Tirana, Albania - Bujar Hyka and his friends headed out in their jeep west of Albania's capital on a recent Sunday morning. Dressed in camouflage, the men navigated the vehicle through rough terrain with three restless English Setters eagerly waiting to jump out. 

A year ago, this would have been a hunting trip. But under Albania's new anti-hunting law, Hyka and his friends have been forbidden to kill animals and now simply hike weaponless through the country's pristine wilderness.

"The government doesn't understand that hunting is a sport; they are ruining our sport," said Hyka, 59, head of one of Albania's hunters and fishermen's organisations. "It's like someone taking a football away from footballers."

Earlier this year, the Albanian government imposed a two-year moratorium on all hunting to save its endangered animal population. Reports suggest 30-50 percent of Albania's wildlife species have seen a steep decline in the past decade. Hunting is one of the main reasons for the loss. 

Among the endangered species in the country are the Balkan lynx, the Egyptian vulture, the Dalmatian pelican, the European eel, and the Albanian water frog.

30-50 percent of Albania's wildlife species have seen a steep decline in the past decade [Felix Gaedtke]

Hyka said the government's measures are totalitarian. "This is like being under a dictatorship once again." He said the moratorium targeted licensed hunters such as himself who already follow the rules, and not illegal hunters or poachers.

Awash with weapons 

Albania was isolated from the rest of the world for four decades under the rule of communist dictator Enver Hoxha. After Hoxha's death, the country began a transition to parliamentary democracy in 1992. But Albania experienced civil unrest in 1996-97, and stockpiles of military weaponry and ammunition fell into civilian hands. Shotguns and AK-47 assault rifles became common household items.

During Hoxha's dictatorship, only members of the politburo were allowed to hunt. But with an abundance of weapons, more people embraced the sport. Estimates suggest there are about 270,000  guns, owned legally and illegally, in the country with a population of just three million. 

The Karavasta lagoon is about 50 kilometres south of where Hyka and his friends hunted ducks and other birds. The lagoon, one of the largest along the Mediterranean Sea, is a famous nesting ground for the endangered Dalmatian pelicans

At 6am on a recent Saturday, Taulant Bino, Albania's most renowned ornithologist and former deputy environment minister, stood on an observatory tower in the park counting the pelicans through his telescope.

"There's a flock of 55 individuals over there. Would you like to watch them? There's one that has an orange pouch. That means it's in its reproductive or breeding season."

Albania's coast is part of what's called the Adriatic Flyway zone - an important resting spot for birds migrating between Europe and Africa. According to figures from EuroNatur, an NGO that runs conservation programmes in the region, an estimated two million birds were being hunted along the Adriatic coast before the moratorium came into effect.

The Dalmatian pelicans that Bino watched that day have become a symbol of the threat migratory birds face from excessive hunting.

"These pelicans are important because they are big and beautiful. But that's not all: They serve as a symbol of the ecosystem. So it is considered by us as a flagship species, and by protecting the pelicans we try to protect the other bird species and the site itself." 

Thanks to the moratorium, we have a resurgence, we have revitalisation of the wildlife here and this in turn also revitalises humans, who have become enemies of nature by destroying certain species.

- Prime Minister Edi Rama 

Hunting hideouts

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, Bino and his assistant, who are compiling a report for the Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA), did a brisk tour of the slushy lagoon. A calm breeze drifted along the coast. Bino raised an alarm. He had spotted some hunting hideouts. "Look there, you see that structure? ... It is not natural. It could be used as a hunting hide at night. And you see another one there - it's primitive, but it's there." 

According to Bino, this is evidence that hunting hasn't come to a full stop, not even in the protected zone of Karavasta National Park. There's was more evidence. "We saw a group of ducks in the sea. That's a clear sign of disturbance and hunting."

While driving through the park, Bino met up with Ardian Koci, the director of the Forestry Service. He showed Koci photos of the hunting hideouts he had discovered, and after careful examination Koci said he would destroy them.

Koci said the biggest challenge to implementing the hunting moratorium is cultural. "The locals have been hunting here for many, many years, and now it seems strange for them to stop hunting. I have explained to them that it's not a question of the moratorium, but this is a preserved area and the hunting ban will be imposed for years after." 

Later that afternoon Karavasta National Park received a special visitor. Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama toured the park and later told journalists the hunting ban has been successful.

"Thanks to the moratorium, we have a resurgence, we have revitalisation of the wildlife here and this in turn also revitalises humans, who have become enemies of nature by destroying certain species." 

The minimum punishment for breaking the law is confiscation of weapons as well as a fine of 100,000 Albanian lek ($1,000). However, that doesn't hold back many still seeking the pleasures of hunting. 

At a crowded Italian restaurant in downtown Tirana, an Albanian man in his early 40s, who asked not to be identified, told Al Jazeera he knows people who continue to hunt despite the moratorium. "A friend called me yesterday from the mountains in Tropojë in the north of Albania. He was hunting for deer just yesterday. It's still possible to hunt in the interiors where the police cannot do any surveillance."

He added, almost proudly, "If I wanted to go hunting, I could go as well ... All you need are local contacts. You don't carry arms with you in your vehicle, just drive where you know someone who can assist you, sometimes even in the police." 

Al Jazeera's repeated requests for comment were not answered by the Environment Ministry.

Kastriot Xhani owns Albania's oldest gun shop [Felix Gaedtke]

Gun sales down

Kastriot Xhani is the owner of Albania's oldest gun shop, located in the heart of Tirana. 

"I lost a majority of my business. People are thinking, 'why should I buy guns now if I am not going to be able to use it during this two-year moratorium? I'd rather wait it out and buy after these two years.'" 

Xhani, who described himself as a nature lover, admitted that hunting in Albania had gotten out of hand. He blamed the illegal hunters.

"They did not and still don't respect hunting seasons," he said. 

Xhani said if the Albanian government "would really crack down on these illegal hunters ... I would even agree to a five-year moratorium".

Source: Al Jazeera