes of two regional hunting brigadiers affiliated with the forest section of the Regional Office of Agricultural Development (CRDA). These individuals are first recourse against hunting violations and poaching, and they are « cruelly lacking » in means, says Azafzaf, mentioning that some don’t have transport, let alone a pair of binoculars. So when it comes to quotas, she says, a brigadier is likely tell you, « that’s a good idea, but how to enforce them?’ Unfortunately, he is right: for now, we don’t have the means to apply this legislation ».

In the meantime, the situation is changing for species such as thresh and starlings. 30 years ago, it may have been considered normal to allow for unlimited hunting of these birds. But today, with the cumulative effects of pesticides, hunting and periods of drought, the threats facing these animals have multiplied, and not just in Tunisia, but throughout the entire course of their migration. This is what hunters and others must realize, that it’s not hunting alone which impacts biodiversity, but also climatic fluctuations and the loss of habitat by human activities.