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Human deaths raise calls for more hunting regulations in Italy

They came from opposite directions, two avid hunters tracking the same wild boar.

Neither knew the other was there. So when one noticed a flash of movement in a nearby bush, he fired two quick rounds — adding the other man’s name to the grim roll of those killed in pursuit of a deadly pastime.

As Italy weighs up the tons of birds, hares and other game bagged over its official five-month hunting season, the country is facing the uncomfortable fact that enthusiasts fatally shot an alarming number of humans as well, at the rate of about one a week.

Some of the deaths were self-inflicted, accidents caused by the hunters’ own weapons. Other victims were fellow hunters mistaken for prey. But bystanders out for a pleasant walk through the woods or a bike ride through the Italian countryside have also been caught in the line of fire.

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The casualty count has stoked debate over whether such a potentially dangerous sport ought to be more strictly regulated or even outlawed here in a land where about 800,000 residents hold hunting licenses, or 1 in 75 Italians. The number of licenses has declined to its present level from about 2 million a few decades ago as Italy’s population becomes more urban.

The country’s tourism minister, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, an ardent animal rights advocate, has called for tighter rules for hunters, who enjoy remarkably liberal rights of trespass in this country. In a leftover from the Fascist era, when the government encouraged Italians to familiarize themselves with guns, hunters are allowed to roam on private property and shoot up to 50 yards from a road or 150 yards from a house. Brambilla wants those distances increased now that the population has grown and become more densely packed.

Heavier restrictions are also supported by wildlife organizations and conservancy groups. But Italy’s powerful hunting lobby opposes any change, describing current rules as stringent enough.

“You cannot avoid accidents only with laws,” said Riccardo Minelli, 42, a Roman who began hunting as a young boy.

Maybe so, anti-hunting activists say. But at least it would be a start.

Figures released this monthby the Milan-based League for the Abolition of Hunting showed that 22 people died of gunshot wounds and 74 others were injured during the last hunting season, which ended Jan. 31. Newspaper reports of the accidents bear such sorrowful headlines as “Kills a friend by mistake during a hunting party” and “Companion mistaken for a wild boar.”

Hunting enthusiasts say that though the deaths are tragic, they don’t amount to an argument for banning a time-honored activity.

“Mushroom gathering has caused 53 deaths, but no one thinks of stopping that,” an organization called Caccia Passione (Hunting Passion) declared in a statement on its website. (The number includes those killed eating poisonous mushrooms or in falls.)

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The group didn’t point out that a mushroom picker in Tuscany died in November after being shot by a hunter.

“It shouldn’t be possible to lose a life by gunshot while you go looking for mushrooms on a Sunday morning, simply because of the pleasure of hunters and their supporters,” Brambilla said after the incident.

A student out picking mushrooms on Christmas Day in Sardinia was also wounded by hunters. Other accidents involved a boy injured when his father mistook him for a pheasant and a young woman shot in the leg in the doorway of her own home as she got ready to take her children to the school bus stop. In the latter case, the hunters were arrested and charged with causing bodily harm.

Public opinion on hunting is difficult to gauge, with each side contending that surveys bolster its position. Support is strongest in rural regions such as Tuscany and Umbria, where the pastime is bound up with local history and tradition.

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Whereas hunting foes have tried to increase restrictions, enthusiasts have pressed the government to relax the rules, asking that the minimum age for hunters (18) be lowered and that the season be lengthened.

That horrifies Valentina Studer. The skies above Italy are one of the primary pathways for migratory birds in the Mediterranean and therefore a lip-smacking draw for human predators. Poor enforcement of quotas, false reporting by hunters and poaching have already reduced the population of many species, said Studer, who works for a bird-protection organization in Rome. An extended hunting season would only exacerbate that, she says.

“There is a correct time and a correct place and a maximum number of animals you can remove from nature,” Studer said. “The problem in Italy is that illegal hunting is very common. A lot of people don’t even know what the laws are.”

henry.chu@latimes.com

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