I had heard of Joe Sultana well before I met him – tales of his daring conservation work had spread around the globe – but I was not prepared for how incredibly charming he was. Birding legends sometimes live in their own sharply focused avian world. Not so Joe.
He was passionate about birds of course, discussing nesting pairs of Cetti’s and Sardinian Warblers in his garden even when he was unable to leave his house due to illness.
But what made him a truly great conservationist was his ability to connect with people and to bring them around to his way of thinking. Joe built bridges not walls and that’s how he achieved the impossible in Malta, carving out nature reserves, protecting and researching native birds and making the Maltese Islands a better place to live for people and wildlife.
It also meant that he was darn good fun. His glee when flying to Filfla to study European Storm-petrels was infectious – if you had to be up all night working on a nocturnal bird, Joe was the best company, even if you did end up covered in petrel regurgitate.
My favourite memory is of Joe standing on Filfla in the middle of the night, arms raised in the spotlight of an AFM patrol boat, yelling “Jiena Joe Sultana!” (i’m Joe Sultana). They thought he was trespassing (he had permission to be there of course).
He also made bird-ringing trips to Comino extra special because in those breaks between net checks, Joe could tell tales from the very beginning of BirdLife Malta – no-one was safe from his gentle but mischievous sense of humour.
I have travelled all over the world in the course of my conservation career and have learned to treasure the people who greet foreigners with joy. Joe was one of those hosts. He welcomed my husband and I into his home every time we visited Gozo and was always keen to discuss our project bird, the Yelkouan Shearwater.
Conservation is sometimes riven with politics, but Joe was a man sure in his own standing, happy to share the successes of others, to give good advice and to advance the cause in whatever way he could, without worrying about being given credit.
Seabirds were always a passion for Joe and at a time when little was known about the Yelkouan and Scopoli’s Shearwaters in Malta, Joe was already studying them. Along with one of his closest friends, John J. Borg, Joe laid the groundwork for shearwater research, by ringing and monitoring birds in spectacularly inaccessible places such as Rdum tal-Madonna, Dingli and Ta Ċenċ in Gozo.
If there was a ledge with seabirds in it, Joe was going to get there, even if it meant a death-defying vertical scramble, hundreds of meters above the sea. His efforts meant that Malta was able to tap into EU funds; those resources have resulted in great strides in shearwater conservation on the islands, now overseen by Joe’s son, Mark.
It was a pleasure to watch him deftly handle these sea-faring birds that he did so much to protect, and he took a wicked pleasure himself when one of the birds rebelled and bit a less experienced ringer hard enough to draw blood (I have the scars to show for that one).
Joe Sultana’s death leaves an enormous hole in the conservation world in Malta, Europe and beyond. You don’t meet many people like this extraordinary Gozitan in a lifetime – but his legacy lives on in every shearwater that survived to reproduce, every waterbird pair that nested in Għadira or Simar, every raptor that migrated safely over the island and in the passion for wildlife that ignited in the children he came into contact with.
We have lost the founding father of modern conservation in Malta, but we can honour his legacy by protecting the natural world into the future.