From our friends at BirdLife Malta: BirdLife volunteers assaulted as hunting illegalities increase —
During the first week of Spring Watch, BirdLife Malta volunteers suffered several violent attacks on an almost daily basis while recording bird migration and reporting illegal hunting and trapping incidents to the police.
At a press conference today, the organisation released audiovisual evidence detailing hunting and trapping illegalities in the countryside during the past week. It also warned the authorities that violence against its members has escalated, the result of false promises made to hunters and trappers by the hunting lobby and the government.
“Those who are breaking the law with impunity are getting away it, while the BirdLife volunteers who are trying to report the illegalities to the police are under constant attack. While the government has announced a spring hunting season to satisfy the hunters, it has not detailed how they intend to ‘strictly’ supervise it,” said Joseph Mangion, President of BirdLife Malta.
Last Sunday, Paul Debono, a Maltese volunteer, and an Italian birdwatcher, were assaulted in Dingli. Mr Debono described how they were thrown to the ground and beaten by two men who approached them in a white pick up truck while they were walking on a country lane. The aggressors rushed them and immediately attacked them, yelling to get out, even though they were on a country road and there were no signs indicating the surrounding area was privately owned. Although the volunteers did not challenge the aggressors and were leaving the area, they were punched in the face and one was kicked in the stomach while on the ground. The aggressors, who are recorded afterwards admitting in the footage that they were in possession of shotguns, took their camera. They then returned it to the Rabat police station with the recorded data deleted.
The district police handed the camera over to BirdLife Malta. The organisation managed to retrieve the data through special software, revealing the identity of the persons admitting they attacked the volunteers. The hunters are seen in the footage driving off with the camera still recording and handing it over to a young man who said he would delete the recording. On the way there, one of the hunters speaks of hiding the shotgun from the police. The footage is being handed over to the police and the two men will be prosecuted.
BirdLife Malta referred to the statements of FKNK spokespersons Lino Farrugia and Joe Perici Calascione, who yesterday claimed the hunters were being provoked. “The hunters were the ones breaking the law. What assault against BirdLife volunteers is considered a criminal act anywhere in the world. But instead of condemning this act of violence and the illegal hunting, the FKNK is making the usual unfounded accusations that serve no purpose but encourage more violence,” Mr Mangion said.
The assault last Sunday followed another incident the previous day when a shot was fired in broad daylight at a car used by BirdLife volunteers parked in front of the Manikata village church, 20 metres away from a children’s playground, shattering the windscreen. On the same day, stones were thrown at birdwatchers in Has-Saptan and a team at Mtahleb was verbally abused.
Death threats and hate messages were splashed at lookout points for the birdwatchers on April 14 and 16. The messages were replete with xenophobic sentiment, depicting red swastikas next to RIP signs with the text: “You is goking with yor life [sic]”. Bird icons were drawn on another sign reading: “German bicis your going to pay for this [sic]”, next to a coffin with the letters RIP on top.
Verbal abuse greeted the birdwatchers in most places, and in Mtarfa men with sticks violently approached the birdwatchers. An individual was physically pushed at Mtahleb where another team had a mobile phone smashed.
“The authorities’ inability to ensure effective law enforcement is beyond belief. This is why we have been constantly attacked over the last three years and nobody has been brought to justice. This is why illegal spring hunting is still going on,” said Mr Mangion.
“They wanted a spring hunting season and they got it. To do so, the government has risked the country facing fines at the European Court of Justice. But the hunting lobby is never satisfied; they still want more. And this government, rather than investing in law enforcement, is spending time trying to appease an aggressive hunting lobby,” Mangion added.
Over the last week, the Spring Watch teams recorded at least 474 illegalities, 88.4% of which involved hunters shooting illegally in the closed season. A total of 744 shots were noted, and illegal hunting was recorded in almost all of the surveillance locations, which cover only a small portion of the Maltese Islands. The true scale of illegalities remains unknown because the police force is very thin on the ground.
Areas where illegal hunting was particularly prevalent included Mizieb, Fomm ir-Rih, Dingli cliffs, Mtahleb, Chadwick Lakes, Handaq and Delimara. There were also several incidents of hunters shooting inside the Salina Bird Sanctuary.
Yesterday, members of the public calling the police to report illegal hunting were told by the police that hunting was widespread and the ALE could not respond to all calls.
“Although the FKNK forced its members not to apply for licenses, it is an open season in the countryside regardless. The hunting lobby would have done better to name and shame the many hunters who are breaking the law,” said Dr Andre Raine, Conservation Manager for BirdLife Malta.
When the six-day hunting season opens next Saturday, the ongoing illegalities are expected to increase. At the moment, every shot is illegal but during the open season the police will not be able to control a mass of licensed and unlicensed shooters. The European Commission has already warned that a lack of supervision this spring would land the country in court again and face fines.
Steve Downing, a police wildlife crime officer for 15 years, said: “I have been coming here for three years now. Every time, I hope the situation will improve. Not only has that not happened but law enforcement seems to be even weaker now. Unless the government beefs up the police force dealing with illegal hunting and sets specific targets for the police in respect of wildlife crime, the situation is not likely to take a turn for the better.”
During the last three years, BirdLife Malta has suffered several attacks. They include the torching of three researchers’ vehicles in Buskett, arson and vandalism at the Ghadira Nature Reserve, the uprooting of thousands of trees at Foresta 2000 while the site’s warden was shot twice in the head, among other serious incidents. To date nobody has been brought to justice for any of these crimes.