Giving our Wild Neighbours a Future - Support to the Wildlife Recovery Centre of Rome

Project location: ITALY, Rome
Project start date: March 2019 - Project end date: February 2021
Project number: 2019-012
Beneficiary: Lipu - Lega Italian Protezione Uccelli

Birds, especially migratory birds, are victims of numerous causes of mortality and injury, threats to individual fitness, especially in the synanthropic environment. However, there is currently not a very good system of collecting and recording information with regards to these issues. Furthermore, the problem is perceived only by a part of the population and is considered of low priority in the decision makers' agenda. Lipu aims to mitigate the problem in various ways and to make up for the poor and uncoordinated institutional commitment despite the legal obligation of regional governments to establish Wildlife Recovery Centres (WRC). WRC are an important tool in this regard. Lipu's WRC have played an important role for the protection of wild animals in difficulty for decades and also represent an important information collection centre for the analysis of scientific data at national and regional level. Other activities carried out by the recovery centres include environmental education and awareness raising, support to citizens regarding injured animals, the judicial custody of wildlife subject to seizure, as well as being a place for detecting and identifying emerging health and hygiene issues concerning potential epidemiology problems.
Due to the centrality of the location of the Centre, located in the heart of Rome at Villa Borghese, an important portion of the hospitalized wild animals belongs to resident synanthropic and urbanized species that, although of less conservation value, are of great importance as ecological indicators of the quality of the environment in which they live i.e. the urban environment of the capital city. In fact, common species are the most significant for ecotoxicology studies, both in particular situations and on a large scale (Zaccaroni et al., 2011. Trace metal concentration in the wild avian species from Campania, Italy. J. Chem. 9 (1) - 86-93DOI: 10.2478 / s11532-010-0119-7).

85% of the animals hospitalized at the Centre are birds, the remaining 15% are mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Among the hospitalized birds a significant portion is made up of migratory birds. Italy with its biogeographical position has a high responsibility for the migration routes of large populations in transit from central and eastern Europe. Several of the migratory bird species have significantly declined in the last few decades to the point of being classified as ‘of conservation concern'. During migration Italy represents the meeting point and the central axis, but the persistence of large and widespread threats to migratory birds, such as poaching (Brochet et al. (2016) Preliminary assessment of the scope and scale of illegal killing and taking of birds in the Mediterranean. Bird Conserv. Internatn. 26: 1-280533), is a strong limiting factor.
The Centre also carries out the essential activity of information sharing and awareness raising of citizens, both on the issue of fauna in difficulty and on the management of urban fauna, disseminating information and principles that promote coexistence between human communities and wild animals and mitigate their problems. In some cases, the cohabitation between men and wild animals can be problematic and the right information offered by the expert staff of the Lipu Centre is of particular importance, in terms of problem-solving or mitigating problems, respecting citizens and animals themselves.
Specifically, the project aims to address the following 4 issues:

1. Lack of knowledge on the importance of urban avifauna as an environmental indicator: The wild synanthropic species can be taken into consideration for what they can reveal about the health status of the environment in which they live - in this case one of the most populous cities in Italy, which could hardly be monitored outside the recovery centres. It would therefore be advisable to investigate heavy metals (i.e. cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, mercury, lead, zinc and metalloids such as arsenic and selenium) accumulated in the tissues of animals admitted to the recovery centre. Heavy metals are pollutants present in the environment and sometimes in high concentrations, mainly due to their extensive industrial use. They tend to accumulate in the tissues of animal organisms as a result of their intake through air, water and food, causing poisoning that can lead to reduced fitness and eventually to the death of the individual. Collecting animals from the wild is rather complex and expensive. The use of animals found dead is often impossible because decomposition can alter the results or make chemical analysis impossible. For these reasons the Centre, located within a metropolis such as Rome could provide a unique and exclusive opportunity to collect a large number of samples suitable to carry out this type of research. This will be useful to collect data on the levels of pollutants, in particular, heavy metals in urbanized species that can act as indicators of the level of heavy metal pollution in Rome. Systematic monitoring of several animal species admitted to the Centre can be very useful in order to allow health authorities to intervene to address the heavy metal pollution that can have a serious impact on human health.

