Flamingo poacher spared jail on appeal because bird not at risk of extinction

Judge observes the flamingo was not a species at risk of extinction, and therefore the impact of the crime on the species was low

The flamingos shot down by the poacher in 2021
The flamingos shot down by the poacher in 2021

Updated at 4:13pm with BirdLife CEO reaction

The Court of Criminal Appeal has revoked a prison sentence handed to a 24-year-old hunter convicted of killing four flamingos in St. Paul’s Bay in 2021.

Imposing a suspended sentence in its stead, the court said that it was of the understanding that this incident would have had a low impact on the ecological balance in the area, noting that a court-appointed expert and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, had both listed the migratory birds in the “least concern” category.

This emerges from the judgment handed down by Mr Justice Neville Camilleri this morning in an appeal filed by Miguel Zammit, who had been sentenced to imprisonment for a year last September, after he was convicted of killing four the protected birds, out of a flock of five, in the Fra Ben area of Qawra.

Miguel Zammit
Miguel Zammit

The Court of Magistrates had not only sentenced Zammit to one year in prison but had also disqualified him from holding a hunting licence for life.

Zammit had filed an appeal against the sentence arguing, among other things, that there could have been other people in the Qawra. This argument found no favour in the Court, which observed that in his police statement, the defendant had not mentioned hearing other gunshots or seeing anyone else. Had someone else shot the birds, one would at least expect Zammit to have heard the sound.

The only thing that Zammit claimed to have seen was a boat and had attempted to suggest that whoever had been on board this boat might have shot at the flamingos, noted the court, pointing out that only Zammit seemed to have seen this boat. Mr Justice Camilleri also noted the testimony of a bystander who had been observing the birds, and testified that it had been Zammit who shot at them.

The court ruled that it had been confirmed that Zammit had shot and killed the birds.

In his submissions with regards to the punishment, Zammit had argued that the Court of Magistrates had not taken into account the fact that he had been 23-years-old at the time, also arguing that the proviso to the Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations said that the ecological impact had to be taken into consideration in calibrating punishment.

On this point, the judge observed that the flamingo was not a species at risk of extinction and therefore the impact of the crime on the species was low. The fact that these birds are migratory, meant that killing them had a low impact on the ecological balance of the area where the crime took place. In view of these considerations, the court confirmed the finding of guilt in Zammit's regard but reduced his sentence to imprisonment for one year, suspended for two years.

The remainder of the punishment imposed by the previous court, including Zammit’s lifelong prohibition from holding a hunting licence, remain.

Lawyers Edmund Cuschieri and Alex Miruzzi were counsel to Zammit.

BirdLife CEO says judgment is baffling

Reacting to the judgment, BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana said he found the court's reasons for a more lenient sentence "baffling".

"While one can debate if a jail term was just or not... a protected bird is protected irrespective of its status and just because it is not at risk of being extinct, does not mean that its protection, or the consequences of illegally killing it, should be less. I fail to see the logic. It’s like saying that stealing from a rich person carries a lesser punishment than if you steal from a poor person," Sultana said.