Birds are a fantastic resource | Chris Packham

The economy of the country could be boosted, rather than negatively impacted by a tiny number of individuals who are breaking the law

Chris Packham (Photo: Ray Attard)
Chris Packham (Photo: Ray Attard)

Chris Packham is no stranger to Malta... and no stranger to controversy in Malta, either. Himself a regular spring visitor and an active participant in Birdlife Malta/CABS Springwatch camps, his latest brush with publicity came last Thursday: when he was charged in the Gozo courts with ‘insulting’ a trapper... only for evidence to later emerge that he had been manhandled by the police, and the case was based on spurious charges (which were rejected by the magistrate).

At face value, it seems a straightforward case of justice prevailing... but while many expressed solidarity and support for Packham, the incident also seemed to underscore a form of latent anti-colonialist resentment in certain quarters. Perhaps predictably, the hunters’ association FKNK accused Chris Packham – who is conspicuously British – of having a ‘neo-colonialist mentality’. 

But while it may be the standard expected knee-jerk reaction... could it also be that - even if it is not his intention– his actions might come across as a case of ‘tutting-tutting’ at the antics of a former colony?

How does he himself respond to that charge? 

Firstly, to be called a ‘neo-colonialist’ is insulting. Those days are long behind us. If anything, I would consider myself a European at this point: because Malta and the UK – currently – are still members of the European Union, and we have a system of legislature, politics, and democracy which is meant to be equal all over the EU. I don’t come here as ‘someone from the UK’; I don’t come here as ‘someone from Europe’. I come here for one reason and one reason alone... and that’s my interest in birds. These birds spend part of the year in African countries, they transit through Malta... some of them go to the UK and other European countries. No one country is responsible for looking after them. Some of these species would visit as many as 20 different countries in the course of a year. This is a global issue. It has nothing to do with the UK and Malta, or any past political or social issues between those countries.  This is about the modern issue of looking after populations of birds which are in a lot of trouble. That’s what motivates me to come here. Many young people in the UK are embarrassed by some of the things that have happened in the past; but those things are far behind us now. It’s time to move forward. Those antiquated insults just go over my head. It’s not a nice thing to say, and it undermines the integrity of what I want to do. And that’s not to come from the UK wagging my finger at Malta. That’s nonsense. I come here because I care about birds...

It was partly because of that consideration that I asked, though. The ‘neo-colonialist’ card may be a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from the real issue... but it might work with some people, even if they don’t care about hunting. Could it be that the militant approach favoured by Packham also undermines conservation efforts, up to a point?

It shouldn’t, in the modern world. People from all over the world volunteer for organisations like BirdLife Malta and CABS. When we were working in Cyprus last year, someone had come all the way from Hong Kong... to look after birds in Cyprus. This is reflective of a global attitude: in most parts of the world, people are becoming aware about the plight of our wildlife and the environment. They understand that the world is very small, and it’s all connected. Birds connect us, because they go from one part of the world which is responsible for looking after them, to another part of the world which has the same responsibility. So I think that modern conservation needs to be all-embracive. It doesn’t matter what colour, creed, where you come from or anything like that... if you are concerned with the need to protect life on earth, that’s your qualification. That’s what I come here to do. And I like Malta; I like Maltese people. Whenever we come, we’re always made to feel very welcome. We get a lot of support from Maltese people, saying they find this practice to be embarrassing for them. They want to be part of a modern, forward-looking Europe, and they feel this is holding them back. At no stage do we advocate a boycott of Malta; we always make this very clear to our followers and supporters. That wouldn’t hurt the hunters at all; it would hurt a lot of hard-working, decent Maltese people who are very welcoming and friendly. And it’s a great place to come, too. In fact we have plans next year to bring bird tours here: these are not people volunteering for CABS, but tourists who want to see birds. The last few days that I’ve been here, I’ve seen some fantastic birds. We were on Comino yesterday: for people like us who love birds: it’s an amazing place. There’s no shooting; and you get lots of species. Our plan is to bring a party of people here to show that tourists would be willing to come to Malta – where they will spend money in hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, etc – to see birds. It could be what we call an eco-tourism hotspot. It’s a good place for birds. Therefore the economy of the country could be boosted, rather than negatively impacted by a tiny number of individuals who are breaking the law...

But is that the extent of the issue? Everyone (including hunters) agrees that a ‘minority breaks the law’. But Birdlife Malta (and presumably Chris Packham too) also argues that the law itself is wrong, in that it allows hunting in spring...

