Higher penalties are not enough

As government forges ahead with its intention to open a spring hunting season this year, there are numerous indications that we are about to witness another massacre of protected birds of the kind that has become habitual every spring.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

This year’s spring hunting season is not yet open, and already there have been a number of cases of illegal shooting. Recently an influx of white storks was greeted by gunfire, and at least one specimen was killed. Storks are among the larger and more impressive of our migrating species, and for this same reason are among the most coveted by hunters involved in the mounted trophy trade.

Government’s response was to announce a tenfold increase in the penalties for illegal shooting, leading to a €5,000 fine for anyone convicted of poaching protected birds, as well as a possible one-year prison sentence.

At face value, this merely confirms the paltry nature of the original penalties before the law was amended. Given the existence of a lucrative trade in mounted birds, the risk of paying a €500 fine can hardly be considered a deterrent. This has consistently been illustrated with each passing spring migration, when reports of illegal shooting – often accompanied by injured birds of protected species – come flooding in each time without fail.

This year has been no exception. Even increased tenfold, the new penalties are clearly insufficient to prevent poaching. Within days of government’s announcement of the revision of penalties – itself triggered by the stork shooting – at least two black winged stilts (also protected) were shot by poachers. The timing of these events cannot be considered a coincidence. It is amply evident that poachers are simply not deterred by the prospect of higher fines. And they as much as said so with their shotguns.

Nor has the increase in law enforcement been capable of offering more protection, as evidenced by the fact that the annual massacre of protected birds has shown no signs of abating.

Sadly, one must also question the willingness of individual police officers to take action. In at least one reported case, a hunter was charged with bribing a police officer to turn a blind eye to illegalities. Faced with the sheer scale of illegal shooting each year, one can only wonder how many other cases of bribery have gone unreported. This might help explain why an increase in law enforcement personnel has not directly resulted in a decrease in illegal shooting.

All this, on its own, would be sufficient grounds not to open this year’s season. The wording of Article 9 of the Birds Directive – which lays down conditions for a derogation (or ‘exception’) to be applied – makes it very clear that ‘limited’ hunting can only be permitted under conditions of ‘strict surveillance’. Clearly this condition does not apply to spring hunting in Malta. Not only has the to-date paltry surveillance clearly failed to halt an annual proliferation of illegal shooting, but government’s failure to control the situation has persisted even after both police presence and penalties were increased.

It is worth remembering the situation in 2008, when government was forced by the European Commission to halt the spring season following yet another massacre of protected birds. With a similar spate of illegal shooting starting before the season even opens, what pretext can the present government possibly use to justify opening the season this year?

It will be remembered also that Malta has already had to face European Court proceedings on this issue and contrary to widespread misrepresentation, the Court found Malta guilty of illegally opening past spring hunting seasons. Even if one accepts the very dubious interpretation that the same court ruling acknowledged that future seasons may be permissible (in actual fact, the most that can be gleaned from this ruling is an acknowledgement that ‘autumn is not a satisfactory solution’ to spring), the same conditions that made past seasons illegal are still in place today. Malta would therefore still be found guilty of the same charges, if the case were reopened.

There is also mounting evidence that the decision to open the spring season this year was taken against sound scientific advice and for reasons that are very clearly political.

Scientific data on the conservation status of turtle dove and quail, on which the Ornis Committee based its decision, is proven to be inaccurate. In Europe both these species are classified as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘in decline’, and given that we are already talking about the illegal and uncontrollable killing of other protected species anyway, it is clear that turtle dove and quail are not the only species that are directly threatened by a practice that continues to flout local and international law.

Yet government not only persists in permitting spring hunting against all known conservation principles, but as our story today shows, is it also pursuing a further derogation from the Birds Directive, this time on trapping.

This is too much. Government must stop deluding itself that its policy of appeasing the hunters is ‘working’. It is very clearly not working, and to open the spring season under these circumstances would be to openly invite further action against Malta in the European Court.

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