Damned if you’re ‘endangered’; damned if you’re not...

The migratory birds that we massacre in Malta each year, are the same birds that would otherwise ‘get back home safely’, and – in an eggshell – ‘BREED’! Therefore, killing them as they fly over Malta, also means ‘weakening the genetic stock of the surviving breeding populations, of the entire species concerned'

The flamingos shot down by the poacher in 2021
The flamingos shot down by the poacher in 2021

OK, let me get this straight. Last Monday, this newspaper carried a story under the headline, ‘Flamingo poacher spared jail on appeal because bird not at risk of extinction’.

We were told that: “The Court of Criminal Appeal revoked a prison sentence handed down to a 24-year-old hunter, in 2021, for killing four Greater Flamingos in the St Paul’s Bay area” [because] “this incident would have had a low impact on the ecological balance in the area”; and “a court-appointed expert and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, had both listed the migratory birds in the ‘least concern’ category.”

This led the judge to conclude that “the flamingo was not a species at risk of extinction, and therefore the impact of the crime on the species was low.” So he reduced the hunter’s sentence, from ‘one year of effective jail-time’, to ‘imprisonment for one year, suspended for two years.’

Right, I’ll stop there for now; because already, there is quite a lot to chew over. But let me get one small disclaimer out of the way first. Personally, I don’t really care that much whether Miguel Zammit – the 24-year-old who shot those four flamingos, at Qawra Point – ends up actually going to jail for his crime, or not.

Partly because I’ve never been a big fan of ‘punitive justice’, to begin with – in the sense that I’ve always view the criminal justice system more as a ‘necessary deterrent’, than an outright ‘vehicle for revenge’...

... but also because, as far as I’m concerned, the truly  important part of the original sentence was that Zammit had been handed down an effective ‘lifetime ban on hunting’. And that was upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

So from my end, at least: there are no real complaints, about how the course of justice actually panned out in this particular case.

With that out of the way, however: we are still left to ponder a court ruling that – as Birdlife CEO Mark Sultana very aptly put it – is rather ‘baffling’, to say the least.

If nothing else, because it seems to imply that the ‘severity’ of any hunting infringement, in this country, depends entirely on whether the targeted species happens to be ‘at risk of extinction’, or not.

Once again, Sultana’s reaction hit the nail on the head: “a protected bird is protected, irrespective of its status; and just because it is ‘not at risk of being extinct’, does not mean that its protection, or the consequences of illegally killing it, should be less.”

But his subsequent analogy – “it’s like saying that stealing from a rich person carries a lesser punishment than if you steal from a poor person” – is... well, ‘apt’, perhaps; but it still falls somewhat short, of capturing the sheer scale of the logical fallacy that’s actually at work here.

So let’s try and break it down a little further, shall we? Starting with the judge’s observation that: “the flamingo [is] not a species at risk of extinction.”

This is, of course, perfectly true. As earlier stated, the IUCN classifies the Greater Flamingo as ‘of least concern’ – the highest notch, on a scale that goes down to ‘Near Threatened’...  to ‘Vulnerable’... to ‘Critically Endangered’... and finally, to ‘EXTINCT’.

But there are a few small problems, with using that as a ‘mitigating circumstance’ for a crime that was committed here in Malta.

The first is that: there is a reason, you know, why the Greater Flamingo – and not, say, the Turtle Dove (which I shall come to in a sec) – is classified as ‘not in any danger of extinction’.

And it happens to be precisely because of laws such as the ‘Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations’... not to mention the European Wild Birds Directive, from which all local wildlife laws are derived... which offer those species ‘protection’, from being rendered ‘threatened’ – then ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’, etc. – by practices including, among other things, ‘illegal hunting’.

In other words: laws like the one that that hunter broke, when he took aim at – and shot – a flock of supposedly ‘protected’ birds. So, um... do I really need to go on? If the law-courts are going to send out the message that: “Hey, you know what? It’s not such a big deal to break Malta’s wildlife conservation laws, after all: at least, not so long as you don’t go around killing any ‘critically endangered birds’...”

I mean: it’s almost like firing the starter-pistol for a ‘race towards extinction’, isn’t it? And not just for the ‘Greater Flamingo’, mind you. No, this ruling sends out the message that ‘it’s not a big deal’ to kill ANY bird that just happens ‘not to be on the IUCN Red List’....

