The illegal use of poison is one of the main threats to two priority large carnivore species listed in the Habitats Directive: brown bear () and wolf (). Poisoning also poses a threat to several scavenger raptor species.
Every year in Italy several cases of poisoning are reported, although these are believed to represent just a few of the actual number of cases that occur. In fact, the practice remains mostly undetected since carcasses are rarely found, especially if they are of very rare species. Furthermore, cases of poisoning are not always reported.
The use of poison baits also remains widespread, targeting even protected species. But often protected species are unwitting victims, caught up in local disputes such as those among truffle hunters. The use of poison baits is most common in areas frequented by the wolf and the brown bear such as the Apennines. The Griffon vulture () is also another common victim of poison, while other vulnerable species to poisoning are the Red kite (), the Egyptian vulture () and the Bearded vulture ().
The LIFE PLUTO project’s overall objective was to advance conservation of the brown bear, wolf and scavenging raptors in Italy, by carrying out large-scale measures for preventing and combatting the illegal use of poison.
A main activity of the project was to establish anti-poisoning dog units (known by their Italian acronym, NCAs) that would cover a significant part of the country. Specifically, it aimed to set up six units under the control of the Italian forest service. Each unit would consist of one dog trainer and two dogs. The six NCAs would operate across central and southern region of Italy, covering 11 regions in total. The units planned to carry out routine inspections in the areas most at risk, as well as urgent inspections, should a poisoned carcass or bait be found, in order to clear the territory of other poison.
Another important project action was the creation of a feeding station for scavenging raptors in the Gran Sasso-Laga Park, managed in cooperation with local livestock breeders.
The main outcome of the LIFE PLUTO project was the establishment of a national network of anti-poison dog units managed by the Carabinieri corps CUFAA in 11 regions across Italy. Six units were set up under the LIFE PLUTO project, while others were formed under other LIFE projects. Furthermore, the After LIFE plan anticipates the establishment of two additional units.
The anti-poison dog units are a key tool for preventing environmental crimes linked to illegal practices of wildlife poisoning. The units set up by the project have helped remove potential dangers for a wide range of target species including carnivores such as wolves and Marsican brown bear, along with raptors, such as Egyptian vulture, Bearded vulture, Griffon vulture and Red kite. The project carried out more than 1 500 inspections, of which 96 led to the removal of more than 200 poisoned baits and 58 potentially poisoned carcasses. The real figures could be higher since it was not always possible to confirm the presence of toxic compounds.
As a result of the findings, the frequency of urgent inspections increased in those areas where positive results were recorded, rising from 94 in 2017 to 173 in 2019. Such a near doubling of activity demonstrates the increased level of awareness of this approach to wildlife crime prevention among institutional bodies and the public, aided by the project’s dissemination activities. The project held 14 meetings with stakeholders attracting more than 500 participants, along with conferences at the start and the end of the project. The conservation goals were also presented at 63 local events and in 13 scientific workshops/conferences, reaching a further 15 300 people, while school campaigns in schools of the Gran Sasso-Laga National Park reached 580 students.
The anti-poison dog units are now a permanent part of police Carabinieri Corps dog units(together with the dog units dealing with other crimes), at the National level, and the use of anti-poisoning dog units was considered in the action plan for the fight to the crimes against wild birds ("Piano d’azione nazionale per il contrasto degli illeciti contro gli uccelli selvatici") published by ISPRA and the Ministry of the Environment in 2017.
Moreover, some project created anti-poison dog units are already collaborating with the LIFE Egyptian vulture (LIFE16 NAT/IT/000659) and the LIFE MILVUS (LIFE18 NAT/IT/000917).
Finally, the project as also helped create an effective network of local farms in the Gran Sasso-Laga National Nark that provide a regular supply of dead sheep for scavenging raptors in a supplementary feeding site. The feeding site provides a direct support to several scavenging raptors and mitigates the risk of poisoning. Furthermore, it promotes the involvement of local livestock breeders in conservation activities.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).