The German-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) yesterday reported that rampant hunting abuses persist despite the spring season being closed after the government banned the practice this spring.
This spring is the second running in which hunting has been outlawed. In spring 2008 the European Court of Justice issued an interim order banning spring hunting in light of an ongoing law suit initiated by the European Commission against Malta for having opened the season since its 2004 EU accession. This year’s season has been definitively banned by the government itself, while the 2007 spring season had been cut 10 days short following an alleged massacre of honey buzzards.
But despite this year’s ban, after just two days in the field in Malta CABS ‘Bird Guards’ report they have witnessed the shooting down of four birds of prey, protected even if the season were to have been opened this year, located an illegal net site and provided the police with enough evidence with which to arrest five poachers. A CABS team has also been shot at while giving chase to a hunter.
Since last Saturday CABS volunteers have registered over 220 shots across all parts of the islands.
CABS operations officer David Conlin yesterday suggested what the ornithological group has witnessed so far is, however, merely the tip of the iceberg, observing, “In view of the fact that our four teams can only monitor a small area of the island at any one time, we must assume that breaches of the law are widespread.”
CABS president Heinz Schwarze says he is particularly perturbed by the high level of criminal energy invested by the poachers and their accomplices. “Wherever shooting took place, our teams observed the activation of a warning system of watchers equipped with mobile phones and walkie-talkies as soon as a conservationist or police presence was detected. This is very similar to methods used by organised criminal gangs.”
He adds an observation that the nature and scale of criminal activity calls for a substantial reinforcement for the ALE and the creation of a dedicated wildlife crime unit as is the case in many other European countries. BirdLife Malta has in the past made similar suggestions for the creation of a dedicated wildlife crime unit.
CABS describes a number of incidents taking place in the Maltese countryside far from the eyes of the public - scenes somewhat more akin to the Wild West than the usually tranquil rural Malta.
The group reports how on Monday evening a flock of some 30 marsh harriers and honey buzzards flew into roost for the night at Little Armier, only for fire to have been opened upon them from all directions from hunters situated in the scrub and woodland.
One honey buzzard was seen falling to the ground and as the CABS team searched for the wounded or dead bird a young, armed hunter practically stumbled into them but took to his heels immediately after, CABS reports. The team began to give chase but broke off the chase after the hunter fired a warning shot.
CABS press officer Axel Hirschfeld recounts, “The situation was extremely hazardous for our people and we decided to let the poacher go.” Two local police patrols arrived on the scene about an hour later and collected four freshly fired cartridges from the ground, took a statement from the team leader including a detailed description of the culprit, and recorded an official complaint from the CABS team against the unknown person.
Earlier that morning, in the environs of Salina the CABS team witnessed at least three hunters shooting at harriers and falcons that had roosted there the previous night. At least one hobby was hit and fell to the ground, CABS reports, adding that within half an hour of being alerted, and despite morning rush hour traffic, two Administrative Law Enforcement patrols arrived at the scene and at least one man is helping police with their enquiries.
At the same time, another CABS team deployed to the north of Marsascala witnessed a kestrel being shot down, and filmed the poacher picking up the dead bird, sticking it under his pullover, and taking it back to his hut. CABS reports the police were once again on the scene quickly and managed to identify the shooter and retrieve the dead bird. During the same operation an active trapping site was discovered nearby and two nets were confiscated.
The police are also investigating footage CABS took of a man hunting just west of the Freeport in the company of a small child not more than two years old. CABS filmed the man with shotgun in hand and the police are investigating, CABS reports.
In yet another incident, on Tuesday morning CABS reports having followed a flock of about a dozen honey buzzards that roosted overnight west of Marsascala. Shortly before the birds reached the open sea near Fort St Leonardo, at least 20 shots were fired at the flock. The CABS team on site subsequently observed, through their spotting scope, how a young man with a shotgun combed the area and picked up an unidentified bird, probably one of the honey buzzards. He then disappeared with the bird into a shooting hide but despite an extensive search by two ALE patrols, neither the bird nor the poacher could be found. Police investigations are continuing.
“The extent of poaching causes us a great deal of concern,” Mr Schwarze adds. “Even if these illegal acts are committed by only a small minority of hunters, the damage to nature is nevertheless of worrying proportions.”
The four CABS teams will continue monitoring bird migration over Malta and Gozo until next Sunday and, in cooperation with the police, hopes to “bring poachers to justice”. Video material documenting offences recorded over the past few days are to be made available on YouTube.