2. Insufficient conservation actions in favour of threatened migratory species: Another activity the project aims to tackle is the direct protection of threatened and migratory birds arriving at the Centre. Over 300 bird species each year migrate between Europe and Africa across Italy. There has been a 40% decline in the number of migrating birds from the 1970s to today. Among the declining species there are many migratory birds of prey, in some cases classified as Vulnerable (VU) or Critically Endangered (CR) in the Italian Red List (such as Short-toed eagle and Egyptian vulture). The Italian peninsula is at the centre of two important migratory flyways. The Atlantic flyway which sees Italy as a transit point for species that from Scandinavia and continental Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France and Spain) head towards the Iberian Peninsula and the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean strait traversed by species that from Eastern Europe (from Russia to the Balkans) travel along the Italian peninsula towards the Strait of Messina. In fact, Italy is the crossroads for the bird populations of Eastern and Western Europe, whose migration routes cross right along the peninsula. The birds breeding in the Italian peninsula follow both routes. Migrations is a real challenge and many birds die every year while moving between breeding and wintering grounds. As the challenges to migrating birds increase (e.g. habitat loss, collision with electric lines, poaching and poisoning) it is crucial to offer each individual in distress (injured, poisoned or starving) a second chance. Preserving migratory species is a complex and difficult challenge, to which Lipu aims to contribute to by fighting habitat loss, poaching and poor planning of electric lines and windfarms, but also through the activities of the Centre, guaranteeing the best care for the animals in difficulty, in order to allow the greatest possible number of animals to resume migration along the route of both the intra-palearctic flyways and the African-Eurasian flyway. In doing so Lipu will also collect the necessary data for improving the knowledge base on threats to migratory bird species. The data on the cause of hospitalization of each individual will also highlight the number of birds illegally shot.

3. Outdated data gathering system. The Centre is not the only WRC managed by Lipu and not the only centre in Italy. Lipu's WRCs share a common data gathering protocol on the animals entering their centres, their diagnosis and therapies. Unfortunately, data collection among the Italian WRCs is not fully coordinated, standardized and shared. Data can be comparable and shared only if it is collected following agreed standards and procedures. Sharing information will significantly improve our understanding of the causes of hospitalization, their temporal and geographical distribution and, their trends. This is particularly crucial in the fight against poaching. The National Action Plan to tackle illegal killing of birds, promoted by the Ministry of Environment in 2017, includes the development of a common data collection system in order to monitor poaching at national level. Currently limited standard information is available from WRCs, despite the hundreds of thousands of wildlife received. This lack of data is one of the reasons poaching has not been considered as a priority until recently. The Centre will cooperate with the National Wildlife Institute (ISPRA) for the development and testing of a new data collection system, which will eventually be recommended by ISPRA as the standard to be used in all Italian WRCs.

4. Inadequate public awareness of the use of chemical products that directly or indirectly cause the hospitalization of animals at the Centre and lack of knowledge of problems 1 and 2: A very important function of a recovery centre, in addition to the care and rehabilitation of animals is the sensitization and education of people especially in urban areas. The areas of action are different, but mainly the focus is on a more conscious use of poisons, glues, insecticides and herbicides. Many times, these products are viewed as common household chemicals and not handled very appropriately, thus contributing significantly to the release of toxic substances into the environment. Therefore, in addition to performing their function of pest control, these chemicals increase pollution in already dangerously contaminated urban environments, indirectly reaping victims among wild animals and also intoxicating people. The Centre could therefore act as a point of information and accountability of the citizen, dedicated to the issues related to pest control and to the problems listed in points 1 and 2, in which also indicate the related mitigation actions or solutions to be practiced. This specific action will be done by strengthening the Centre's information desk and other regularly used communication channels by adding the necessary new information to the portfolio of the Centre.

