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Hunting for 'black gold' in Albania's lawless truffle trade
[PESHTAN, Albania] Threats, poisoned dogs and massacred trees: Albania's forests are gripped by a war over truffles, the prized and pricey fungi known in this poor European country as "black gold".
Evgjeni Pano, a 28-year-old truffle hunter, sets off every morning into Albania's southern mountains with her husband and woolly-haired dogs, Lajka and Boss, who are trained to track down the pungent culinary delights and gently unearth them from beneath the soil.
Pano sells most of the bounty to foreign traders from Italy and France -- the traditional provenance of the knobby, subterranean delicacy relished by the world's gourmands.
The way of life may sound idyllic: a day's haul of one kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of black truffles can bring home 50 euros (S$79). White truffles, a rare and even more highly treasured variety, can be sold for up to 140 euros.
Those are enviable sums in a country where the average monthly salary is below 400 euros, and even lower in rural areas.
But the work is no walk in the park.
Pano and other Albanian truffle hunters describe dicey turf wars in the country's forests, with competitors bullying rivals and ruthlessly targeting their expensive dogs.
Pano recounted how, one day, a group of men "blocked her on the road and threatened" her if she continued to search on a tract of wild land they claimed as their own.
She reported the incident to police and returned the following morning to prove that she would not be easily deterred from work she describes as a "deep and emotional passion".
But others have been forced to give up the trade, such as Besmi Lami, who used to spend his days scouring the forest floor on Dajti mountain, which looms above Tirana.
That came to a tragic end late last year after suspected competitors poisoned his two dachshunds.
"They followed me, found the place (where I foraged) and to make me flee they killed my two dogs," he told AFP, struggling to hold back tears as his hands trembled.
- Ravaged tree roots -
A lack of regulations has also put Albania's trees -- and therefore the truffles themselves -- in peril, with reckless hunters attacking the land with pickaxes and sharp spades.
The truffle trade took root in Albania a decade ago, when Italians came to search for the mushrooms on the other side of the Adriatic Sea.
Once plentiful in Albania, truffles are now becoming increasingly difficult to find, said Pano, blaming the use of axes that damage the tree roots on which the fungus grows.
"A ruined tree does not produce (truffles) any more," she said, adding that she would like authorities to introduce strict licensing and taxes to control the trade.
"In Albania... truffles are not cultivated or protected, and there is no prevention or awareness to avoid damaging them," explained her husband Panajot Pano, 39, who returned to Albania to truffle-hunt after nearly two decades living and working abroad.
In some parts of the country, such as Divjake-Karavasta National Park in the west, the situation has become "disastrous for the mushroom," said Adrian Koci, the park's director.
In June, he brought two men to the police for using a pickaxe in the forest.
But, with no laws on the books banning the practice, they were quietly released.
- Cultivating a local appetite -
"We are worried as well... but without clear rules" we cannot act against unscrupulous pickers, said Agim Hoxha, a forestry official in the town of Fier, south of Divjake-Karavasta park.
"That would be like entering someone's house without the search warrant," he told AFP.
An official from the environment ministry, Ylli Hoxha, said work is under way to develop a more "precise legal framework" for harvesting truffles.
In the meantime, the market is in "chaos", said Enea Ristani, a 27-year-old who forages for the fungus with his father.
The business draws "many foreigners, such as Italians, Greeks, Romanians, French", he added.
Most of the truffles go abroad too, often for western Europe, where they can fetch 10 times the price.
Eager to keep more of the profits on Albanian soil, Ristani and his father recently opened a gourmet truffle shop in Tirana, with hopes of cultivating a local appetite for the expensive treat.
They already sell homemade truffle sauce, crisps and brandy.
"Soon also beer," says Ristani.