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A Life for the Birds

Obituary of our deceased CABS chair Eugen Tönnis [1959-2002]

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae <… > Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt …” (”All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. < … > Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilisation and refinement of (our) Province …”)

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 v.Chr.)


Eugen Tönnis (1959 - 2002)Eugen Tönnis (1959 - 2002)EugenTönnis always intended to begin his memoirs with the first sentence of the ‘The Gallic Wars’ by the Roman general Julius Caesar. The quote, meant ironically of course, was his favourite, as the Belgian bird trappers were the most unfriendly and most obstinate folk that he came across in his far too-short life.

Born in 1959 in the small town of Übach-Palenberg, a stone’s throw from the Belgian and Dutch borders, he grew up in a region which at that time was the stronghold of Central European bird trapping. At an early age Eugen discovered his love for nature and birds. At the age of only eight he destroyed a sparrow trap in a neighbour’s garden and got into deep water for his trouble. This was to be the pattern for the rest of his life.

As a schoolboy, during an excursion with the German bird protection society, Eugen discovered a trapping site near the Dutch border and informed the police. He remained in ambush with the officers and the poacher was caught red-handed and arrested. The success of this spontaneous action encouraged him to greater commitment. In 1975, when the Komitee gegen den Vogelmord was founded, he soon made contact with the organisation. His proximity to Belgium, where bird trapping was still practised legally, made him ideal for the role of coordinator for local activities.

Every weekend after the start of the autumn trapping season, Eugen gathered his friends together and, with the media in tow, gave the trappers a hard time with whistles, banners, sirens and even fireworks. In battlefield-like scenes the activists stormed the trapping sites, freed live decoy birds and destroyed nets and cages until the irate trappers drove them back across the German border with pitchforks and shotguns.

At a demonstration against bird trapping near Aachen in 1983 he got to know Italian bird conservationists for the first time and in 1984 he accepted an invitation to visit Northern Italy. In cloak and dagger operations bird traps and nets were collected, decoy birds freed and one or the other large trapping installations was literally razed to the ground with handsaws. This first, not so well coordinated operation, kindled in him an enthusiasm that was to last until his death. From 1986 onwards he led the Committee’s operations. At first they were only long weekends, when traps and nets were collected more or less spontaneously without consultation or cooperation with the authorities. Ultimately large-scale operations of 20 days duration with police escort were organised, where not uncommonly more than 20,000 traps, nets, shotguns and ammunition were seized.

Eugen Tönnis at the presentation of the Bavarian Broadcasting Authority Environment Prize in 1996Eugen Tönnis at the presentation of the Bavarian Broadcasting Authority Environment Prize in 1996 Eugen made more and more contact with bird conservationists from other countries. He was soon active in France combating Lark and Lapwing trapping, in Spain at limestick installations, then after bird traders in the Czech Republic, the hunters on Malta and even twice in the South American tropics - all at his own personal cost. Everywhere he went he attracted the attention of the media and public alike. He helped befriended conservationists with their work and organised financial and logistic support through the Committee.

His social vein was demonstrated in his work in local politics. In 1979 he was a founding member of the German Green Party in his home region and represented them in the Übach-Palenberg council until his decease. He not only strove for better communal nature protection policies, but also for kindergartens and jobs. He was a democrat through and through. He was also nominated by the Aachen bishopric as an adviser for conscientious objectors.

Most people have a hobby after work. It was the opposite for Eugen. In addition to bird conservation he has his work! His last job was biology and geography teacher at the Alsdorf comprehensive school near Aachen. Without a thought for himself he spent every spare minute working for the Committee. Every morning he got up an hour earlier to do Committee work, and afternoons and evenings - not to mention the weekends - were reserved completely for bird conservation. This left no time for a family of his own.

Eugen was not always easy to get on with. As a colleague once remarked, he was He was a rough diamond. His aim, to put an end to bird trapping and hunting in Europe, was evident in every aspect of his life - each and every day. He was a lone wolf of the old school; he demanded more than was required from himself - and encouraged his colleagues to go beyond their limits. Whereas others looked forward to a hit shower and a glass of wine after a long day collecting traps in the North Italian mountains, Eugen sat at the computer or talked on the phone for hours coordinating the next day’s operations. When he finally relaxed the evenings were unforgettable as he kept the whole team entertained with his vivid narration of the old stories about operations in Belgium and Italy.

Release of a confiscated live decoy (1999)Release of a confiscated live decoy (1999)When things went well - which was most of the time - he was happy for a short while before concentrating deeply and doggedly on the next project. Although he led a spartan life he was always generous to friends and would have given the shirt off his back to help someone. Nonetheless he was humble by nature. Other people with his personality would have fought tooth and nail over rank and position; Eugen beavered away in the background. After his election as chair of the Committee in 1995 it was difficult to persuade him to sign a letter with the subscription ‘President’. He would rather have kept quiet about it.

The Italians say “Tanti nemici, tanti onori” or “the more enemies, the more the honour”. And that was his motto. A Belgian bird trapper once said on camera to a German TV team “I wouldn’t wish my worst enemies someone like Tönnis”. And so it was. Eugen only tackled things that had a chance of success. He put the wind up hunters, bird trappers and animal traders with a well-balanced mix of good publicity, the support of the media and political and legal pressure. Eugen was a tactical animal - he thought out every move in advance - and it always paid off!

If they awarded a prize for amateur lawyers he would definitely have been well in the running. Law books were for him bedtime reading, and the miniscule and finest nuances of interpretation he discovered gave governments and the European Commission many a headache. He kept politicians on their toes with dozens of law-suits in Belgium, Germany and Italy and environmental complaints to the European Commission in Brussels. In this way he helped the bird protection guidelines and national nature protection legislation gain the acceptance they merited. His consistent and untiring efforts bore fruit. In 1991 the Italian government banned bird trapping and Belgium followed in 1993. Due to constant monitoring over the years illegal bird trapping has declined sharply in North Italy and Lapwing trapping is slowly but surely dying out in France. Eugen’s last success was the review of the German Federal hunting season regulations in May 2002.

But he was not destined to live long enough to witness the end of illegal bird trapping in Italy and France, the trade in wild animals and birds or hunting in the whole of Europe. On a trip in 1997 to the parrot trappers in Surinam he fell ill with a tropical disease that weakened his heart. The doctors however assured him that the virus would have no lasting effects. But five years later Eugen Tönnis died of a heart attack on 28 July 2002 aged 42 while on a cycling trip in Aachen.