As part of this research, at least 400 samples will be collected by the Centre and shared with the University of Naples, which through their agrarian department will conduct the analysis on heavy metals present in the samples.
The objectives of the study are to identify or at least restrict the field on the possible methods of exposure to heavy metal intoxication, providing useful information for the authorities responsible for prevention. Furthermore, these results will bring improvements in the health protocols for early diagnosis and treatment of patients suffering from possible intoxication, to be adopted at the Centre. Furthermore, the results obtained from the study of the sample relative to the urbanized permanent species will be compared with those obtained from migratory species, which therefore live only for part of the year in the same territory. This information can indirectly measure the degree of pollution to which animal organisms (including humans) are exposed, which live daily in the urban environments being researched. Identifying which species are characterized by greater sensitivity to certain heavy metals may also be useful for monitoring the levels of pollutants and for the identification of aggregated ecological indicators. The Centre has already been involved in a similar study looking at heavy metal and other pollutants (PCDD/F, PCBs and PFAS) in bats, the study proposed in this project will expand the knowledge base to other animal groups with different ecological traits, offering a wider understanding of the situation of contaminants in Rome.
Heavy metal investigations will be carried out on the carcasses of animals who died after admission at the Wildlife Center or dead animals delivered to Lipu. These toxicological analyzes are carried out on internal organs therefore there is no collection from live animals but exclusively on the carcasses that will be delivered to researchers of the University of Naples Federico II.
All samples for the analysis will be from animals previously admitted and therefore registered at the Center.
The Wildlife Center of Rome generally implements management methodology that avoid stress or physical pain to the animals and aims at releasing the animal in nature in the shortest possible time.

Research Partner information:
University of Naples Federico II
Department of Agriculture
Reference researchers:
Prof. Danilo Russo. Associate Professor in Ecology at the University of Naples Federico II, Department of Agriculture and Head of the Wildlife Research Unit. Specialist in ecology and conservation of bats, vice-chair of the EUROBATS Advirory Committee, scientific focal point of the Ministry of the Environment, member of the IUCN Bat Specialist Group. Dr Russo received his PhD from the Bat Ecology and Biocompetiment Laboratory of the University of Bristol (in the United Kingdom), of which he is still an honorary member. He is the author of over 60 scientific publications in international journals and numerous articles and monographs in Italian on bats. He was co-author and editor of the "Guidelines for Monitoring Bats" and the "Guidelines for the Conservation of Bats in Anthropic Buildings and the Resolution of the Conflict-Related Aspects" published by INFS / ISPRA and Ministry of the Environment. He is Editor-in-chief of the Mammal Review and associate editor for PLOS ONE, Hystrix, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution and Mammalian Biology.
  Dr. Leonardo Ancillotto. Leonardo Ancillotto was awarded a Ph.D. in Animal Biology at La Sapienza University of Rome - Department of Biology and Biotechnology "Charles Darwin"; in 2015, he received the title of “Cultore della Materia” in Zoology at the University of Salerno. Since 2013, he has been a contractor at the Wildlife Research Unit, in the Department of Agriculture of the University of Naples Federico II. His research activity focuses on the study of behavioral ecology and conservation of bats and micromammals, with particular interest for the themes of urban ecology; since 2013, he has been involved in projects on the ecology and distribution of alien species in Italy. Since 2017, he is National Coordinator of the Italian Chiroptera Research Group (GIRC), within the Italian Teriological Association (ATIt). He is the author of: 10 technical reports for public clients (University of Naples Federico II, University of Salerno, CREA of Turin) and private clients (IUCN, Innova, Lipu, Istituto Zooprofilattico di Napoli); 43 scientific publications and; 25 participations in national and international conferences.

