With so many ‘invasive species’ running around… why are ‘trees’ the only ones we ever complain about?

Hey, don’t all try to answer at once! You can’t exactly expect me to hear what you’re saying, when you all suddenly start shouting like that…

Malta’s Painted Frog is a potentially ‘vulnerable’ species
Malta’s Painted Frog is a potentially ‘vulnerable’ species

OK, OK: before you all wring your hands with anticipated boredom, at the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of opinion articles about the ‘12 Ficus trees of Mosta’… kindly note that the rest of this article will NOT be on that subject (or even its many ‘ramifications’) at all.

The only connection is that it departs from a small observation, that arose during the aforementioned saga itself.  At one point, the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) tried to justify the removal of those trees, on the grounds that they were an ‘alien species’, whose roots could ‘cause damage to building foundations, road surfaces, pavements and underground services.’

It turns out, however, that – while the ERA was not necessarily incorrect, in either of those statements – this species, ‘Ficus microcarpa’, is not listed anywhere in the ERA’s own annex of ‘invasive, alien, or environmentally incompatible species’ (i.e., the ones which can legally be removed, as ‘pests’.)

On the contrary, Maltese law clearly states that Ficus trees are to be ‘protected in urban spaces, [provided that] they are not causing any damage or adverse effect to the environment, or to structures or features of natural or cultural heritage value.’

Now: I won’t bother going into question of whether those particular trees WERE, in fact, causing any damage to surrounding structures, or not…

… except, perhaps, to add that:

a)    The law talks about protecting ‘structures or features of NATURAL or CULTURAL HERITAGE’ (and no, that doesn’t include ‘road surfaces, pavements, and underground services’);

b)    Whatever ‘damage’ those trees may have caused, simply pales into insignificance compared to all the damage (both environmental and psychological) inflicted on the rest of us by their attempted removal (and everything else it has since come to represent: ‘greed’; ‘short-sightedness’; ‘lack of urban planning’; ‘the collapse of Malta’s political system’; you name it…)

But enough with the trees, for now. What I found more interesting about ERA’s line of defence, is that it was very quickly adopted by both Energy Minister Miriam Dalli, and Prime Minister Robert Abela, in their own subsequent Parliamentary speeches on the subject…. with Abela even embellishing it further, by describing those Ficus trees as ‘invasive’ (as distinct from just ‘alien’: which is what the ERA actually said).

And this struck me as odd, because… as someone who has always been keenly interested in the preservation of Maltese wildlife (both flora, and fauna); and who has therefore been trying to highlight the threat of ‘alien, invasive species’ to Malta’s fragile ecosystem, for literally YEARS…

… this is arguably the first time in my life, that I’ve ever heard a Maltese Prime Minister echoing EXACTLY the same concern, as if it were his own! (And in Parliament, no less! You know: the place where Maltese Prime Ministers can actually address issues such this these, through this new invention called ‘LEGISLATION’…)

OK, I suppose you all know me well enough by now, to see precisely where all this is heading. Sorry, Mr Prime Minister, but… if you are indeed so very alarmed, by Malta’s ‘invasive species’ problem – a term which, by the way, actually refers to: ‘non-native species that threaten local [Maltese, in this case] wildlife, with EXTINCTION’ – then why is your government doing nothing at all, to combat all the issues which really DO pose an existential threat, to Malta’s already-threatened biodiversity?

Such as, for instance, the recent proliferation of all sort of imported ‘wildlife’ (mostly in the form of ‘pets’), that have now infested virtually every nook and cranny, of Malta’s entire ecosystem?

But no matter. Seeing how our Prime Minister has suddenly taken a belated interest, in a serious environmental problem that all Maltese conservationists have been warning about, for decades…

… I may as well take the opportunity to list out a few other local (in some cases, endemic) species of Maltes wildlife, that really DO face the threat of being wiped out of existence, altogether (simply because someone, somewhere, once thought it would be a good idea to dump a whole truckload of unwanted ‘pets’, out in the countryside...)

Starting with the Painted Frog (Discoglossus pictus pictus): which is both the only amphibian native to the Maltese islands; as well as the unique subspecies of a more widespread frog genus – common to Sicily and other Mediterranean islands – that only exists right HERE: in this our tiny country of ours.

