Matteo Civillini met Albert Satariano, a songbird smuggler from Malta, in 2019. Civillini, an investigative journalist based in Italy, was covering the illegal trade of songbirds – protected species such as greenfinches, serins and linnets – between Malta and Italy with an EJN story grant, and wanted to speak directly with someone involved in trafficking.
Satariano was a contrarian figure, Civillini remembers. Despite evidence collected by Italian police on his smuggling activities, he denied his involvement. “I wanted to talk to him to give him a fair chance of [sharing] his side of the story,” Civillini said. “I heard about him, [and it] paints a picture in your head. You speak to him, that picture might change a bit. It’s different when you speak with someone.”
They had a long conversation about Satariano’s affinity for songbirds, the trafficking industry, the Italian police’s investigation into his activities and more. Satariano is a retired diamond cutter in his late 60s and a “self-described trapping enthusiast,” Civillini writes in his National Geographic article, although he apparently stopped once the practice was almost entirely outlawed in Malta in 2018. (There is a legal bird-trapping season from October to December, with registered trapping stations, but Civillini notes in his article that after a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, it’s only legal to trap two species of bird.)
Satariano said he participated in legal bird purchases – ones that had been bred in captivity, not caught in the wild – and denied any illegal activity.
But Satariano is just one small piece of a major problem facing Europe and the rest of the world: Anti-trafficking organization BirdLife International estimates that millions of birds are removed from their habitats every year across the Mediterranean, Northern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and the Arabian Peninsula. A single Eurasian goldfinch could be worth US$50 in Northwest Africa, amounting to a third of the average monthly income in the region; across the world in Java, Indonesia, it’s estimated that more songbirds are in cages than live in the wild.
In Europe, efforts to prevent songbird trafficking often center on Italy, which has struggled with enforcement for a long time. In Satariano’s case, Italian police had wiretapped several conversations between him and suspected Italian traffickers, and recorded calls about payment and numbers of birds. According to conversations Civillini had with Italian investigators, Satariano was known as one of the most prolific Maltese buyers of finches, in particular. He was not trapping the birds himself, but actually buying them from trappers in Italy and smuggling them back into Malta.
Despite the wiretap and other related evidence, they were unable to arrest him without the cooperation of Maltese authorities. He remained unaware of their surveillance until he was contacted by Civillini for the article, which was published in National Geographic in May 2019.
Fast forward to February 2021. Civillini received a press release from the Guardia di Finanza, a branch of Italian law enforcement that often works on trafficking issues. The release states that more than 1,000 birds, all protected species, were confiscated, along with 2,000 euros in cash and a vehicle, which was driven by a 68-year-old Maltese man. Although he was not taken into custody, the authorities referred the case to the public prosecutor’s office to determine charges.
A video produced by the Italian Guardia di Finanza demonstrating what they confiscated from Albert Satariano’s vehicle / Credit: Capt. Nunzio Difonzo, Reggio Calabria branch of the Guardia di Finanza.
Captain Nunzio Difonzo, the Guardia di Finanza commander in Reggio Calabria, a city on Italy’s southern coast, spoke with EJN about his group’s anti-smuggling activities. He said his group takes songbird smuggling very seriously, and that their focus on such issues is “constant.”
“Most of the birds found in the double bottom of Albert Satariano’s van, after a veterinary doctor’s checks, have been released into the city sky,” Difonzo said, translated from Italian. “Some specimens, in less good condition, have been entrusted to an animal welfare association.”
The press release does not identify Satariano by name, but an article in The Times of Malta revealed his identity shortly afterward.
“I was like, ‘oh, wait, same guy! They got him!’” Civillini remembers thinking.
The booming songbird trade between Malta and Italy
The 1,000 kilometers between Malta and Italy is a well-known songbird trading route, according to BirdLife International. More than 5 million birds are hunted illegally in Italy every year, according to their research, with some killed for use in traditional dishes and others, particularly songbirds, kept alive to be smuggled into Malta. After arriving, they’re sold as pets or used as bait for other illegal trapping.
In Civillini’s story, he interviews Stefano Testa, head of SOARDA, the anti-poaching unit of Italy’s Carabinieri military police. Testa said since 2017, 200 people have been referred to prosecutors for bird smuggling crimes and more than 5,000 protected birds have been confiscated.
In Malta, however, there has been much less law enforcement activity. The European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, which limited the number of species that could be legally trapped, mentioned that in allowing rampant trapping of protected birds, Malta was not complying with EU rules around bird conservation.
As a result of the ruling, finches became increasingly difficult to procure in Malta. Civillini’s story describes how Maltese smugglers would place large orders for finches with Italian poaching groups, who would trap the birds in Italy and attach forged veterinary documents stating the birds were born in captivity. Then, using vehicles with double bottoms like the one Satariano was driving when he was caught, they would smuggle the birds into Malta to be sold.
Civillini was unable to speak to anyone from the Maltese police about the lack of compliance with EU rules, open investigations into smugglers like Satariano or finch trapping in general. However, he spent extensive time shadowing people from BirdLife International and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), who check for traps in areas well-known for trafficking activity and call the police when nets or the smugglers themselves are spotted.
EJN spoke with Alexander Heyd, the general secretary of CABS, who worked with Civillini on the story. He said although they are a small group, he believes the service they provide is invaluable. Each country’s regulations around trapping seasons, allowed species, types of traps (in France, they’ve only just outlawed glue traps) and related issues are different, which leads to an extremely political debate around the issue.
“Shooting is already illegal in Europe, but trapping is not as black and white,” Heyd said. “Poachers don’t care.”
Continuous reporting is crucial
Civillini’s story was the first to officially name Satariano in relation to songbird smuggling. For his part, Civillini said he doesn’t know whether his story had any effect on the Italian police and their investigation of Satariano. Difonzo, the police commander, didn’t specify whether he or any other members of the police had read the piece, although he said they engage with the media and the general public as often as possible, typically through press releases and social media.
Subsequent articles about songbird smuggling between Malta-Italy and Satariano himself were published in Malta’s The Shift News (May 2019) following the National Geographic story and in The Malta Times (February 2021) following the smuggler’s police encounter, something Civillini thinks is critical to raise awareness. Both pieces linked directly to Civillini’s article.
The Italian journalist said he hasn’t been able to return to the story or other wildlife trafficking issues due to Covid-19's impact on travel and field work but hopes the region’s smuggling problem continues to receive media coverage.
“The story brought more attention because [Satariano’s] name was out in the public sphere,” Civillini said. “[When he] came to Italy again … it was a perfect moment to catch him red-handed.”
Banner image: Activists from the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, an anti-poaching organization, spotted this suspected bird trapper near Cagliari, Italy. After a two-day search, they reported finding 28 trapping nets he'd allegedly set up / Credit: Jacopo Benini
Jenae Barnes contributed to this report.