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Legal Obstacles Deter Hunters

Without licences to export their trophies to the EU, foreign hunters shun once busy hunting grounds.
By Darko Sper

Pietro D’Emilei's 45-acre hunting ground, near the village of Doroslovo, has long catered for foreign visitors, mainly Italians, wanting to take advantage of Vojvodina’s famously rich hunting grounds.


The site boasts 16 renovated traditional cottages with old furniture that is typical to Vojvodina.


But the stream of visitors has dried up and the property has been almost deserted for months.


With the guns silent, this season has seen an unexpected reprieve for the woodcock, quail, duck, geese, partridges and pheasants that the Italian count has raised.


Although D’Emilei has made a considerable financial investment in the hunting industry in Vojvodina over the last decade, legal obstacles preventing the export of the quarry to the European Union has deterred customers. As a result, the count recently announced the closure of the entire site.


The story is far from unusual. Although hunting and shooting was once a money-spinner in Vojvodina, the industry remains in the doldrums owing to the problems over the issue of veterinary certificates for game that are acceptable in EU countries.


Branislav Stankov, a director of the hunting agency Lovoturs, says Serbia’s failure to harmonise veterinary standards with EU regulations has cost the country dear. “The state needs to adopt a new veterinary law in compliance with the EU regulations,” he said.


While the license problem deters legitimate foreign hunters from enjoying their sport and thereby enriching the countryside, it does not put off the droves of illegal hunters who are fast depleting Serbia of its surviving stocks of game.


Last year, Croatian customs officials stopped a lorry from Serbia that contained the bodies of several thousand frozen and packed quails and turtle doves, apparently destined for Italian restaurant tables.


The illegal and unlicensed hunters behind such operations are not interested in whether they are hunting their quarry to extinction, nor are they bothered about export licenses. They bribe the right customs officials to let their cargo through.


Serbia’s current law on veterinary medicine was adopted 12 years ago and European standards have altered in the meantime.


In July, Serbia’s agriculture minister, Ivana Dulic-Markovic, said a new law on veterinary medicine would soon be tabled in parliament, which would “harmonise with EU directives” and so enable hunters to take their game into the union legally.


The director of Serbia’s Veterinary Administration, Dejan Krnjajic, said the new law will step up the pace of EU integration overall.


“This legal framework, together with the reform of the entire veterinary system in this country, will enable us to work more efficiently, monitor and control animal diseases in a better way and provide adequate levels of food safety,” he said.


But only after the new law is adopted will the foreign hunters who once flocked to Vojvodina start coming back.


At a highpoint in the late 1980s, according to Lovoturs, about 10,000 hunters visited Vojvodina annually, of whom 7,000 were Italian.


The industry collapsed in the 1990s when war broke out in neighbouring Croatia and the hunters left for other countries.


The most recent figures from the Vojvodina Chamber of Commerce say only 1,500 to 2,000 hunters now visit annually, most of whom are Italian.


The collapse in the number of foreign hunters is reflected in the dramatic fall in overall tourism profits in the province.


Tourist revenues in Vojvodina in 2004 amounted to only 16.5 million US dollars, down from 167 million in 1989.


Most of that money came from hunting, which had developed fast owing to Yugoslavia’s openness to western visitors. “People came hunting just with their ID cards,” recalled Stankov.


“All the former Yugoslav republics had well developed hunting tourism and the government did its best to develop it because the politicians were also passionate hunters.”


Lovoturs currently runs 14 hunting grounds with big game such as deer and wild boar but few are running at capacity.


At one pheasant hunting ground in Bac, near the border with Croatia, they rear some 150,000 pheasants annually. But this year it operated only at 35 per cent of its capacity.


According to Stankov, millions of euro are being lost annually because of the bar on game exports.


“Italy needs around 4 million pheasants every year of which 2.5 million are imports,” he said. “But we can’t compete for a share of the Italian market because we haven’t the right export certificates.”


Erne Varnju, Vojvodina’s deputy secretary for tourism, says the tiny number of hunters that has returned to Vojvodina in recent years will not grow substantially until the problems over export licences to the EU have been sorted out.


This, he added, would not occur until Serbia’s refrigeration plants had been updated to meet with European food safety regulations.


The stagnation of the tourist industry in Vojvodina is reflected in other areas. Acccording to Predrag Grgic, Vojvodina's secretary for international cooperation, most of the province’s hotels have fallen into ruins, additionally deterring visitors.


Vojvodina has no recognisable “brand recognition” abroad, he said.


While some, like Stankov, say the latter could come from the promotion of legal hunting, other tourist industry workers want to see more attention devoted to spas and rural tourism.


These sectors were all once more profitable than they are now. But after years of underinvestment, Vojvodina spas are now far below the level required to draw foreign guests.


One of the few growth sectors in Vojvodina tourism is in traditional Hungarian-style farm houses, or salas, where visitors can enjoy walking holidays, riding, fishing and eating local declicacies.


Snezana Stankovic, owner of the Zeleni Dvor (green court) salas near the Croatian border, is one of a new band of entrepreneurs offering less bloodthirsty holidays than the more traditional variety provided by the hunting organisations.


“We just want to get people back to nature, ” said Stankovic who has seen visitor numbers rise in the last three years, including from abroad.


But for the moment, salas tourism is still in its infancy and the industry as a whole remains mired in recession.


“The average stay of foreign tourists in Vojvodina is two days, ” lamented Erne Varnju. “If we want tourists to come to Vojvodina for seven days, they need to be offered additional programmes such as fishing, visiting monasteries or castles. But that is not a case here.


“The rural tourism that everytone talks about currently has no strategy to it, unfortunately.”


Darko Sper works for the Beta news agency in Novi Sad.


This is one of series of articles on Vojvodina produced as part of the BIRN Media Training and Reporting Project, generously supported by the British Embassy in Belgrade.


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