GUINEA/SERBIA/THE NETHERLANDS - According to Europol, the smuggling of songbirds and other tropical birds to the European Union (EU) has skyrocketed in recent years, especially along the Balkans trafficking route.

Starting in the 1970s, people and drugs have illegally come into the EU via countries like Serbia and Albania. This investigation examines how African tropical birds have become an established part of the route.

Tens of thousands of exotic birds legally enter Serbia each year and some simply disappear. An investigative team from Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands and South Africa track the bird trade between the Republic of Guinea and Serbia.

Over the last three years, Serbian traders imported up to 35,618 songbirds from the impoverished West African country. Due to a lack of resources within Guinea and an international lack of interest, no one knows how many of these non-protected species are left in the wild.
The markup makes trafficking small birds in bulk profitable: a small yellow-breasted canary in Guinea is sold for €1,50. In the Netherlands, it sells for €75,00.

In 2005, the EU put a ban on the importation of wild birds in an effort to prevent the spread of avian flu. Since then, the trade has gone underground, and prices have skyrocketed. As a status symbol, tropical birds are sought after for their rarity, colourful plumage and unique singing abilities.

The investigation uncovers how once birds are smuggled into the EU, they become effectively legal. In covering the story, the journalists speak to bird traders, law enforcement agents, scientists and government officials. The team also examines official export papers from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and exposes Turkish Airlines' lucrative role in the trade.

This investigation won the award for best article in the print media category of the Dejan Anastasijević award in Serbia, 23/05/2023, and received an honourable mention at the True Story Awards 2024


Photo credit: Nathalie Bertrams

Team members

Nemanja Rujević

Nemanja Rujević is an author and editor for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Nemanja Rujević

Nathalie Bertrams

Nathalie Bertrams is a German award-winning freelance photographer and journalist.

Nathalie Bertrams

Dr. Tristen Taylor

Dr. Tristen Taylor is a South African freelance journalist.

Dr. Tristen Taylor

Ingrid Gercama

Ingrid Gercama is a freelance journalist, based in the Netherlands.

Ingrid Gercama

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