[WATCH] Eagles shot down during rare record migration • Suspected hunter in custody

Rare migration of short-toed eagles and booted eagles from Sicily results in a number of the birds of prey shot down and others injured • BirdLife Malta calls on the prime minister to set up a wildlife crime unit with appropriate resources and training

A booted eagle shot dwon in Tal-Virtu' (Photo: Janina Laurent)
A booted eagle shot dwon in Tal-Virtu' (Photo: Janina Laurent)

A number of eagles were shot down by hunters in the outskirts of Rabat on Wednesday, while others were shot at and injured in multiple incidents, according to BirdLife Malta.

In a statement, the organisation said that around 60 short-toed eagles and booted eagles sought refuge in Girgenti, Fawwara, Ġebel Ciantar, Saqqajja and Xagħra tal-Isqof areas after crossing over from Sicily, marking this a record migration at this time of year.

“The first incidents were witnessed around 15:30 with two eagles being shot at, in Dingli, and another eagle receiving up to eight shots over the Xagħra tal-Isqof area,” BirdLife Malta said.

“Later on, at least another two eagles were gunned down in the same area, with all incidents reported for police to act.”

The government confirmed four separate incidents involving the illegal targeting of protected birds. “A suspect has been apprehended and is presently in police custody,” the parliamentary secretariat for animal rights said on Wednesday.

Footage by BirdLife Malta volunteers

The administrative and law enforcement unit and inspectors from the wild birds regulation unit, the secretariat added, conducted “an intensive surveillance operation” in a wide area.

It said that it had received news of the eagle migration expected from Sicily early in the afternoon and that it had immediately alerted police authorities and the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU).

A booted eagle was shot at over Santa Katarina valley and an eagle was shot down near Fawwara. BirdLife Malta said that in two of the cases where birds were seen shot down, police conducted searches late into the evening without any known outcome.

Volunteers and staff from BirdLife Malta scoured the areas around Buskett in the afternoon and evening, keeping a watch over the likely targets.

BirdLife Malta said police units initially only numbered two cars in the area, despite its early warnings.

A similar migration of over 50 rare eagles had ended up with over 15 casualties on the 23 October 2013, with BirdLife Malta recovering over three shot birds at the time, and enforcement units struggling to keep up with the incidents.

Booted eagle (Photo: Janina Laurent)
Booted eagle (Photo: Janina Laurent)

Government at the time had reacted with doubling fines on illegal hunting as a deterrent.

On Wednesday morning, a further incident was witnessed by a BirdLife Malta team at Tal-Virtù, who recorded the incident on video and led police to retrieve the carcass of a booted eagle and identify the suspect.

“These illegal hunting incidents over the last two days on protected species is a sad embarassment for law enforcement, which those persisting in the drive to kill and collect rare species take advantage of,” BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana said. “We appeal to the prime minister to take this matter seriously and set up a wildlife crime unit with appropriate resources and training.”

The latest illegal hunting incidents continue to top the list of illegalities over this autumn hunting season as more shot injured birds continued to be recovered by BirdLife Malta, police and the Wild Birds Regulation Unit.

“Current law on hunting and trapping demands a minimum of seven police officers to be out patrolling for every 1,000 licences. Yesterday’s sudden arrival of this exceptional number of eagles has found enforcement measures outnumbered and thin on the ground,” Sultana said.