When Malta joined the EU, the loudest celebrations came from conservationists. Finally, Maltese poachers and trappers would be subject to European Union laws … or so we thought. Fifteen years later, poaching remains rampant and 2018’s spring season was no exception. The Birds’ Directive counts for naught in Malta and the European Union is impotent in the face of dissimulation from Maltese government representatives.
Caught in a trap
The scores on the hunting hide doors for 2018 make dismal reading, even for a country well versed in flagrant breaches of conservation law. CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) report that illegal bird trapping was up 35% from last year, despite the spring trapping season being closed (180 active trapping sites counted, compared to 133 in 2017).
CABS spokesperson Axel Hirschfeld puts the increase down to “the government’s total failure to set up an effective and proactive enforcement system.” The ALE finally mustered up enough enthusiasm to arrest 13 illegal trappers but only after CABS found and filmed them.
As for the trigger-happy ‘quail’ hunters, they continue to ‘accidentally’ shoot protected Turtle Doves. This is hardly surprising, considering that the hunting season was, as BirdLife Malta puts, it, “specifically designed to coincide with peak Turtle Dove migration.”
They add, “The … dates chosen by the government – against all scientific data and against the ERA’s advice – was … a smokescreen for hunters to target this vulnerable species. There were thousands shot over our islands.”
Hirschfeld agrees, saying, “The first week of the season, the numbers of shots heard in the mornings was very low, with between zero and some dozens of shots recorded per team on average. As the first Turtle Doves arrived, the number of shots skyrocketed to over 100. One hunter was filmed red-handed on the Marfa Ridge with a gun and a dead dove in his hand.”
Short arm of the law
Despite multiple illegalities, arrests of hunters were few. Nik Barbara of BLM said, “ALE units were boosted during the hunting period to reflect the ‘7 officer per 1000 licences’ clause demanded by derogation framework law. However, such enforcement was ineffective in stopping the slaughter of Turtle Doves.”
Hunters are more mobile than trappers and thus almost completely evaded capture by the ALE. But BLM hit the bullseye when they filmed FKNK official Lawrence Vella. “Vella can be seen … shooting at a protected Turtle Dove three times, with the bird seen in the footage falling out of the sky.”
The organisation recorded 148 incidents of illegal killing. There was the usual miserable parade of dead and dying birds through BLM’s office too, with 27 shot birds by the end of April, an increase of 13 on 2017. As always, the numbers reported to BLM are the tip of the iceberg.
The Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU) is temporarily headed by Richard Lia, who, according to sources, is a trapper with a passion for Golden Plover. Official figures from WBRU are as rare as Barn Owls in Malta, but they claim in a recent press release to have completed 5,924 ‘inspections’ during the spring season.
They do not specify how many arrests resulted, and CABS dispute their figures when it comes to night patrols.
WBRU must submit its derogation report to the EU within a month of the season’s end, due on 21 May. Don’t hold your breath for pithy insights into illegalities though. Hirshfeld says, “Figures published in the government reports normally contain only the numbers of successful convictions. This is ridiculous, as it says nothing about the situation in the field or the quality of enforcement”.
He added: “The most interesting figure is the number of illegalities reported/known to WBRU, but as far as I can see, they always avoid mentioning this in their reports… probably because … the conviction rate of all known and reported cases would not look impressive.”