Police in Catalonia have broken up a gang of poachers believed to have captured 10,000 protected finches in two years, amassing an estimated €150,000 by illegally selling the animals as caged songbirds.
Officers found 260 birds in a raid in the town of Sabadell, near Barcelona, on the home of an individual with a previous conviction for wildlife crime.
The 117 goldfinches, 68 chaffinches, 46 greenfinches, 15 common linnets and 14 bramblings -- all birds prized for their singing ability -- were being kept in a poor condition in cages throughout the home. Police also found €20,000 in cash proceeding from the sale of birds at illegal markets in the Barcelona area.
The investigation started last year when a truck was found to be transporting more than 1,000 illegally trapped birds from Andalusia to Catalonia.
The Catalan police force soon realised that the gang was highly structured, comprising a group of trappers in the southern Spanish province of Cádiz, the transport team, and, finally, the suspects who traded the finches at clandestine markets.
“The gang changed their method of transporting the animals by using a pilot car driving ahead to warn the truck driver of any police checkpoints,” the force said.
The trapping of wild birds is illegal in Spain, but until recently exceptions were made for enthusiasts of silvestrismo, a tradition that involves the capture of finches with nets or birdlime and their use in birdsong contests.
Spain’s regional authorities granted permits for the capture of hundreds of thousands of finches each year until 2018, when the European Commission ruled that this practice was illegal.
The operation by Catalonia’s rural police force suggests that such captures continue on a large scale.
“This case shows that illegal trafficking is not always about ivory tusks and other glamorous species, but it also affects local animals,” said David de la Bodega, head of the legal programme at Spain’s SEO ornithological society.
“The populations of these birds are already in decline due to changes in agricultural practices, so we welcome such a deep police investigation in this case,” Mr de la Bodega told The Telegraph.
The gang members could face prison sentences of at least three years and receive hefty fines if found guilty of illegal capture of protected species and trafficking.