The Malta Independent 21 October 2018, Sunday

I was wrong about Clint Camilleri, he should be removed – BirdLife Malta CEO

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 23 September 2018, 09:30 Last update: about 27 days ago

BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana fears an increasing trend in hunting illegalities. During an interview with Kevin Schembri Orland, he spoke about Bird Life’s continued stand against spring hunting and how the relationship with the hunting lobby has changed over the years. He also gives his thoughts on the hunting lobby’s political power.

BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana does not believe the FKNK has as much power as politicians believe they have

During an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Sultana highlighted the fact that FKNK’s Lino Farrugia only received 2,000 votes when he stood for the MEP elections, showing that not even one-fifth of the hunting lobby had voted for one of their leaders.

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He also said that hunters also have families and so vote based on many other issues, including healthcare and education.

Sultana also highlighted the fact that the number of incidences of abuse and confrontation by hunters against bird preservationists who go out into the countryside with binoculars and cameras has fallen . He also highlighted the problems with enforcement and stressed the need for the creation of a Wildlife Crime Unit within the police force. The unit that currently deals with illegal hunting, the ALE, also has many other areas on which to focus, he said, while giving examples of slow response times. He highlighted the fact that over the past 15 or so years the number of incidents of illegal hunting has reduced, but he warned of an upward trend. “When the government closed the spring hunting season because a protected bird had been shot and fell into a school, the following autumn hunting illegalities were very low, because hunters were worried. When they realised that it was possibly just a gimmick, then the number of illegalities began increasing.”

Do you believe hunting organisations have too much power over political parties?

I believe that the hunting lobby has managed to convince political parties that they can win or lose an election through them and I believe this to be wrong. Looking at statistics on how people voted, which areas, where there is a strong hunter presence, you realise that the hunting lobby has never affected the outcome of any election. When a party won an election, they did not win it due to the hunting lobby, but politicians believe that the lobby does have power.

When Lino Farrugia himself stood for the MEP elections, and there were around 10,000-15,000 hunters at the time, he only won 2,000 votes. Not even one-fifth of the hunters voted for their lobby at MEP level. This shows that, at the end of the day, hunters vote for their preferred party irrespective of their hobby. For example, a lot of hunters have children and so would vote on issues of education, healthcare and the economy.

The Prime Minister should realize that, while in the past politicians had the belief that that the hunting lobby could affect the result, the hunting lobby today does not have that strength even if they all voted for or against him, as the majority difference he has at the moment is so high that he should be the first politician to do the right thing with regards to hunting and trapping, ensuring that things are fair and disciplined.

We are not saying there shouldn’t be hunting, but if you can’t control it, at least don’t open it when the protected birds pass through Malta. We are not saying don’t open it for the duck migration for example. Keep in mind there are five months of hunting season.

 

How many birds were shot illegally during the closed season, and how many in total this year?

Thus far this year 68 protected birds have been illegally shot down. 24 of these were shot this autumn hunting season, and 18 during the last spring hunting season. The rest were recovered the off season. You have to bear in mind that there are very few months out of season in Malta, as even during the summer there is a rabbit-hunting season. So seeing someone walking in a field with a gun during the summer does not mean it is something you can take action about, because they might be hunting rabbits and not illegally shooting birds.

Keeping this in mind, there is a clear-cut difference between illegalities in the open season and those in the closed season: far fewer birds are shot during the closed season and there are more illegalities in an open season. Secondly, the police success rate is higher during the closed season because it is easier to enforce.

There have been incidents in the past when conflict has arisen between hunters and NGOs such as BirdLife and CABS, when these activists went out filming and observing. Have there been any recent incidents, such as threats?

Nowadays – and I give credit for this to the hunting lobby – the kind of attitude where there has been an element of abuse or confrontation towards people filming or with binoculars is not so common.

We do still find areas, particularly in Gozo, where we have received complaints from tourists and members of the public who have been approached by people telling them to get out of a private area. This is mainly due to there being illegal trapping or hunting going on.

I wouldn’t say that we are in any way alarmed by the attitude towards us by hunters when we go out with binoculars, excluding comments and the silliness on social media, which I don’t think reflects the reality of the situation.

 

Have you seen an improvement over the past few years in the enforcement of illegal hunting?

Enforcing environmental laws related to illegal hunting is not an easy task, but we cannot remain silent when we see a lack of motivation and resources. Our call for a Wildlife Crime Unit is based on this. We want a department within the police force that focuses solely on wildlife crime and does not have to also focus on a hundred other things that require police action.

 Nowadays, we still have a big problem. With illegal hunting, Malta being small and some police knowing some hunters – possibly being friends with them  (which is probably an issue you will find in any area), you need to vet the officers who would be there specifically to deal with wildlife crime.

The Police Administrative Law Enforcement unit does not have the sole remit for wildlife crime, but a hundred other things. For example, when the first stork was illegally shot down this year, it took an hour-and-a-half for the ALE to come, and it had to be the now former head of the Unit who left his home to come to collect the bird, as the rest of the Unit were positioned in other areas, carrying out duties at village feasts and that sort of thing. In that case, they couldn’t do anything and there was a low response rate.  We had to stay near the first stork for over an-hour-and-a-half, and I had personally called the then head of the Unit.

 

As the number of incidents of illegal hunting been reducing over the years?

If I had to compare what is happening today to 10-15 years ago, then there has been a sizeable improvement. I used to go to Buskett, and would see hundreds of honey buzzards being shot in a nature reserve. That is something you don’t expect. We still get one-offs, but not to that extent, so there has been an improvement. However, over the past five years, there has been an upward trend and we fear we are going back to the bad old days. It is very easy to go back. The illegalities this year are already more than 2015 and 2016 combined.

