About Me

My photo
Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Fabio Perco - Obituary

Fabio Perco ca. 1980 with a tame Jackdaw
On Tuesday a dear friend died. A man I very much admired and who, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for me being able to 'get off on the right foot' in Italy, and, all things considered, make a reasonable job of living in a foreign land. His funeral is on Saturday and I won't be able to be there which I'm very sad about. I'm stuck in UK while I sort out various bits of paperwork. The least I can do is tell you a bit about him so that you can know what a great person he was... so I've written an obituary for him. If any newspapers or magazines see fit to reprint it, please be my guest. 

Fabio Perco, Ornithologist, conservationist and wildlife artist whose devotion to wildfowl and raptors changed the course of wildlife conservation in Italy.
Fabio Perco at the entrance to the visitor centre,
Isola della Cona, ca. 2015
The Italian ornithologist, conservationist and wildlife artist Fabio Perco, who has died aged 72 after a long illness, changed the course of bird conservation in Italy but lived to see realised his dreams of vast flocks of wild geese wintering in Italy after an absence of almost one hundred years, White Storks and Mute Swans nesting in the country once again and Griffon Vultures soaring over the Alps in their hundreds every summer, and breeding in peninsular Italy for the first time since the 19th century. He even got to see one of the birds that fascinated him most, the Bald Ibis, migrating back and forth between Austria and Italy in what may be a prelude to its recolonization of Europe. When not working the Italian political system to the advantage of his beloved birds he was painting them in lively scenes that now adorn visitor centres and nature reserves in Italy and Slovenia.

The youngest of three brothers, Fabio was born in the Trieste in July 1946, then under Anglo-American administration following the eviction of Yugoslav forces in June the previous year while the United Nations decided the fate of the city. The UN mandate of the Free Territory of Trieste was established early the following year until in 1954 the city and its surroundings were returned to Italy.

Their father, Dino, a lawyer, imbued a love of wildlife and hunting into the three boys, Franco (b.1939), Giuliano (1940-1996) and Fabio, who would occasionally guiltily mention that the first bird he had bagged had been a Reed Bunting or recount the anecdote of the freezing cold day, the local bora wind blowing hard, that his uncle Emo’s retriever had refused to enter an icy pool to recover a shot Coot. Emo stripped naked and recovered the bird himself, the dog slinking off into the undergrowth in shame! A love of the countryside saw the family leave their city apartment and move up to a village in the limestone Karst, the boys now free to indulge their interest in natural history.

Goshawk hunting Woodcock, Fabio Perco, 1997.
After high school, Fabio attended the University of Trieste where he studied Natural Sciences and completed his degree with a master’s thesis on the behaviour of the Goshawk he owned; he was also a falconer for a while until one day the bird refused to return to the glove!

By now for Fabio the lure of killing was beginning to wane and the Percos, Fabio, Franco and their father, Dino, who wrote columns for Italy’s main hunting magazine, Diana, began a successful campaign that eventually saw all birds of prey and owls legally protected throughout Italy. They also exploited the newly-autonomous status of the Region of which Trieste is the capital, Friuli Venezia Giulia, to extricate it from the highly permissive national hunting law and develop a more restrictive regional one that tied hunter numbers to the areas of land available to them in each municipality and ensured hunters kept to their own municipal hunting reserves, usually close to home rather than wandering the wider countryside in search of game. Another article of the law drastically reduced the length of the quarry list that at the time included birds such as gulls and herons and paved the way for similar legislation and the extension of protection to many more species at a national level in Italy.

Under the new law Wildlife Observatories - funded with the proceeds of hunters’ permit fees - were set up in each of the four regional provinces with Fabio (Udine) and his brother Franco (Pordenone) in charge of two of them. These operated until 1999. Very soon, via the research carried out by the provincial wildlife observatories and the employment of young enthusiasts, the vertebrate wildlife of the Region and especially its birds became better known than that of any other part of Italy. Changes mediated by Fabio and his brother Franco to the Regional hunting law in the mid-1990s also saw hunting banned for non-migratory species for which no census had been carried out. Many of the changes were eventually also reflected in the statutes governing hunting in other Regions and in nation legislation too.