Heavy metal laboratory managers:
 Dr. Paola Adamo
Extraordinary Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at the Department of Soil, Plant, Environment and Animal Production Sciences of the University of Naples Federico II. Currently he is Professor of Soil Chemistry of C.d.L. in Agricultural Technologies, Faculty of Agriculture, Portici, University of Naples Federico II.
Her scientific activity resulted in  over 50 publications in international journals, dealing mainly with monitoring and mitigation of pollution from potentially toxic elements of the soil and of the sediments of agricultural, urban and industrial areas, biomonitoring of air quality through the use of mosses and lichens, soil-plant interactions and effects on the biogeochemical cycle of nutrients, assessment of heavy metal pollution of soils in abandoned industrial sites and agricultural areas.
 Dr. Maria Antonietta Rao
Associate Professor of the University of Naples Federico II in Chemistry and Biochemistry of Plant Nutrition at the Faculty of Agriculture. Research by prof. Rao covers issues of soil biochemistry targeted at controlling, protecting and safeguarding the environment.
 Identification of complex physical, chemical and biological processes to which pollutants in the soil environment undergo. In particular, the interactions between polluting substances and biological components such as enzymatic systems are being studied. These studies are aimed at defining the functions and potentials of enzymatic systems in a) maintaining the fertility and quality of a soil; b) the detoxification of terrestrial and aquatic systems from pollutants, and; c) the recovery and restoration of polluted sites.

Conservation actions in favour of migratory species:
A goal of the project is to provide the best possible care to the many migrants hospitalized in the Centre, in order to minimize losses and return a greater number of individuals to migration. Often, in fact, these species are at risk and saving the life of even one individual is of great value. A second objective is to identify and analyse the causes of hospitalization of these species, thus providing useful information on what are the main threats (which may be different for groups of species with different ecological needs, both during migration and during the entire life cycle) to those responsible for protecting them. This analysis will lead to targeted training and information campaigns and contribute to further scientific research. For example, if poaching is one of the causes, a targeted campaign can be created on illegal killing, while for other species the incidence due to collision with windows or high voltage cables may be higher. In this second case, training courses can be created for employees or paths to secure certain works.

Development and testing of an improved data collection system 
The Centre will cooperate with the National Wildlife Institute (ISPRA) to lead in the development and testing of system aimed at gathering standardized data on the causes of hospitalization of wildlife, based on proper veterinarian clinical and instrumental investigation. A data sheet will be developed and tested to gather standardized information on the animals received by the Centre and will be shared with all Lipu WRCs. The data sheet will then be used as the standard recommended by the National Wildlife Institute (ISPRA) as part of the implementation of the National Action Plan for tackling the illegal killing of birds.  The data collected will contribute to the national reporting on illegal killing of birds as required by the Bern and Bonn Conventions.

Information sharing and Awareness-raising actions: 
The Centre will provide information on the results of the first two activities of the project 1) Urban avifauna as an environmental indicator, and 2) Conservation actions in favour of migratory and threatened species through the Centre’s information desk, and disseminate the newly acquired information through its own communication channels and the national and international means of Lipu. A vademecum will also be drafted on incorrect behaviour and how to take proper action in case there are animals in difficulty.
It is anticipated that during the life of the project, each year, 15 meetings will be held for general public each attended by 25-30 people per meeting (due to space limitation)
More emphasis will be given to Facebook communications with the 5000 loyal followers and communications with the further 3200 Lipu members in Rome (and province) will be strengthened.
The activities of Rome WRC under the Peretti Foundation’s work will also be highlighted through Lipu Members magazine Ali (35.000 copies) and the e-newsletter (delivered to 160,000 addresses)
There will be a protocol will be made with the Municipality of Rome to reach out to the building administrators of the city of Rome and the dissemination of the project related information. It is anticipated that 10 meetings will be held with the building administrators. 

The Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation has awarded a grant for this project. The expected outcomes are:

a) Systematic and more in-depth collection of fauna and health information through the implementation of an advanced database that allows recording (and subsequently analysing) cases of hospitalization, results of analysis (i.e. heavy metals), which until now have not been analysed;
b) At least 5000 people in Rome reached through new communication materials and public meetings with regards to responsible use of household (and other) chemicals and proper handling of wildlife in distress;
c) At least 160.000 people will be better informed of the activities of the Centre;
d) The newly created data-base provides much needed information to decision makers and scientist nationally and internationally;
e) The Centre is better equipped to serve the citizen of Rome and surrounding area and their wildlife;
f) The Centre is better known in Rome and better supported by the local inhabitants and nationally.

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