WIATROWIEC, Poland: Denouncing what they call the slaughter of wild boar, Polish animal rights activists are keeping a close watch on hunters and trying to stymie a cull ordered by the government.
Polish authorities introduced the hunting plan to stem an outbreak of African swine fever (ASF), which is deadly to wild boar and pigs and was first spotted in the EU member in 2014 when infected boar entered from Belarus.
“Stop hunting, come down, you look like a good man,” 44-year-old animal rights activist Anna Ruszkiewicz said to a hunter sitting in a hunting tower in the middle of a forest southwest of Warsaw.
“Come over to the other side of the barricade, join people like us who are protecting animals instead of killing them,” the activist clad in a yellow vest added gently.
Ruszkiewicz, who works as a public servant in Warsaw, undertook the hour-long drive from the capital along with around 40 others to block the hunt in the forest next to the village of Wiatrowiec.
“We’ve been walking around. Picking mushrooms. We have the right, no? The forest belongs to everyone,” she said.
For the dozen or so hunters, it is yet another failed hunt: one by one, they climb down from the towers and leave the forest to put away their rifles and drive away with their dogs.
The animal rights activists follow in hot pursuit. For the rest of the day, the hunters will have them on their heels as they visit various spots around the area.
“The goal is to stop them from just going over to another forest to hunt,” said Anna MicHajjlow, who is the coordinator of the animal rights operation.
On this day the activists come out on top, as not a single wild boar was shot in the area. The previous day only one was killed.
“The activists are keeping us from hunting. They blocked us yesterday, last weekend too. And again today they came in a few cars. We aren’t able to shoot,” said Ryszard Lewandowski, secretary for the Cyranka hunting association based in the central village of Jeziorka.
“It’s a vicious cycle. The (environment) minister is asking us to hunt wild boar to stop the ASF virus from spreading — and we can’t,” he said.
“So the virus is heading ever closer to the west and reaching pig farms. If things continue as is, the virus will end up in Germany.”
According to data from the PZL hunting union, nearly 200,000 wild boar have been killed since early April, or 90 percent of the planned total.
But that is not enough for the government, which ordered them to step up their hunting efforts in January.
For each boar they kill under the scheme, hunters receive more than 600 zloty (€140, $160). Of that amount, 20 percent must go to the hunting association.
The agricultural lobby is strong, as Poland is one of the leading producers of pork in the European Union. In June 2018, farmers had a total of 11.8 million swine.
Since the virus was detected in Poland in 2014, 43,000 from affected areas have had to be shot dead, according to the country’s chief veterinarian.
Police officers called to the scene take down the names of the activists. Though peaceful, the atmosphere is tense, with each group making accusations against the other.
The activists claim the hunters are “exterminating” a species. The hunters claim the activists are funded by anti-Polish lobbyists.
“Who’s funding you? Is it in their interest for ASP to spread, and for farmers to have to pay the price?” asks one angry hunter.
Boar which are killed are transported to a walk-in freezer where they are gutted and samples are drawn for analysis. Results arrive back a week later.
The virus is not dangerous to humans but is a threat to the pork industry.
“The situation is worrisome,” said Grzegorz Wozniakowski, head of the national laboratory in the eastern city of Pulawy.
“The samples collected from 24 boar shot in Grawolin, around 40 kilometers from Warsaw, all came back positive. One hundred percent of those boar were infected, compared to 10 percent in general.”
The hunters say they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“If we don’t reach the quota of 48 boar set by the (environment) minister, we risk consequences,” 42-year-old hunter Marcin Jakubczak said.
That quota is in addition to the annual 154 boar set out for their area of nearly 13,000 hectares in the regular hunting plan.
“Obviously we don’t fire on sows and their little ones. It’s against hunting ethics,” Jakubczak said.
The environment minister had requested to also shoot sows over the course of the year, without honoring the period of protection linked to procreation.
The tension led to the resignation of PZL head Piotr Jenoch, who made clear that he was opposed to the demands made on hunters.