Fragmentation of the lead core of conventional wildlife hunting rifle bullets causes contamination of the target with lead. The community of scavenger species which feed on carcasses or viscera discarded by hunters are regularly exposed to these lead fragments and may die by acute or chronic lead intoxication, as demonstrated for numerous species such as white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) where it is among the most important sources of mortality. Not only does hunting with conventional ammunition deposit lead in considerable quantities in the environment, it also significantly delays or threatens the recovery of endangered raptor populations. Although lead-free bullets might be considered a suitable alternative that addresses the source of these problems, serious reservations have been expressed as to their ability to quickly and effectively kill a hunted animal. To assess the suitability of lead-free projectiles for hunting practice, the wounding potential of conventional bullets was compared with lead-free bullets under real life hunting conditions. Wound dimensions were regarded as good markers of the projectiles' killing potential. Wound channels in 34 killed wild ungulates were evaluated using computed tomography and post-mortem macroscopical examination. Wound diameters caused by conventional bullets did not differ significantly to those created by lead-free bullets. Similarly, the size of the maximum cross-sectional area of the wound was similar for both bullet types. Injury patterns suggested that all animals died by exsanguination. This study demonstrates that lead-free bullets are equal to conventional hunting bullets in terms of killing effectiveness and thus equally meet the welfare requirements of killing wildlife as painlessly as possible. The widespread introduction and use of lead-free bullets should be encouraged as it prevents environmental contamination with a seriously toxic pollutant and contributes to the conservation of a wide variety of threatened or endangered raptors and other members of the guild of scavengers.
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