To kill a Greater Flamingo…

As that hunter from Gzira so dramatically discovered, to his cost, last Saturday: ‘to kill a Greater Flamingo’, in Malta, is a far more serious crime than, say, ‘to kill more turtle-doves than your quota permits’…

Ok, let me get this straight. This weekend, it was reported that “four Greater Flamingos were shot and killed by a hunter off Qawra Point”; an incident which - according to the Birdlife volunteers who reported it - must have happened at around 7.30 am on Saturday.

By 10.10am of that same morning, it was reported that: “The police [had] arrested a 23-year-old man from Gżira and taken him to the Police Headquarters in Floriana for questioning”; and also that “a unit from the Armed Forces [had] retrieved four flamingo carcasses, three from out at sea and one on land.”

Later, at around 16.15pm, there was an update to inform us that the same 23-year-old hunter - who had only just been arrested a few hours earlier - had already been charged in court, denied bail, and subsequently remanded in custody…

… and all this – i.e., from when the crime was actually committed, to the arraignment and (temporary) incarceration of the suspect – happened within the space of just 10 hours, on a single day: Saturday 2 October 2021.

Hmm. Now, I shall have to admit that this sort of thing places people like me in a small quandary. One on level, anyone who has ever complained about ‘lack of enforcement’ of hunting laws– a category which happens to also include myself – can only applaud the local police for so graphically defying all our expectations.

And not just the police, either. Going over the details again, it seems that every single aspect of Malta’s entire law enforcement capability was somehow involved in this operation: from the police officers who conducted the arrest (within less than three hours, as it turns out); to the Armed Forces personnel who retrieved the dead flamingos ‘from land and sea’; to the Office of the Public Prosecution, which objected to bail; all the way down to the law-courts, which must clearly have acceded to a police request for this case to be heard ‘with urgency’ (how else can we explain that the courts were actually open on a Saturday afternoon?)

But while all that does, undeniably, make a very pleasant change from the norm… speaking only for myself: I can’t help feeling that something, somewhere, doesn’t quite add up in all this.

Consider, for a moment, how sharply the above case differs from all the other illegal hunting incidents reported over the past year alone. On February 1 2021, for instance – i.e., towards the close of last year’s Autumn hunting season – this newspaper reported that “210 protected birds [were] known to have been illegally shot in Malta, marking the worst record for illegal hunting in Malta since 2013.”

That figure, by the way, represents only those cases that were documented by BirdLife Malta: as such, it is probably only a tiny percentage of the actual number of protected birds to get shot – in and out of Malta’s two official hunting seasons – each and every single year.

More significantly, that figure of 210 also marks a “a big spike in numbers when compared to the previous year (2019) when the number stood at 99: which also means that 2020 had as many illegally shot protected birds as the totals of 2019 and 2018 put together!” 

Yet not only do I struggle to recall a single incident where anyone was ever arraigned for any of those crimes (still less, so promptly)… but Birdlife Malta also complained, at the time, that; “law enforcement leaves much to be desired”; that “the police are struggling with the resources available to them”, and that “the newly set up Environmental Protection Unit has failed to make significant inroads.”

Indeed, so sluggish were the police to respond that “many of the wildlife crime cases […] reported to the police now face the risk of falling through due to late summoning”. And there were even cases were “suspects walked away scot-free as they had not been summoned within the two-year period stipulated by law…”

And this brings me to the first reason for not being altogether enthusiastic about this latest arrest.

To the best of my knowledge – and I have looked into this a fair bit – there has been no substantive change, of any kind, to the state of play concerning wildlife crime since February 2021. (Nor even since this year’s spring hunting season, which likewise came with its own entire litany of illegal hunting reports).

Not only has the staff complement of ALE – around 28 officers in total - remained unchanged since then; but we even know that - as a result of COVID-19 - some of that already paltry number had to be transferred to other departments.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been any real change to the legal and administrative landscape, either. So in terms of both available resources, and the legal framework circumscribing their actions and capabilities… the ALE remains just as under-staffed and under-equipped today, as it was last year: if not more.   

And yet, less than a year after the Malta Police Force had allowed so many illegal hunting cases to simply wriggle their way out of justice, by failing to ever file the court summons on time… suddenly - and without warning - they metamorphose into the law enforcement equivalents of ‘crime-busting action superheroes’…

… but – not unlike the lyrics of a certain David Bowie song – ‘just for one day’. And even then: only, it seems, for the type of hunting infringement that we all know is destined to cause public outrage in the first place.

For let’s face it: they don’t exactly call them ‘Greater Flamingos’ for nothing, do they?

And it is hardly a coincidence that arguably the greatest TV series intro of all time – ‘Miami Vice’ (note: I said the intro… not necessarily the series itself) – actually opened with a flock of bright pink flamingos, beating their wings in preparation for take-off…

… or even, for that matter, that the bird itself shares a name with both an iconic 1972 cult-movie classic (‘Pink Flamingos’, starring Divine)… and also, a somewhat notorious former nightclub in Bugibba…

No, indeed. Like its cousin, the Stork - which, by an extraordinary coincidence, we also have a habit of slaughtering in Malta, from time to time – the Greater Flamingo comes complete with its own entire assortment of pop-culture references, and inexplicable emotional connections. Not to mention the fact that it is, by far, the world’s most instantly recognisable bird species, too… (seriously, though: how many other birds can you so accurately, and unmistakably, describe in just two words? ‘Big’, and ‘pink’?)

Put that all together, and what we’re left with starts looking much more like a ‘celebrity crime’, rather than just another hunting infringement (of the kind, let’s face it, that never really causes much of a furore at all).

For as that hunter from Gzira so dramatically discovered, to his cost, last Saturday: ‘to kill a Greater Flamingo’, in Malta, is a far more serious crime than, say, ‘to kill more turtle-doves than your quota permits’…

… even if the turtle-dove is classified as ‘a species in decline’, according to the IUCN; while the Greater Flamingo is actually ‘of least concern…’

Clearly, then, in this case there was an emotional response to the crime itself – exacerbated by the victim’s undeniable ‘fame’, ‘good looks’, and ‘popular appeal’ – that places it in a category all of its own.

But while that may be all well and good, when it comes to explaining why the general public responds so very differently, to different wild-life crimes… it is hardly an excuse for the law enforcement authorities to evidently treat those crimes differently, too.

Partly because… sorry, but those other crimes – which, for the record, also include such boring items as: hunting without a valid licence; hunting outside of designated hunting areas and/or seasons; using prohibited firearms, ammunition, decoys, and traps, etc., etc. – are all far more damaging, in purely conservationist terms, than the random killing of four protected birds: no matter how ‘pretty’ or ‘pink’ those birds may be…

… but partly also because these occasional, high-profile, ‘celebrity’ arraignments – of which this is but the latest: long before the flamingos, there was also the famous case of that flock of swans, gunned down over Marsascala bay in 2002 – only serve to camouflage the same authority’s inaction for the rest of the entire year.

But still: like I said earlier… even if it is, ultimately, just a one-off event; and even if the prompt police action against that single delinquent will hardly achieve anything, in the greater battle for adequate hunting law enforcement in Malta and Gozo…

… it still proves that the local authorities CAN, in fact, take speedy, effective action to protect wildlife in this country: when they want to.

So… um… any particular reason, might I ask, why it doesn’t actually happen more often that once a year (and even then: only  for a day; and only, it seems, when an election just happens to be on the horizon)?

No, I didn’t think so either…