When the government closed the spring hunting season because a protected bird had been shot and fell into a school, the following autumn hunting illegalities were very low, as hunters were cautious. When they realised that it was possibly just a gimmick, then the number of illegalities began increasing.

If Maltese hunters only shot those species they are allowed to shoot, I doubt there would be more than 3,000 hunters, as there aren’t more of those birds to hunt.  So the 10,000 hunters that are there normally obey the law if they are afraid of being caught. At the moment that fear factor is not there, possibly because the Parliamentary Secretary for Animal Rights is himself a hunter,  because Ministry advisors are hunters, possibly because the government says it wants to reduce hunting fines and maybe because they feel they can get away with illegal hunting. That fear factor goes down as a result of all these indirect messages.

When there are illegalities and very few people have to appear in court, that sends a message that if person X shot a protected bird and didn’t get caught, then person Y will believe he or she can also get away with it. We fear we are heading towards a trend of more annual offences.

 

Moving on from protected birds, do you also suspect that hunters are shooting more birds than allowed according to the derogation?

I think self-regulation in Malta has failed. In September there is one species one must report, the Turtle Dove. We know that the self-declaration of birds being hunted is not on. Every hunter has to report everything he catches, but they don’t. If you ask the  Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU) to indicate how the electronic system has worked since its introduction, I believe only a small percentage of the hunters participated.

So the WBRU does not have the data really showing how much hunting goes on in Malta. They need to ask the hunters to indicate that they went out hunting, even if they didn’t catch anything, because it provides  important data.

 

How do you get hunters to declare that they are going out to hunt?

I think it’s a bit of a lost cause now. How do you get a hunter to understand that they have been given a privilege? Hunters need to understand that Maltese society has given them a privilege to go out into the countryside with a loaded shotgun, and that they are obliged to respect that privilege by declaring what is being caught, where they went hunting, etc, apart from obeying the law – which we should take for granted and not clap our hands when someone obeys it.

For the government to get hunters to cooperate, it needs to be hard on them now. You can ask them once, twice or three times but then you need to use discipline – which I think is lacking in this country.

 

The referendum failed, and there is a moratorium on Turtle Dove hunting. Do you not think that it’s about time to stop pushing for the closing of the spring hunting season and instead work with the hunting lobby to monitor the situation and together combat illegal hunting?

Working on common issues is definitely an option, but removing one’s values is not. There is no way an NGO like BirdLife Malta would accept the blatant action against conservation itself. Nature has a natural process of selecting the healthiest birds to breed. The moment they are passing over Malta – the strongest and the fittest – Maltese hunters shoot them. It doesn’t make sense. We can never accept spring hunting, because of our values, but there are areas in which we can work closely with the hunting community, and we have done. We’ve planted trees together, organised clean ups together, etc. So there are areas such as restoration of habitat where we can work together.

 

Is it not counterproductive for FKNK and BirdLife to always argue? Do you think there is any way of coming together? FKNK’s Lino Farrugia said that Birdlife must accept finch-trapping and spring hunting, or the two will never see eye-to-eye.

I think that approach by Lino is indirectly counterproductive.  You cannot say that you would want to sit with someone only if they accept A and B. That is the worst thing one can do. The first thing you should do is sit down together, see what issues on which the two would never agree and then, if there are certain projects that can benefit the common good that both sides agree on, why not work together?

The way Lino spoke in the interview tells us that they are not ready to meet us. We are telling them that we know they want spring hunting, and we don’t agree, but we are still willing to meet and discuss issues – and that is the difference.

What is counterproductive, and what is a pity for us, is that a small fraction of BirdLife Malta’s work is the hunting and trapping issue and the major part of it is research and education. We also work on conservation. Unfortunately, the hunting and trapping situation in Malta takes up a lot of our resources when I would rather spend those resources educating children, showing them nature’s beauty and bringing about a culture change.  We do a lot of work that doesn’t receive as much attention as hunting and trapping, but we do a lot more than just deal with trapping and hunting which is another difference between us and the hunting community.

 

After the recent social media fight between BirdLife Malta and Parliamentary Secretary for Animal Rights Clint Camilleri, do you think he should be removed from his post?

I was asked the same question a week after he was given the post he currently occupies. On that day, I spoke to him and congratulated him, telling him I looked forward to working with him. I had told the media that I did not think he was not capable of doing a good job, and believed that if someone gave him the wrong advice he would understand as he understands hunting and trapping.

Today I admit that I was wrong. Camilleri was not capable, and this could be due to immaturity, of keeping his distance from a lobby group, to his own personal issues, and coming out with the blatant lie that Birdlife Malta inflates figures. That is totally unacceptable.

While I can understand that someone makes a mistake, someone must still shoulder responsibility for it.  I called his bluff and challenged him, telling him that while I had always respected him, he had disrespected me. I told him that he should either prove what he said or remove the post. If he had removed the post, then nobody would have known except for me if I were to check, so he would not have had to take a walk of shame – and I was never asking for that.

If you want to say something, be factual. To date, we have had 17 birds illegally shot during this hunting season, but we didn’t issue any press releases. We will remain ethical and factual, but for a Parliamentary Secretary to come out blatantly against a civil society NGO is unacceptable and I expect the Prime Minister to put him in his place and either twist his ears or pull his socks up. If he wants to collaborate with us he cannot do such things.

 

Do you think he needs to be removed?

I think he needs to be removed but that’s not my call.

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