Yes, we’re talking about two laws here. Firstly, Maltese law... then the European Wild Birds Directive. The Birds Directive is a law that is meant to be operated throughout the EU. It makes any form of hunting in spring illegal. As you know, Malta has instituted a derogation to be exempt from that part of the law. Now clearly, that’s not acceptable. So there are two tiers of complaint here: firstly, those that are breaking Malta’s laws by shooting illegally; then, there are those who are shooting legally in Malta... but that activity is illegal in Europe. So we would like to draw attention to this, and ask people to put pressure in two places. One, upon the Maltese government, to ask them to come in line with the rest of Europe, to cease spring hunting, and implement proper policing of the illegalities. Two, on the European Commission, as governor of this part of the legislation, to say to them: ‘look, you’re part of Europe, you need to abide by the legislation which we all recognise is beneficial. So you must stop spring hunting.’ So when we ask our supporters to take action, we essentially ask them to do these two things. Lobby the Maltese government; and equally importantly, lobby the European Commissioner, Mr Karmenu Vella... who happens to be Maltese, but it doesn’t matter. Whoever it is, they should be taking more action...

Speaking of lobbying the authorities: has Chris Packham ever brought these issues up directly with any representative of government? 

Each time we’ve come, we’ve asked for interviews with the government, and with their representatives in various departments, and they’ve never agreed to an appointment. This time I think we had one reply from the Wild Birds Regulation Unit director, who said he regretfully couldn’t give us an interview. He wrote about six words back. But every time we come we ask for an interview so we can present our views. We would love to meet them and ask them questions like you’re asking me... but unfortunately they won’t be interviewed by us. We know what’s going on here: the reason why there is a contemporary lack of political will is that there’s going to be an election sometime before next year. There are 10,000 hunters, plus their families... maybe it amounts to around 30,000 votes. The last election was won by around 36,000 votes... so that could be a significant part of the electorate. Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen less effective policing this year, than previous years...

Is that a comment about this week’s incident, or generally? In his own broader experience as a frequent visitor to Malta: has he noted any improvements in law enforcement?

There have been improvements. This year, we had a moratorium on turtle doves. It wasn’t wholly respect, perhaps, but it was a start. What we’ve seen with regard to quail is that the hunters claim to have shot 130 quail this spring... and 15 illegally shot, handed in to Birdlife. It’s quite clear that the 15 birds were only the tip of an iceberg. They only came from public land; many more will have been shot in private areas. But still: that’s around 20% of all the birds that were shot legally. That’s not acceptable. This should be properly policed. When we called the police the other day to inspect a site, they arrived quite promptly; they listened, and they confiscated a trapper’s net. But they told us they were the only two policemen in Malta that could attend that type of crime. Just two people! And only one car was available. Given the breadth and scope of this issue, that’s far too little...

That incident seems to contrast with the other one in Gozo this week. Is this typical of his past experiences with the police? 

I think it’s very interesting. Our experiences with the police here fall squarely into two very distinct camps. There are officers who do their duty: they arrive, they listen, they take action and they do what they should be doing. And they seem to do so with an element of goodwill. And there are other officers who are the complete opposite. There’s no middle ground. Either they’ll do their job, or they will oppose you. I’ve seen some very good police action taking place here: officers out in the field, arresting people, confiscating guns and traps...  but on other occasions, I’ve seen police arriving and not taking down evidence – with the result that the evidence disappears. Last week I saw both the best – that net was confiscated, no problems, everything was done very efficiently – and then we go to Gozo, where it’s very clear that the trapper had been tipped off. By the time the police came, the cage was empty, when it had birds in it before. And later, when the policeman assaulted me... I was pushed away by a policeman who said to me twice – we have it on record – that he would use the trapper’s evidence to prosecute me...

Which he did...

Which he did. But we were only reported for an alleged crime. I think it sends out entirely the wrong message. In a positive light, however, it gives us the opportunity to highlight the very difficult conditions in which Birdlife and CABS are operating. Because these people are acting within the law to ask for the law to be upheld. But those who are responsible for upholding the law – the police – are working against them, and failing to do their duty. This is very disappointing. I think the positive thing that will come out is that many will sympathise with how difficult the job of BLM and CABS is, and this will engender more support. Because people like don’t like a lack of justice. What we’ve seen in this case is a lack of justice.  As far as we know, nothing will happen to the person allegedly keeping protected birds in a cage; while I needed to defend myself in court. Fortunately we had enough evidence to win the case. But this is just one case. Birdlife have this all year around...

To end on a positive note: is the ‘bird tour’ he mentioned earlier something already organised and ready to take off? Will promoting eco-tourism be the next stage of the conversation effort? 

Hopefully, next year we’ll approach and all the travel agencies – we haven’t done this yet, but we will soon -  and bring a party of people here. They’ll have a great time, see some great birds... We will point out some of the things that are wrong, too, it  won’t all be about that. This is very much a positive thing. Hopefully it will illustrate to the tourism agencies, and to the people of Malta, that you’ve got a fantastic resource here. And it’s far better to preserve it than to shoot it...

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