Illegal trapping continues undisturbed in Gozo

TIM ATTARD MONTALTO joined BirdLife on one of their regular monitoring expeditions. He found that despite its illegality, trapping goes on unabated in Gozo

Police seizing trapping paraphrenalia.
Police seizing trapping paraphrenalia.

"We must keep quiet," I am told.

We're seated at a table in the cafeteria of the Gozo Channel ferry around which four other people are sitting. They are BirdLife officials and volunteers, but it only occurs to me throughout the Channel crossing, that everything but ornithology is being discussed here - a stark difference to the dialogue in the car on the way to Cirkewwa.

"If word gets around that we are coming, they will be on the look-out," the leader of our little expedition says. "Gozo is small and word gets around very quickly," he tells me, his eyes scanning the cafeteria for any likely eavesdroppers.

This sounds like cloak-and-dagger stuff but spending a day with BirdLife activists requires some stealth. They are heading to Gozo to investigate the ongoing cases of illegal bird trapping, despite the practice being banned in Malta which currently only derogates from the EU's laws on spring hunting.

Only a fortnight previously, BirdLife had sent a surveillance team to Gozo in which they found many traces of possible illegal trapping sites. This time, though, they are hoping to catch the real thing - the trappers in action.

Our first destination was the area known as Ta' Sarraflu, along the West coast of Gozo. I was told that it was a stronghold for hunters and trappers, meaning that the chance of spotting poaching was quite high.

As we drove along the bumpy country roads leading towards Ta' Sarraflu, we passed a few pick-up trucks, driven by what seemed to be farmers or hunters working the area. The looks we received made one thing chillingly clear - this was their territory.

I asked whether BirdLife usually encounter problems with hunters and trappers. "We do sometimes, but the relations between the hunting lobby and BirdLife are more civil than most people think," BirdLife coordinator Nick Barbara says.

I was to find out later, however, that the car we were using was a rental, the reason being an episode taking place a few months back when researches from the EU LIFE+ Malta Seabird Project were the target of a violent act of vandalism and intimidation in Gozo, when the car they were using was shot several times while parked on the road in a protected area. "They may not have meant to physically harm the activists, but the fact remains that the car was badly damaged.  Since then, we haven't been using our own cars for such outings," Barbara says.

At one point, one of the volunteers sitting in the back seat called out to the driver. "Your bins, your bins!"  A set of binoculars - 'bins' - were lying on the dashboard. In the blink of an eye, they were removed.

We parked the car at Ta' Sarraflu at 9:20am, and it took only a few minutes for the sound of the illegally-recorded lures to die down. "They have spotted us," Barbara says.

Parked as we were on high ground, it meant they could see us clearly. But more importantly, it meant that we could see them even more clearly. "There are at least three trapping sites," one volunteer says, scanning the area with his binoculars. One of the trappers is already hiding his haul in one of two huts on his plot. The BirdLife team is taking footage of the scene, and now is contacting the Victoria police station.

After taking footage of the sites, the BirdLife team contacted the Victoria police station, having seen the trapper in question hiding their haul in one of two huts on the plot.

Whilst we wait for the police, a crowd starts to gather. A pick-up truck parks right alongside our car. "They do this to intimidate us," one of the volunteers tells me in a whisper.

Two police officers arrived 25 minutes later, and upon being shown the footage they go down to the hunting lodge to investigate. They return empty-handed but the BirdLife team points out to them that they have not entered the second hut. The footage in fact shows the man taking the haul onto a wheelbarrow and wheeling it into the second hut. He then emerges from the hut without the stuffed birds and cages.

This footage seems to convince the police to go back down and on their return, the trapper allegedly tells the police the second hut was not his. They are allowed access nonetheless and they return with a live lapwing, two stuffed lapwings, one redwing, two stuffed golden plovers, and five song thrush. The trapping of lapwing at this time of year is illegal.

We follow the police to Victoria police station to provide the evidence on the trapping, which is enough for the police inspector to send his officers to remove the illegal nets and decoys.

But we later find out that the decoys were returned to the trapper because their possession is not illegal. Needless to say, the BirdLife team are not overly impressed at the news.

At the limits of Qala, on the other side of the island, Barbara tells me there is a good chance that word has already got round to other trappers in the area. "Our best bet of finding more illegal trapping is to go to where there is not enough reception for walkie-talkie communication."

And so over the course of the following three hours, the team drives to a number of 'likely trapping sites' in the Xaghra, Nadur and Qala areas. No actual trappers are found, but we did happen across a few trapping sites. At one site, I notice one team member bending down to measure the holes in the nets.

"We do this to determine what size of bird these trappers were targeting."

The gaps are in fact evidence that the trappers were targeting protected finch species. "It's frustrating that we cannot call the police even though we are sure what this particular trapping site is being used for," they say, explaining that they need to catch trappers red-handed, as well as provide concrete footage for any action to be taken.

By around 3pm, we have not witnessed any more illegal trapping. I can see the team is somewhat frustrated, especially after having such a positive start.

There was to be one last stop, though. Driving along country roads outside the village of Gharb, the driver stopped the car upon hearing the distinct sound of recorded lures. We got out and made our way down a country lane. Barbara, walking a few metres in front of me, shouts out. "There's a crane decoy!"

I'm totally clueless as to what that is. I look over the wall and, in the distance, I see what the figure of a long-necked bird. The crane, a very large protected bird the type of which is very rarely witnessed in Malta and Gozo, was being used as a decoy to lure other cranes.

"Birds are attracted to their kind, just like they are drawn to their own sound," Barbara says. "None of us have ever seen anything like this," a volunteer says, while another jokes that trappers "sure were aiming big".

The police arrive on site an hour later, after receiving directions as to where the trapping site was, to confiscate the decoy. On their return, they told us that no further action could be taken as yet as they needed to prove that the trapping site belonged to the person who they spoke to.

We caught the 4:30pm ferry back to Malta with the group's spirit lifted somewhat. "We are not the police, and we wouldn't want to be seen in that way," one activist told me. "But there are certain birds that should not be shot or trapped, and it is our job as bird lovers to make sure that they are not," he said.

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What's this ? Copy and Paste ? I recall reading this same article a couple of days ago !Is this the best you can come up with, Mr.Tim attard montalto ?
If you are depending on the Gozo Authorities to take action against these bird trappers, forget it. Gozitans have their own set of rules and they are very partial to have somebody spy on them. Certain Gozitans also seem to be in the habit of calling the Gozo Channel Ferry back to port because they think they can. May we remind these certain individuals that the Gozo Ferry belongs to the Maltese Government and not the Gozo Government. Gozitan residents have to follow the same rules like Malta residents do. Or maybe that is why a foreigner in a Gozitan Court was sentenced to serve a ten year sentence for cultivating some marijuana plants while in Maltese Courts he would have received a lot less or maybe a suspended sentence. One Malta, two Islands, two measures.
@davidp. Nothing extraordinary about that. A drive from Wied iz-Zurrieq past Hagar Qim, Tal Providenza, Fawwara, beyond Laferla and then onwards to Dingli Cliffs all the way to Bahrija, one has to be wearing earplugs not to be deafened by a crescendo of Golden Plover callers. Every now and then one even gets to hear Lapwing calls to break the monotony.
I took a walk along the path on the Gudja side of the airport runway early on Sunday afternoon and the non stop calling sound of birds from an electronic bird caller from the otherside was there for all to hear, tell tale signs of trapping.