“How do you solve a problem like Malta?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”
A couple of days ago I interviewed Geoffrey Saliba, Campaigns co-ordinator with BirdLife Malta (BLM) for a short Talking Naturally podcast. I’d contacted Geoffrey after he’d sent me a BLM press-release which had begun with the words, “On the first day of BirdLife Malta’s Spring Watch Camp last Sunday, international volunteers witnessed a flock of 42 Marsh Harriers being searched for at night using torches, and shot while the protected birds slept in fields between Mosta and Burmarrad”.
Forty-two Marsh Harriers, protected migrants on ther way to their breeding-grounds, shot at while they roosted by Maltese ‘hunters’ using torches to find them. Shocking, and as Geoffrey, with sadness and frustration clearly evident in his voice, carefully and deliberately said in the recording I posted, “This is not hunting, this is walking up to a defenceless animal, shining a light in its face, and shooting it – it can by no stretch of the imagination be considered hunting”.
As anyone who has read my posts over the last few years will know, I am not a fan of hunting – but let’s be clear here, the point that Geoffrey Saliba was making (and which I agree with 100%) is that there is a world of difference between legal hunting where there is an element of competition between the hunter and the hunted, where what is shot is legally defined as prey, and where bag limits are legislated and respected – and (as in this case) illegal killing where protected species are slaughtered while they roost. Whether I like it or not the former is allowed and is ‘proper’ hunting, the latter is most definitely not.
On Malta, a group of small islands that should act as a welcome resting place for migrants as they cross the eastern Mediterranean, it’s the latter that is now commonplace. A nation whose entire population was awarded the George Cross for their heroism in the Second World War is now widely spoken of as a lawless killing ground where tired birds are massacred with no regard for which species they might be and whether or not they are protected.
And, again let’s be clear, the birds that migrate through Malta are protected. They are protected by the European Union’s Birds Directive which bans spring hunting to ‘protect birds during their most vulnerable period’. And Malta aceded to the EU in 2004 and is legally obliged to enact and enforce the Bird’s Directive. It doesn’t though, continually flouting the laws it signed up to and this despite being hauled before the EU Court of Justice which in September 2009 ruled that Malta, by permitting the spring hunting of Turtle Doves and Quails in 2004-2007, had failed to implement the Birds Directive properly.
In fact so unimpressed was Malta by the Court’s ruling that its government unilaterally and provocatively decided to allow the spring hunting of Quail and Turtle Dove (species with massively declining populations right across their ranges) in 2010 and 2011 – opening the door (or shoving the door wide open) for the kind of illegalities that sees some of its citizens driving into fields in the middle of the night and shooting roosting raptors in front of a group of international witnesses. (The illegal ‘spring hunting season’ this year ‘officially’ opened on 13th April, by the way, and was greeted by vollies of gunshots and dead birds – three days after the harrier shooting incident took place.)
And therein lies the seemingly intractable problem at the heart of illegal hunting on Malta: it appears to be condoned at government level – condoned, incidentally, by a government that was promised EU funding of €1,158.9 million for 2007-2013 making it a net beneficiary of EU (ie European taxpayers) money.
What needs to be done then to stop the killing of birds like Marsh Harriers, Spoonbills, Little Egrets, Hoopoes (all species already illegally shot this spring)?
Boycotting Malta is often suggested, but not by BLM and I would guess for several good reasons. I don’t speak for BirdLife Malta and I’m certainly not privy to internal strategy discussions but I think that, firstly, no national conservation organisation that needs the support of its own citizens would back a campaign that could be portrayed as ‘anti-patriotic’ (which the hunting lobby, the FKNK, would undoubtedly do); secondly, it would be a severe blow to BLM’s credibility to back a campaign that can’t be won – the unfortunate truth is that while the tourism industry is very important to Malta’s cash flow, a boycott would only be backed by a very small number of birdwatchers, most of whom already choose not to go there, and would be widely ignored by a public more interested in the prices of flights and hotel rooms than the illegal killing of birds; and, thirdly, how would anyone on Malta know that an individual had chosen to boycott the island – if there’s no possible way to explain to anyone on Malta why you’re not there then you’re just not there and the reason hardly matters.
Personally speaking I would love to see a boycott work. I’d like to visit Malta to meet conservationists like Geoffrey Saliba in person, of course, and to see some great birds – but I’d also be prepared to commit to never going there: but at the same time I’m also very aware that it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the Maltese government if I did. Life would carry on as normal for the hunters, the Maltese economy would manage without me, and birds would still be shot. If a million ‘Charlies’ didn’t go it might make a difference, but that’s not going to happen.
If not a boycott could we shame the Maltese Government by picketing the embassy in London? It’s been suggested to me and at first sight it seems an interesting idea. I’ve tried to picture how such an even might go though, and I can see some obvious problems. What size does a crowd have to be to constitute an effective picket? A hundred people, two hundred, more than a thousand? Could we get enough people to turn up to have an impact? What group could we say we are representing (not BLM) and how would we elect a spokesman to put our message across in the unlikely event that the embassy agreed to talk with us? And what would we be trying to achieve: a boycott, a trade embargo, a Pauline conversion on Piccadilly? Sadly I just don’t see marching on an embassy working…
If that all seems unduly negative and defeatist – after all boycotts helped defeat apartheid and marches get national media coverage – we need to get the hunting situation on Malta into perspective. Apartheid rightly became despised all over the world; marches nowadays get coverage when marchers attack the police or set fire to banks. It’s sadly true that in comparison most people just don’t get excised by illegal hunting on a small island which seems detemined to break wildlife laws at will – and setting fire to a bank…well, that’s illegal isn’t it. Speaking from personal experience most people I’ve met recently here in the UK are anyway far more concerned about redundancy, rising fuel prices, and the marriage of a helicopter pilot and a ‘commoner’ than even deforestation, climate change, or mass extinction – so what chance getting them riled up about a few birds they’ve never heard of being shot at on an island most of them couldn’t place on a map and couldn’t care less about?
