Blame illegal hunting on the government, not hunters

'It must, however, be remembered that the 1980s also ushered in the very first laws to regulate hunting in Malta. Prior to that decade, there were no such things as ‘hunting regulations’ at all, beyond generic rules on firearm-ownership'

'The hunting community is not the same as it was when I was a teenager', says Raphael
'The hunting community is not the same as it was when I was a teenager', says Raphael

Once, back in the late 1980s, Malta experienced a very unusual (and very massive) influx of red-footed falcons – zumbrell, in Maltese.

The red-footed falcon was (and still is) a scarce migrant locally: usually recorded in very small numbers in spring, and even smaller numbers in autumn. Its conservation status was ‘vulnerable’ at the time... which means that it was not just a rare visitor to the Maltese islands: but just a rare bird, full-stop. Even today, there are fewer than 50,000 breeding pairs in Europe... a number which is dwindling rapidly, mainly due to habitat loss, pesticides and (surprise, surprise) hunting.

On this occasion, however, a freak storm at sea had blown hundreds of these rare falcons off course; and they alighted in various places all over the island. I distinctly remember stepping off a bus at the Valletta terminus, and being stunned by the sight of dozens of these beautiful birds – not much larger than a pigeon, but much more colourful and impressive – roosting on the overhead telephone wires and in the trees above the kiosks. Others still darted and wheeled in all directions... both above and below the bridge leading to City Gate.

It was a truly breathtaking spectacle... the sort of thing you are likely to only ever witness once in a lifetime. But it wasn’t the only unusual thing I observed that morning. The area was also swarming with hunters, who had descended on Valletta en masse armed with shotguns and ammunition-belts... all hell-bent on exterminating as many specimens as they could, in as short a time as humanly possible. 

I overheard one man alone boasting that he had shot 27 of them... but couldn’t retrieve them all, because some of the dead birds had landed in inaccessible parts of the moat. And it bears mentioning that much of this massacre occurred in full view of the police, who – as was customary in those days – did not lift a finger to stop it.

It was, in a word, depressing. But it was also the 1980s... when the hunting situation in Malta bore a distinct resemblance to one of the more violent Westerns directed by Sam Peckinpah. Back then, it was not a case of a handful of individuals giving the rest of the hunting community ‘a bad name’. In fact, it was quite the other way round: law-abiding, conscientious hunters (for such things have always existed) were the tiny minority, drowned out by huge throngs of gun-toting hoodlums in Rambo T-shirts and army camouflage.

Now: I am not one to make excuses for that sort of behaviour. What I saw that day made me sick to my stomach... and it was but one of countless other atrocities that were commonplace at the time.  

It must, however, be remembered that the 1980s also ushered in the very first laws to regulate hunting in Malta. Prior to that decade, there were no such things as ‘hunting regulations’ at all, beyond generic rules on firearm-ownership. There were no bird sanctuaries; no lists of birds that could or couldn’t be shot or trapped; no penalties for shooting protected species (because no species was in any way ‘protected’). And there was no designated law enforcement unit to handle such crimes, either. Hunters had spent entire generations – if not centuries – doing exactly as they pleased, with no outside interference of any kind whatsoever.

Hence the earlier allusion to the ‘Western’ movie genre. Most of the classics in that genre centre on the painful process of bringing law and order to an environment in which there was none to begin with. Inevitably, the transition can only be bloody and brutal.

But not eternal: and this is the part that still gets to me today. Outrageous lawlessness may have been understandable back in 1981. But we are now in 2017: hunting regulations have been in place for almost 40 years. We have an Administrative Law Enforcement agency equipped to deal with hunting offences, as well as something called a ‘Wild Birds Regulatory Unit’. We are also members of the European Union (for all the fat difference that actually made in practice), and therefore – theoretically – subject to the European Wild Birds Directive.

And, much more pertinently: the hunting community is not the same as it was when I was a teenager. It is facile and futile to argue otherwise: individual hunters may still occasionally behave like deranged, homicidal gunmen on an urban shooting spree... but the organisations that represent hunters in general have changed their tune in no uncertain terms since those far-off days. In recent years, we have seen groups like FKNK and ‘Kaccaturi San Ubertu’ (KSU) issuing life-bans to their own members over hunting offences... and even reporting other hunters for breaking the law. 

Besides: as a journalist, I have had the opportunity to interview and speak to several exponents of both those associations. What emerges forcefully from these encounters is that – on a broader level – the hunting fraternity in Malta has grown acutely aware of how unpopular it really is. These people know perfectly well that the future of their own cherished ‘delizzju’ hinges on proper regulation and respect for the law.  It is barbarity of this nature that threatens what they like to think of as a ‘tradition’: a tradition that would be a heck of a lot easier to defend, if it wasn’t for the antics of some people who still seem to be living in the Stone Age.

So when the FKNK and KSU jointly condemned the senseless killing of flamingos this week (and grey herons, and other protected species)... I had no difficulty whatsoever accepting that they were being sincere. But this only raises the question: why, therefore, has this mentality proved so impossible to eradicate over the past 40 years?

That question can easily be answered in one word: politics. While organisations like FKNK and KSU have demonstrated a willingness to pull their own socks up, and upgrade their practices to the 21st century... political parties like Joseph Muscat’s Labour have steadily rowed in the clean opposite direction. 

Even now, as newspapers print bloody pictures of dead herons and flamingos on their front pages, government officials like Clint Camilleri – parliamentary secretary for ‘animal welfare’, if you’ll excuse the irony – is busy with his personal efforts to lower the fines for illegal hunting.

Camilleri – who is himself a hunter – has apparently given hunters his personal assurance that the current penalties for crimes like ‘shooting a flamingo’ will shortly be reduced. He made this announcement just before the start of the autumn season, too... so can anyone really be surprised, if a few rotten apples in the hunting basket interpreted that as a green light to go right back to the good old 1980s, and shoot everything that flies?

But of course, Camilleri himself is just the vehicle for this particular initiative. The real culprit is none other than Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who included the reduction in hunting fines as an electoral promise in his manifesto.  

Unlike Camilleri, Muscat also takes pains to remind us that he is not, and has never been, a hunter. “I myself have never felt any attraction to hunting and trapping, but I firmly believe that the majority should not try to impose its will on the minority,” he said in a campaign activity last May... two months before the election.

Well, for someone who has never felt any attraction to hunting, Muscat sure has a lot of dead birds on his conscience. He might not have shot those flamingos or herons himself... but the truth is that he may as well have. After all, he was the one to encourage people to break the law... when he assured every irresponsible hunter on the island that they would face lower penalties for precisely such offences. 

So Joseph Muscat, ultimately, is the man responsible for these continued massacres... and for the fact that Maltese hunting has failed to ever fully evolve beyond its most primitive and barbaric bloodlust phase. And there is simply no excuse for political irresponsibility on this level: none whatsoever.

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