Anna Giordano was only 15 when she found her true calling. In 1981, near her Sicilian hometown of Messina, she watched helplessly as poachers unleashed their fire from cement bunkers on the hundreds of honey buzzards, hawks and other birds migrating over the narrow straits between Sicily and the Italian mainland. After seeing 17 birds shot out of the sky, she vowed that "this was the beginning of the end for the poachers."
That was easier said than done. In the macho culture of Sicily and Calabria, just across the straits, there was a tradition of hunting migrating raptors. So when this earnest young woman began badgering police, forest rangers and local authorities to do something about the illegal killing, she was not taken seriously. But she organized camps of young people who gathered each spring to observe the migrations and inform police when they saw poachers at work.
The hunters retaliated. They firebombed Giordano's car in 1986, later broke into her house, and mailed her a dead falcon with a note that said, "Your courage will cost you dearly." Those incidents, and another in which monitors were shot at, got law-enforcement officers on Giordano's side. "It made police understand that poaching wasn't a joke," she recalls.
Once local authorities started cooperating, Giordano's efforts paid off dramatically. Before she began monitoring the poachers, more than 5,000 supposedly protected birds--mostly honey buzzards, falcons, storks, orioles, kestrels and swallows--were slaughtered each year. Today the count averages less than 100 in Sicily, although more than 500 on the Calabrian side of the straits. On a recent tour of saltwater lakes on the outskirts of Messina, Giordano proudly pointed to the dozens of cormorants perched on wooden posts in the shallow water. "Twenty years ago," she says, "you would not have seen even one cormorant here. People used to shoot at them from the street."
Over the years, Giordano, now 35, turned her passion into a profession: she studied ornithology and earned a degree in natural sciences from the University of Messina in 1989. Today Giordano runs the World Wildlife Fund's Natural Saltwater Reserve in Paceco, Italy, and its Center for the Rehabilitation of Wild Animals in Messina. The center's aviary houses some two dozen falcons and buzzards in various stages of convalescence. The injured birds, who collectively consume more than 13 lbs. of meat each day, have a home for life, and those that recover are turned loose. "They can't say thanks," says Giordano, "but the best thanks is watching them fly free again."
--By Thomas Sancton. With reporting by Greg Burke/Messina