So what is the solution? What can we actually do that would make a difference? As personally impotent as I may feel and as intractable as the problem may seem a lot of the groundwork has been done already, and there are ways we can have an impact.
How about starting by supporting BirdLife Malta? If we have the money a good first step is to join BLM or make a cash donation. It’s a one-off action that works for a year and is much a show of support to the conservationists who live and work on Malta as it is to the birds that try to pass through.
How about swopping a birdwatching holiday for a ‘bird-watching-over’ holiday? Geoffrey Saliba and others would like as many of us as possible to join what are known as Spring Watch camps – volunteer groups that patrol the island during migration periods monitoring and recording illegalities. The camps have already had an effect: Maltese people have talked with the volunteers to find out why they’re on the island, and they’ve definitely unsettled some of the hunters as camp members always phone the police when they witness an illegal shooting (and, despite being underfunded and heavily outnumbered by the hunters, the police do respond as quickly as they can and should be applauded for doing so).
Okay, I know only too well that with the best will in the world not everyone is in a position to volunteer to go to Malta for a few weeks or even to make a donation. Most of us who do care though can write a blog post about Malta, can express our disgust, can make sure that whenever Malta is mentioned so is BirdLife Malta and the problem of illegal hunting. Even a link to the BLM website will help.
Undoubtedly, though, what will have the most impact on the Maltese Government will happen at the legislative level. The EU are not pleased that their Court rulings are being ignored – could the next step that the EU takes be to threaten to withdraw funding if its Court is treated like a minor incovenience and its laws are not enforced by one of its smaller members (and acting on any or all of the above suggestions will serve to remind the Commission of the snub)? I think to many Europeans the EU Commission is even more remote and unreachable than their national governments, but if that’s where the real power lies then that’s where we need to go. BLM staff (and I suspect staff from all the BirdLife partners in Europe) are putting pressure on the EU already of course – and by joining them we are of course lending our voices to that struggle. We can all mail our own MEPs too, reminding them that we vote for them and by doing so we pay their wages: how more effective might it be, though, if every member of a bird club or conservation organisation persuaded the group they belong to to do the same, making clear that they expect their MEPs to bring Malta into line if they want to be returned to power?
Writing an email takes just a few minutes, and I have another suggestion for influencing MEPs that won’t take any longer than that either. When I was emailing Geoffrey to set up the interview I asked whether creating a ‘vox pop’ podcast would help, a statement as it were made up of comments from ‘concerned citizens’ condemning illegal hunting, urging the Maltese Government to take concrete action to ensure incidents like these don’t happen again, and demanding that the EU Commission use all means necessary to bring Malta into line with standards expected by the EU. I’ll produce and edit it, and the podcast could be hosted anywhere by anyone that wanted it.
Would readers of this post get behind such an initiative? I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure what impact it could have but if it were supported by enough people who knows – and Geoffrey Saliba is already very keen on the idea and assures me that BLM could use it, so it wouldn’t be a wasted effort (an effort incidentally that woud require a participant to record a conversation of no more than twenty seconds). Let me know what you think.
In the meantime, though, let’s not get downhearted and think that nothing can be done to solve the problem of Malta. Targeted pressure by organisations (backed by individuals of course) that have a seat around the EU table can and will cut into the arrogance of the Maltese government. Our continued vilification of a minority of Maltese hunters will force through change in the end (even if it’s only because the rest of Malta is getting fed up of having their good name besmirched by the lawbreakers and will demand their government act). And never forget that every day of their working lives there are people like Geoffrey Saliba putting themselves on the front line, standing right in the open where they can be seen, who are absolutely determined that change will happen and that birds will stop being blasted out of the skies over Malta.
Yes, there are problems all over the world, and all need solving, all cause sadness, frustration etc, but in the case of illegal hunting on Malta let’s not forget that the most powerful political and legislative force in Europe is already stirred from its slumbers and looking hard at a government that is itself caught uncomfortably between the demands of a handful of growling hunters and a population fed up of being unfairly portrayed as thugs. Solving deforestation, climate change, and mass extinction all require huge changes in the mindset of every single person on the planet – in contrast on a couple of small islands in the Mediterranean Sea Malta’s hunters are already skulking around in the darkness with torches fully aware that public opinion both at home and overseas is turning aganst them.
The end to this mayhem and slaughter, surely, can’t be all that far away if we keep the pressure up…and far from just pinning down this cloud over Europe we can blow it away forever!
If you would consider adding your voice to a podcast (and additionally would like to help me get support for the idea) please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
* Photo at head of post taken from a report on Maltatoday.com, others copyright BirdLife Malta and used with permission.