Give wildlife a chance... | Arnold Sciberras

ARNOLD SCIBERRAS – managing director of ‘The Exterminator’ pest-control company – argues that it is important to distinguish between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’, before deciding you have a pest-problem

Arnold Sciberras (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Arnold Sciberras (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how Malta has become infested with rats: but is this really a reflection of rising rodent populations? Couldn’t it be that Malta has always had a rat problem, in the past... but it’s more visible today, because of all the construction that’s going on; as well as the ongoing garbage crisis?

Well, it's a multitude of things, really. If you compare Malta’s rat population this year, with that of the previous three years: then yes, you can definitely say there’s been an ‘explosion’. However, if you compare it to four or five years ago: it’s basically almost the same.

So while there has been an influx, recently: our current rat population is not the highest ever recorded. From my own records, Malta’s highest recorded rat population was around 10 years ago.

Nonetheless, the increase from last year has still been very big. As for the reasons why: first of all, there’s the weather. Weather patterns have a major impact of wildlife populations. I’ve been preaching about this for the past 10 years, in relation to Oriental hornets.

This year, there has been a sharp decrease in hornet populations: thanks largely to our efforts, as exterminators, in catching queens from an early stage.

But besides that, the decrease was also due to the intense heatwaves that we’ve had; and the fact that it wasn't a ‘stable’ summer. As a result, the Oriental Hornet numbers dropped drastically. Regarding cockroaches, on the other hand: what we have noticed, is that the ‘roach season’ seems to have started significantly later than usual, this year.

But while it started out at a very slow pace... suddenly, there was a boom. In fact, we are now back to the usual numbers, for this time of year.

Coming back to rats: besides the weather - which also affects their populations – we have seen the biggest increases, by far, in areas which are already overpopulated [by humans]. Places where garbage is not being picked up constantly; or where it's left out late at night, and not packed properly...

All this has resulted in mountains of garbage, accumulating in areas like Sliema, St. Julian’s, etc: often left out overnight, which is the time for rodents, and other species, to forage.

On top of that: construction certainly doesn't help, at all. Look at it this way: on a plot of land where, in the past, there would have been just one house – with only one, maybe two toilets - there are now apartment blocks with as many as 70 toilets, all pumping sewage into the same drainage system...

On that note: it is often said – of places like New York City – that ‘wherever you are, you will be within 10 metres of at least one rat’. Is that true of Malta, as well?

It depends where you are, exactly: but in some areas... Let me put it this way: if you were to pull up all the tarmac from our streets, and expose what’s underneath: for one thing, you will see that, in many areas, the sewage-system is simply overfowing, everwhere you look. But the amount of rodent-tunnels you will see? It’s incredible. There are entire networks of tunnels, beneath our towns and villages. And this year, more than ever: because their numbers are exploding again.

So I'm afraid that - if construction is going to continue at the present rate, on these islands – the rodent problem will become impossible to handle.

Having said that: since we’ve been working directly on this issue, I’ve seen a huge effort from the authorities: especially the local councils, and individual mayors. They are really doing their utmost, compared to previous years, to solve the problem. So I have to give them credit, for that. It's not all doom-and-gloom...

Nonetheless, rats have increased drastically, in overpopulated urban areas – and the situation is already almost impossible to deal with, today.

When talking about such creatures as ‘vermin’, however... we’re only seeing things from our own perspective, as human beings. Don’t these animals also have a part to play, in Malta’s natural ecosystem? And isn’t it is also partly because of imbalances to that ecosystem (including, for instance that we have killed off most of their natural predators) that these pest-species are even on the increase, at all?

Well... it’s complex matter you’re raising, there. First of all, bear in mind that the rats we have in Malta, that are considered ‘pest species’, are not indigenous. They were introduced. So they never were native, to begin with; and as such, they never had any natural predators, of their own.

Now, if we take a place like Buskett, for example: yes, there are wild species that feed upon rats; such as snakes, and birds of prey. However, these are also being persecuted by the public: hunting, pesticides; pollution; loss of habitat, to development or agriculture... all these have contributed to a decline in several of those species.

Folklore, too, is part of the problem: snakes, for instance, are often killed because of religious, or superstitious beliefs... despite being protected, in Malta.  So yes: up to a point, you could argue that the lack of natural predation, also plays its part. The problem, however, is that it certainly cannot account for the situation in places such as Sliema, or St Julian’s.

Not because there aren’t any predators in those areas, by the way. There are snakes in Sliema, for instance...

There certainly used to be, when I lived there as a child. The grounds of what is today the Capua Hospital was once full of them...

They exist in other urban areas, too. As a pest-control company, we get calls for people with all kinds of ‘animal problems’ – whether they actually involve pest-species, or not. You’d be surprised at the number of times we get called, because a snake got into someone’s house: even in places you wouldn’t expect.

In fact, we are the only company that really tries to identify ‘what's a friend and a foe’, before doing any exterminating. In the case of snakes – and other species: including lizards, hedgehogs, and shrews - we actually go there to save those species; and work with NGOs to release them back into the wild.

Sadly, however, most people won't even give wildlife a chance. For example: when people have a snake in their garden, they don't just leave it there, for the sake of controlling rats. Instead, they call us, to get rid of it as a ‘pest’. Little do they realise, that having a snake in their garden is actually the best way to protect their home, from a rat-infestation...

Having said this, I understand that people don’t want to live with snakes, and other animals, in their homes. So of course, we do respond to those calls... but if it’s a snake; or a scorpion (because that’s another beneficial animal, that is often mistaken for vermin) – we will not kill it. We will simply remove it, and release it into a suitable habitat elsewhere.

Unfortunately, however, there seems to be this attitude here, whereby everything that moves is considered either a pest, or vermin, or something people simply want to get rid of it, as quickly as possible...