The mid-1970s witnessed a brief diversion into local politics during which Fabio helped set up a civic list, the Lista per Trieste, his aim being to prevent a huge industrial development in the Karst using Italian investments and Yugoslav labour as part of the peace settlement between the two countries, the Treaty of Osimo, signed on 10th October 1975. Taking control of the council from the previously unassailable Christian Democrats the development was stopped and Fabio found himself serving as a local minister (assessore) and sharing the council meetings with a young radical just cutting his political teeth, one Marco Pannella. But Fabio did not enjoy politics at the sharp end and soon took his leave to get back to birds, confessing more than once that he worried at night about all the papers he had put his signature to without reading them properly He was also a remarkable caricaturist, sketching feverishly during meetings and would often win over otherwise sceptical politicians and functionaries via their vanity, presenting them with a deadly résumé, a ‘head-shot’ at the end of the meeting. Had he gone into politics, this uncanny knack would have undoubtedly won him many friends and enemies.

A Basking Shark painted by Fabio Perco (2013).
Fabio, always an anglophile and speaking excellent English, was searching for models that might help him conserve wildlife (and especially the wildfowl of the marshy coastline north of Venice that had once played host to Ernest Hemingway and his shotgun) so he sought out contacts with Sir Peter Scott’s Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge. Scott, also one of the founders of the (then) World Wildlife Fund, had himself undergone a Damascene conversion, hanging up his shotgun some years before and Scott’s writings were key to Fabio giving up hunting too. Along the way he wheedled important functionaries and politicians into organising an important conference on Mediterranean wetlands in in Grado 1991, just as eastern Europe was beginning to open up and which saw important new ornithological information being brought out of countries like Albania and Algeria. In later years he also founded the Stazione Biologica Isola della Cona (SBIC) which collects biological records and carries out monitoring work on and around the reserve.

One important result of the Grado Conference was the impetus that it gave to wetland conservation in the Region and with help “on the inside” from a number of sympathetic politicians, his erstwhile adversaries in the Christian Democrats and an important functionary, Franco Musi, a series of wetland nature reserves were established or enlarged including Valle Cavanata, Italy’s first Ramsar site and no-hunting “oasis”, the suburban wetland of Valle Canalnovo near Marano towards Venice and the apple of his eye, the reserve of Isola della Cona – Foce Isonzo, 2,200 hectares of marsh, mudflat and shallow sea at the mouth of the River Isonzo, the scene of savage fighting in World War One but now with an information centre, hides, 40,000 visitors a year and one of the longest species lists of any reserve in Europe.

The view from the Marinetta hide at Isola della Cona, looking towards the Gulf of Trieste, the city itself and the Karst.

The idea of the reserve was originally that of his brother’s in 1975, the name being thought up by the botanist Professor Livio Poldini but it was Fabio who carried it through to completion. The oldest of the reserves, Valle Cavanata, saw its first breeding Greater Flamingos in 2018. The establishment of the protected sites was matched by some targeted reintroductions of Greylag Goose and Mute Swan, both successful. The reintroduced geese in particular proved a magnet for migrating and wintering birds, Greylags, White-fronted and Bean. These had been shot out in Italy in the 1920s and showed few signs of returning, but a large mixed flock arrived on a huge farm close to coast during the savage winter of 1984-85 and Fabio and the farm’s manager ensured the birds were not disturbed. Wild geese have continued to return to Italy since then, with about 20,000 birds currently wintering between Ravenna and Trieste along the Adriatic coast.