Even then: this frog only exists in a handful of (mostly unconnected) natural waterways, scattered across Malta and Gozo… with the largest populations concentrated in places like Chadwick Lakes, Buskett and Fiddien.

And from a conservationist point of view: that’s already enough to make Malta’s Painted Frog a potentially ‘vulnerable’ species, even at the best of times (due to the small size of its gene-pool; and because isolated populations cannot even interbreed...)

But that view overlooks that this frog’s natural habitat is also under threat, from a whole variety of other dangers. Not to be alarmist, or anything; but it would take very little, in practice, for Malta to lose ALL its natural waterways… either through pollution; or over-development; or even just because the interminable drought that Malta is currently going through (and which will hopefully have ended, by the time you read this).

And yet, the single most urgent threat to the Painted Frog’s survival, right now, turns out to be none of these things – even if, naturally, none of them exactly ‘helps’, either. No, it is the simultaneous presence of numerous other invasive species, which have been introduced to Malta at some point over the past few decades… and which are now driving our only indigenous amphibian to the verge of extinction.

As naturalist Arnold Sciberras told me, in a recent interview: “Today, practically every fresh-water spring, in every valley, is filled with crayfish: an invasive species, that somehow got released into our natural water-ways; and with which the Painted Frog finds it impossible to compete.

“We are even finding the occasional terrapin species, let loose in the wild... and also another alien species of frog [the Levant Water frog]: which we discovered two decades ago, in Sarrafflu, Gozo; but which we have now recorded in at least four five other sites in Gozo; and a couple of sites in Malta.  And wherever this frog-species establishes itself: it will always out-compete the Painted Frog…”

Meanwhile, there is another indigenous species (not ‘endemic’, this time; but arguably more ‘emblematic’) whose populations have also declined alarmingly, in recent years.

That’s the Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla), folks: which, according to legend, is the self-same species that once sunk its fangs into a certain St Paul… only to be unceremoniously shaken off into a bonfire, for its pains (with the result that all its descendants miraculously ‘lost their venomous bite’, from that moment on)…

Once again, I’ll resist the temptation to digress  (but it’s ironic, isn’t it, that this species somehow managed to survive its fiery encounter with St Paul, 2,000 years ago – becoming part of Malta’s folklore, in the process - only to be driven to extinction TODAY, in our own lifetimes?)

Sadly, however, that seems to be what’s happening, right now. To quote Sciberras once more: “In our more recent studies, we saw that some snake populations are quite stable; but others – namely, the Leopard Snake [lifgha]– has plummeted, recently.

“[…] What most people don’t know, however, it that we have recorded another five alien species of snake, recently. Some of them are already quite common; others rare; and some... well, we’re afraid that they might even be genetically polluting the local populations, by ‘hybridizing’ with them…”

And when I asked him whether these newly-discovered snakes posed any ‘danger to humans’… here’s his reply in full:

“To humans? No, not at all. They’re not venomous; and they do not pose any danger whatsoever. They are, however, very dangerous to local wildlife. And we’ve already seen a major decline, in the population of one of our indigenous snakes…”

And, well, this brings us back full-circle to the question I asked in the headline. Given that so much of Malta’s indigenous wildlife appears to be under direct threat of extinction, right now… why do people like Robert Abela – and everyone else who is supposed to be concerned with the protection of Maltese biodiversity: including, naturally, ERA – only ever complain about the ‘threat posed by invasive species’, when:

a)    The species just happens to be ‘a tree’ (and not, say, a ‘crayfish’, ‘frog’, or ‘snake’… where the threat is at least REAL);

b)    The tree in question isn’t even ‘invasive’, to begin with (after all, the words ‘alien’ and ‘invader’ do not exactly mean the same thing: one merely happens to ‘come from somewhere else’; the other has to … well… actually, ‘INVADE’, FFS!!!), and;

c)    The only thing ‘threatened’ by its presence here, is a taxpayer-funded ‘landscaping project’, that could just as easily have been redesigned from scratch, to mitigate any further damage caused by those ‘alien’ (but not ‘invasive’) trees?

Hey, don’t all try to answer at once! You can’t exactly expect me to hear what you’re saying, when you all suddenly start shouting like that…