How much of an impact is this attitude is having, on local wildlife? This week, there was a report about how the chameleon may now be an endangered species. And you yourself announced the extinction of the Selmunett wall lizard, in 2008. It sounds to me as though Malta’s wildlife is facing imminent risk of extinction, at present. Am I correct?

Once again: it's a very complex issue, so I'll try to keep it simple. But let’s start with the chameleon.

We too, have noticed that there has been a decline. It must be said, however, that the chameleon is not native to Malta, either. It is actually an alien species, that was probably introduced around 200 years ago. And okay: we have all grown up with chameleons roaming around our countryside; so we now consider them to be part of our country’s natural heritage.

But it’s still an invasive species; and there have been studies, by myself and others, showing that when the chameleon is confined to smaller habitats – such as, for instance, Cominotto Island - it has a detrimental effect on the populations of native wildlife: like the Cominotto wall lizard, which is endemic to Malta.

So in cases like that, I wouldn't really worry about ‘saving the chameleon’, too much. However, there are places where the chameleon has found its own particular niche; so while it wouldn’t upset me that much, if chameleons decline in certain areas... they can still be beneficial, in others.

Hang on: surely, those ‘invasive species’ which are now firmly established, should be considered ‘native’, today? Because otherwise, ALL Malta’s wildlife would have to be considered, up to a point, ‘invasive’...

Not really, no. There ARE endemic species, in Malta...

But surely animals such as the ‘wild rabbit’ would have been introduced, at some point or other? Does that makes rabbits ‘alien’, too?

OK, I see your point. Animals like rabbits, weasels, hedgehogs, etc. would all have originally been ‘introduced’ here, yes... but it depends how far back in history you go. You certainly wouldn’t call the wild rabbit an ‘alien species’: because we know, for certain, that it’s been here since Roman times... and probably much earlier. Probably, it was introduced by the first humans who settled here during the Ghar Dalam phase, 7,000 years ago...

Other species may have been introduced later: but they’ve all been present for long enough, to have intergrated within the local ecosystem.

But then, there are also the indigenous species: the ones that were here before the arrival of humans. And most important of all, there are the endemic species: i.e., the ones that you simply don't find at all, anywhere else in the world.

In a sense, this brings us back to the rodent problem. Rats also pose a significant danger to other wildlife, don’t they? Especially breeding sea-bird colonies; and the endemic lizards themselves...

Unfortunately, yes. You mentioned the extinction of the Selmunett wall-lizard, for instance. That was something I published when I was 14 years old... and the cause was, in fact, a rat infestation on Selmunett island.

Rats, as I said before, are an invasive species; and this is precisely why they have such a detrimental effect, on local wildlife.

Frogs are another excellent example. One of Malta’s endemic species is the Painted Frog. It is our only amphibian; and it is unique to these islands.

But we have completely destroyed its natural habitat. Today, practically every fresh-water spring, in every valley, is filled with crayfish: an invasive species, that somehow got released into our natural water-ways; and with which the Painted Frog finds it impossible to compete.

We are even finding the occasional terrapin species, let loose in the wild... and also another alien species of frog: which we discovered two decades ago, in Sarrafflu, Gozo; but which we have now recorded in at least four five other sites in Gozo; and a couple of sites in Malta.  And wherever this frog-species establishes itself: it will always out-compete the Painted Frog.

Then there are snakes. In our more recent studies, we saw that some snake populations are quite stable; but others – namely, the Leopard Snake [lifgha]: the one associated with the legend of St Paul – has plummeted, recently.

Now: the Leopard Snake – along with the Black Snake, and the Western Black Snake - is indigenous to Malta. The Cat Snake and the Algerian Whiptail, on the other hand, were probably introduced by the First World War. However, they all found their own niches within the ecosystem; and they don’t pose any problem, at all.

What most people don’t know, however, it that we have recorded another five alien species of snake, recently. Some of them are already quite common; others rare; and some... well, we’re afraid that they might even be genetically polluting the local populations, by ‘hybridizing’ with them.

Are any of these five species dangerous to humans?

To humans? No, not at all. They’re not venomous; and they do not pose any danger whatsoever. They are, however, very dangerous to local wildlife. And we’ve already seen a major decline, in the population of one of our indigenous snakes..

Earlier, you mentioned the distinction between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. Now: we all can all see why some animals (like rats) are considered vermin. But what makes an animal our ‘friend’, exactly? In what ways do these ‘non-pest’ species actually benefit, the people who tolerate them in their homes?

Well, this is something I have always been trying to do: educating the public, that not everything that enters their house is automatically a ‘pest’. There are harmful intruders; there are casual intruders; and there are beneficial species.

Take scorpions, as an example. A scorpion is not ‘vermin’; it is not dangerous to humans; it is actually a very beneficial species that controls roaches, and other pests. However, people do call us about scorpions: usually, because they are afraid of them.

The same goes for snakes. Snakes prey chiefly on rodents: especially, young rats. So if you find a snake in your house... it probably means there are also rodents. After all, the snake has no other reason, to be trespassing in your house. It will only be there, in search of prey.

Shrews are another good indicator that you have a pest-problem. A shrew cannot survive more than three hours, without eating. That's how fast its metabolism is. From my own experience, I can tell you that - just to keep one shrew alive - you need at least one-to-five cockroaches, a day.

So if there are shrews in your house: you DEFINITELY have a roach problem...

The same goes for geckos; bats; and other wildlife, in general. These are all part of our natural heritage; and we should be protecting them... even by eliminating all these ridiculous ‘phobias’, and ‘superstitions’, that we have gathered over the years.

I mean: I wrote almost a complete book about all the hearsay, and folklore, surrounding these animals. Come on! We're in 2023, now. It's ridiculous...