Birding in Malta : a silent land
Every year in spring and autumn, millions of birds use the Mediterranean/Black Sea flyway to go back and forth between the two hemispheres. This flyway links breeding grounds in arctic and temperate regions with non-breeding sites in temperate and tropical areas. Along the way, the Mediterranean is a great obstacle, so birds converge to a small number of locations where they can limit their time flying above the large expanses of the sea. One crossing path goes from southern Italy and Sicily to North Africa, via the Messina Strait or via Malta.
However, these locations are not necessarily safe havens for the birds, because like many Mediterranean countries, Malta has a tradition of bird hunting. And today, it is one of the countries in the region where the tradition remains strong.
The 2 leading non-governmental organizations are working to protect the native and visiting birds from hunting and trapping are CABS and Birdlife. CABS is a small eNGO which specializes in combating and exposing wildlife crime. And BirdLife is an NGO working to conserve birds and their habitats in the Maltese Islands. BirdLife Malta is actually the oldest environmental organization in Malta and is part of BirdLife International. Long years of consistent effort led to a referendum in April 2015 on a spring hunting ban.
"The historic referendum was decided on a razor thin margin, with just 2,220 more votes deciding against the ban out of a total of 250,648 votes cast. The “yes” camp won 50.4% of the vote thanks to a strong showing for the pro-hunting contingent on the island of Gozo, which is part of Malta." (source: The Guardian)
"Despite it did not lead to an end of spring hunting the referendum made the maltese hunters aware of the fact that nearly half of the population is against their hobby which is blasting birds of conservation concern out of the sky in spring." comments Axel Hirschfeld (CABS Press Officer).
Under these very particular circumstances, I headed to Malta this April, exactly one year after the referendum. The hunting season will open on the 17th April till the 30th April 2016. There Quail and Turtle Dove are the only species which may be hunted throughout the Spring season, but many illegalities usually happen.
CABS was getting ready for another difficult but in a way promising hunting season. Axel added : "we expected to observe less illegalities as the premature closure of the hunting season – as decided by the maltese PM last spring after a number of protected species were shot– is hanging over their heads like a sword of Damocles. Despite this innovative collective punishment the government has also massively increased the range of sentences for poaching. These new penalties in combination with the presence of our volunteers in the countryside are a strong deterrent. Poachers who have been filmed red-handed by our teams last year have been sent to jail, their hunting licences were revoked for lifetime and some had to pay more than 10.000 Euro fine. It´s a question of risks and benefits for them and our task is to ensure that the risk of getting caught remains high."
During my time, I was able to visit 2 of the 3 islands and experienced both BirdLife nature reserves, the Il-Majjistral Nature & History Park, and Rdum Tal-Madonna (classified as an Important Bird Area). nce I arrived in Malta, a general feeling of desolation and silence quickly and deeply disheartened me. The singing of no more than a few common Zitting Cisticolas (Cisticola juncidis) and Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis) were seemingly drowned out by the looming presence of hunting seats and cabins littered with bullet casings.
At Is-Simar Nature Reserve I met James, who was on a one year mission to monitor the bird hunting and trapping issues for BirdLife Malta. He can already sense the sensitivity around this topic after only a couple of months on the field. "Sometimes when I am looking at birds in the sky with my binoculars on the side of a road, some people would honk at me and even insult me" he says.
After staying for 10 days in Malta and understanding the complexity and depth of the issue, I can only hope that the coming spring hunting season will show signs of improvement, reinforcing the trend of the last years. Hunting and trapping definitely has a huge impact on bird populations. With only 24 bird species currently breeding on the Maltese Islands (37 if you include occasional breeders), I cannot think of any other country where these numbers are so low.
"With regards to shooting of protected species it is indeed getting better. We observe less protected birds being targeted", says Axel.
"But this does not mean that we are at the end of the road. There is still much to do in Malta, especially with regards to illegal trapping which is increasing at the moment. And the fact that we are confirming that illegal shooting of protected species (birds of prey, herons, flamingos, storks etc.) is decreasing does not mean that we support a legal spring hunting season for Turtle Doves and Quails. The opposite is the case. The Turtle Dove is a species of international conservation concern and hunting it is not sustainable - it counters our efforts to stop the decline of these wonderful birds in mainland Europe."