Malta, a sun-kissed archipelago in middle of the Mediterranean, serves as an important “stepping stone” for many migratory birds as they travel between their breeding and wintering grounds in autumn and spring. As they fly from Europe to Africa and back; the Maltese islands act as a place for birds to rest before continuing their long and taxing journeys.
Alas, the archipelago is a dangerous place for the feathered to cross: Malta is tarnished by a longstanding illegal killing crisis.
Due to its strategic location on the African-Eurasian flyway, Malta is visited by many different species: 389 species from at least 48 countries have been recorded to date. These various species have to deal with an exceptionally high density of hunters per square kilometre – Malta has the densest hunter population in the entire European Union.
Hunting and trapping are old traditions on these islands, and illegal hunting is a serious, widespread problem. Some birds suffer more than others. Poachers specifically target raptors and herons as well as rare migratory birds; such as the Greater Flamingo, Black Stork and Eurasian Spoonbill.
This persecution reaches its peak during migration periods, but exists all year round. Resident species such as the Barn Owl and the Eurasian Jackdaw have become locally extinct – the last living breeding pairs were shot down by hunters.
What is driving this illegal killing crisis? For the most part, it’s taxidermy. Despite this fact, shockingly, authorities have issued amnesties for the owners of illegal taxidermy collections of wild birds; thereby helping collectors avoid criminal prosecution. Calls by BirdLife Malta to initiate a nation-wide spot check of these taxidermy collections – to make sure collectors do not abuse the system – have been ignored by the authorities.
The hunting and trapping lobby is very powerful within Maltese society, and has strong links with the two main political parties. As a result, local hunting federations have successfully lobbied for Malta to continue unsustainable activities in the face of legal pressure from the EU.
To this day, government authorities still implement policies which favour hunting in spring, the trapping of songbirds, and just generally adopt a lenient attitude towards the killing and possession of protected species.
Champions of bird protection
BirdLife Malta, our partner on the ground, has been the thorn in the side of the illegal hunting complex for many years. Their decades-long fight to protect both resident and migratory birds has seen numerous victories, as well as several setbacks. For a long time now, they have been working to bring Malta in line with the European Union’s Birds Directive. This includes advocating against the use of a legal instruments called “derogations” which effectively exempt the Maltese state from adhering to environmental legislation.
BirdLife Malta strives to protect birds both in the courts and in the field. Launching legal challenges to protect the precious species; they also set up volunteer bird protection camps to ensure that migratory and protected birds are safe from poachers. These bird protection camps help monitor for evidence of wildlife crimes during critical migration periods, gather evidence of these crimes, and assist the police with any further investigations. Since 2007, BirdLife Malta has been keeping a centralised database on illegal hunting and trapping incidents witnessed by BirdLife Malta staff, ornithologists, volunteers and members of the public known to the organisation. An analysis of the database is published annually. The also run the country’s bird recovery centres to care for and rehabilitate persecuted or injured birds.
In addition to this direct-action approach, BirdLife Malta also run a world-leading environmental education programme that tries to work with communities to explore sustainable ways to interact with wildlife. They work to generate understanding and respect for the environment, and to inspire change in people’s behaviour towards the natural world, especially in children and young people. Working with the future generation is the best chance there is to end the illegal killing crisis for good.