Fabio Perco on the Isola dei Gabbiani at the mouth of the River Isonzo (Photo © Matteo De Luca)

During the summer months Fabio would often holiday with the family on the northernmost of the Dalmatian Islands, Cres (or Cherso in Italian) just an hour from Trieste. The island had been part of the Venetian Empire (to 1796), then under Austria-Hungary (to 1918) and Italy (to 1945) before becoming part of Yugoslavia (until 1991, now Croatia) where he would get away from the beach to follow the fortunes of the island’s colony of nesting Griffon Vultures, the immature birds of which would often spend the summer 200 kilometres to the north in the Alps of the High Tauern in Austria, feeding on the carcasses of domestic stock that died during the transhumance on the high Alpine grasslands. When the Yugoslav authorities intimated to Fabio, none too politely, that he should cease studying “their” Griffons he decided that if he could not go and study the vultures then the vultures would have to come to him and began setting up a feeding station for them with aviaries and the necessary paperwork (lots!) for the disposal of dead domestic stock which at that time were going to incineration, at considerable cost to farmers. A site was chosen close to the lake at Cornino, not far from Udine in the Prealps of Friuli, an ideal south-facing location with relict Evergreen Oaks showing the Mediterranean nature of the local climate. Over the years, with Griffons scrounged from zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centres across Europe acting as call-birds, the vultures did indeed come to Fabio with about 15 pairs now nesting nearby in the wild and with the model being repeated elsewhere in mainland Italy (in Basilicata and on Monte Velino in Abruzzo) while the surviving Griffon Vultures in Sardinia have been boosted with releases and supplementary feeding. More than 200 wild vultures now soar above the feeding site at Cornino between May and October and are now seen wandering far and wide in Europe during the summer months, regularly arriving in the Netherlands and Poland.

A few of the 20,000 or so Greylag and White-fronted Geese that now winter in NE Italy.

Fabio received several prizes for his work over the years including the prestigious Airone d’Oro together with his brother Franco in 1994. His illness made life increasingly difficult in recent years but as late as 16th December 2018 he was still enjoying the evening flight of 5,000 White-fronted Geese into roost at his beloved Isola della Cona, close to Trieste.

Fabio, Chiara and Nicoletta.
He is survived by his wife Chiara, his children Nicoletta, Elena and Dino, his older brother Franco and a new grandson Martino.

• Fabio Perco, ornithologist, conservationist and wildlife artist. 
Born Trieste, 30th July 1946 – died Trieste (Italy), 12th February 2019.


  1. Very moving Paul. I share the pain

    1. Thank you Manuel. My pain isn't great. It was a life well-lived right to the end and I leart a lot about Italy from Fabio.

  2. Thank you Paul for letting us have a glimpse on the wonderful life of this brave and generous man. May he know enjoy the company of the Creator of all the beauty that he loved in this world.

  3. Thanks, Paul. Reading the text I saw the scenes of my friendship with Fabio again.

  4. Fabio lived like this and I will always remember him like this

  5. Every time we see them I expect!

  6. Dear Paul
    By chance, we were having dinner with friends last weekend and discussing 9 course meals we had had (as one does) and I mentioned a late evening I had once had in Marano with Fabio Perco and the Mayor after a talk I had give about designing a wetland reserve. It was the 30 April 1988 and I still have the poster advertising the event. That meal, as you can imagine, was the full Italian! And there were many more. This memory got me googling ‘Fabio Perco’, and I found your blog. In 1992 my work took me to live in Asia and Fabio and I had no contact since then.
    I was the person Fabio had contacted at the Wildfowl Trust, as it then was, and I made several visits to advise on the creation of the Marano reserve and its visitor centre and I hosted Fabio and his colleagues at Slimbridge.
    In fact, Fabio didn’t really need my advice; he himself had the vision and know-how. But his modesty let the foreigner do the talking and he could see that this was a productive way to influence rather sceptical civil servants. Fabio’s way of getting things done, his approach, knowledge and quiet determination had a big influence on me and my professional career. I remember too that Fabio’s family values were very important and although so much was going on during my visits he always needed to get home at night to see his baby twins. Fabio had a great sense of humour and liked to play with English words. I remember his concluding comments in his speech at the Grado conference after there had been many different points of view aired rather acrimoniously ‘lets turn words into birds’. I guess that says it all. Thank you Fabio, and thank you Paul for writing about our mutual friend.