Today is our last day in Sicily; tonight we ship to Naples and we will start our second case-study in the island of Ischia. Since we left the Messina Strait, we have managed to meet up with some ornithologists and local experts on the Sicilian hunting tradition. The most interesting one was arguably one chat we had with the president of the Biviere di Gela Reserve, on the Southern coast of the island.
This reserve is an important wetland and one of the first freshwater site where migratory birds can rest after their long and exhausting journey through the Mediterranean Sea. Traditionally, local people would wait for the huge flocks of uncountable ducks, such as garganeys (Anas querquedula), pintails (Anas acuta), ferruginous ducks (Aythya nyroca) or common shelducks (Tadorna tadorna), and shoot them directly from the seashore. Apparently, the amount of birds killed was so high that a black line would appear in the middle of the sea and curious observers or children would then even swim to try to catch as many dead floating birds as possible in the middle of the sea.
When the first pro-environmentalist demonstrations started, in the mid ‘80s, and when the protected area was established, this type of hunt progressively diminished and almost disappeared, in the reserve but more generally in the entire region. Interestingly, this was also due to the fact that in these years several anti-mafia laws were passed by the central government in order to tackle the powerful organised crime groups, often deeply rooted in Italian institutions. More precisely, one of the new norms stated that it one was no longer authorised to carry a firearm outside the hunting season, and as the hunting period was limited to a few months in autumn, this became a strong deterrent against spring hunts. Moreover, as in the rest of the country, public opinion progressively started losing attraction with regards to hunting in general, and the tradition vanished little by little.
However, as consistent economic interests exist around the hunting world in this area (especially with regards to the weapon and cartridge market), there has been – and there still is – an attempt to continue valorising and reinvigorating hunting practices, by the creation of new narratives and new habits. For instance, a new type of hunt started arising, bringing with it a whole organised market with robust economic interests. This is a new form of hunting tourism, with hunters coming from other parts of Italy and where species such as the skylark (Alauda arvensis) or the common quail (Coturnix coturnix) are literally slaughtered during organised ‘poaching events’. These massacres are often eased by the use of electronic bird calls, and the phenomenon is now wide-spread throughout Sicily, and also in other regions. This is an interesting example of how traditions are flexible and how as one tradition dies, others can start from scratch and disguise themselves behind presumed old traditional habits. This makes us think about what a tradition actually is, and how they are swayed by other stronger and not always clean economic interests…