... overlooking, it seems, the teenie-weenie little detail that: well, it it is precisely BECAUSE of decisions like this, that birds actually end up getting themselves ON that dratted ‘Red List’ list, to begin with!

Honestly, though: then they wonder why people’s faith in the judiciary keeps hitting new lows...

Meanwhile, another problem – slightly more ‘technical’, this time - is that the IUCN classification system is based on the GLOBAL – not LOCAL – distribution of the species in question. So if the Greater Flamingo is classified as ‘of least concern’... what it actually means is that its populations remain stable, in all the territories – and continents – that the Greater Flamingo ‘calls home’ (in other words: where that bird actually breeds).

By no means does it follow, however, that the same is true for the local (migratory) ‘population’ of Greater Flamingos. And, erm... guess what? That same bird just happens to be defined, in local ornithological parlance, as – wait for it – “RARE, and IRREGULAR”!

I need hardly add, of course, that it is precisely those two qualities – the ‘rarity’, and ‘irregularity’, of its sporadic Spring and Autumn visits – that makes the Greater Flamingo such an irresistible target for poachers, in the first place. It means they automatically fetch a much higher price, on the illegal taxidermy market. [Note: which may separately explain why Miguel Zammit did not limit himself to bagging only one specimen. Oh, no: he killed four out of a flock of five... and no prizes for guessing how many he would have killed, had he not been caught red-handed.)

But this only leads me to yet another (rather spectacular, this time) illogicality in the same ruling: namely the judge’s argument that, “The fact that these birds were migratory, meant that killing them had a low impact on the ecological balance of the area where the crime took place....”

Excuse me, but... WHAT did that judge just say, exactly? Because if I understood correctly: he seems to be implying that there is no connection whatsoever, between the number of birds (flamingos, or otherwise) that are shot while migrating over Malta...

... and the number of birds that will ever return to migrate over Malta, in future.

For all the world as if those birds were not actually on their way back to their European breeding grounds, from Africa [and vice-versa], in order to... how can I put this nicely?... REPRODUCE! (You know: the ‘birds and the bees’, and all that...)

Sorry, but this is one of those occasions where I feel compelled to just put my foot down. No, damn it! It’s the clean other way round: the migratory birds that we massacre in Malta each year, are the same birds that would otherwise ‘get back home safely’, and – in an eggshell – ‘BREED’! Therefore, killing them as they fly over Malta, also means ‘weakening the genetic stock of the surviving breeding populations, of the entire species concerned.’

And yes, actually. That DOES have an ‘impact’ – and a rather ‘huge’ one, at that – on “the ecological balance of the area where the crime took place....”

But perhaps the most bizarre anomaly, in all this, is the fact that – by an amazing coincidence, just a few days after this particular ruling - the Ornis Committee has just recommended the opening of this year’s spring hunting season, for two species of bird.

The Common Quail (which can legally be shot from April 10 to 30); and the Turtle Dove (legally huntable from April 17 -30).

Now: at the risk of repeating around a million articles I’ve written on this subject, before... this is what the IUCN actually has to say about one of those two ‘huntable species’: the Turtle Dove.

“This species is listed as VULNERABLE” – a category that, by the way, is separately defined as: “having an unfavourable conservation status in Europe, because they are considered to be facing A HIGH RISK OF EXTINCTION IN THE WILD [my emphasis]”...

And the IUCN goes on to state that: “[The Turtle Dove] has undergone rapid declines in much of its European range. [...] Declines are thought to be driven by a number of factors including loss of foraging and nesting sites, as well as disease, and”...

... you’ll never guess what’s coming next, will you?...


Got that, folks? So in one instance, the Maltese law-courts ruled that: “it’s OK to kill birds, so long as they are ‘not at risk of extinction’...”

... and just a few days later, the Ornis Committee decided that: “It’s OK to kill birds... even when they ARE ‘at risk of extinction’!!”

I mean... what the heck is that, exactly: if not a classic case of, “Heads I win; Tails, you lose?” And honestly, though... what chance of survival can wildlife even possibly hope to have, against such outrageously imbalanced odds?