The fight against illegal bird shooting
There are two things that you can be sure of when you visit Malta. The first is the sun and the second is the sound of gunfire.
Malta has been fighting a war for generations, a war on the birds that fly over this small island at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Since birds evolved they have been migrating south to escape the cold of winter in Europe and back north again to take advantage of the rich hunting grounds in the air over Europe in Summer. To do this they need to fly over the Mediterranean and this is made easier if they use stepping stones. Unfortunately for the birds, Malta became one of these stepping stones.
From October when the migration begins, until May when it ends, Malta is responsible for the killing of up to 5 million birds, year in year out. The tourist guides warn you that the locals shoot at anything and you should avoid confrontation as this may result in you being shot. The species of bird shot seems immaterial, they range from small sparrows to the mighty Osprey. Birds that cannot easily be shot are lured into range by live decoys tied to wooden platforms that are launched into the air by the pull of a string when a possible candidate for slaughter flies past. As if this wasn’t enough the hunters also have an extensive range of traps to trap song birds!
There is some hope on the horizon! IAR have been campaigning to stop the slaughter of birds for the past twelve years. In that time the Government has changed many times and Max Farrugia (Chairman of IAR Malta) has tirelessly worked with each and every environment minister to try and lobby for better laws to protect the birds. Max travels extensively to bird rehabilitation conferences and to international meetings to learn how to treat the broken wings and other serious injuries inflicted by the shooters when their shot is not fully on target. Max also constantly lobbies for better laws.
Five years ago the environmental police force of Malta, set up to fight illegal hunting, found they were victims of their own success. They had made it so difficult for hunters on land to break the law that the hunters resorted to using boats to hunt out at sea away from the prying eyes of the police.
IAR tried to keep one step ahead at that time by supplying the police with a fast patrol boat (a 5.5m Tornado RIB) to allow them to patrol the coasts of Malta, Comino and Gozo for illegal hunters. Five years later the boat is still in full use, patrolling the seas and arresting hunters. In the last five years the IAR patrol has been responsible for 170 arrests.
The hunters are now used to seeing the bright orange RIB appear from nowhere to arrest them and have decided to re-equip their boats with larger engines to try and outrun the police. IAR have once again come to the rescue of the birds by also equipping their RIB with a larger engine to out run the hunters!
Maltese hunters are obviously finding it harder to hunt in Malta so groups of them are now heading to the richer hunting grounds in Egypt. This exodus may be due to a reduction in the birds flying over the island or restrictions on how they can shoot them. Last month the police arrested a group of hunters who were returning to Malta from Egypt concealing the carcasses of birds they had slaughtered to satisfy their lust to add more specimens to their collection.
During May 2001 the Government announced new laws to help preserve the few birds that are left. If Malta is to satisfy their ambition to enter the European Community they will need to take major steps towards protecting the wildlife of the island. I hope these new laws and our wildlife protection boat will help this to happen.