Bird shooters’ outrages in Malta erupt with drumbeat regularity, usually in late summer, reminding us as always of the advent of bird migration and the hunting season. It usually involves large, colourful birds – the shooting down of majestic, conspicuous birds which feature felicitously in lore and conservation is particularly repulsive – provoking a frenzy of renunciations.
This year it was the turn of a flock of storks, a bird much loved and heralded everywhere in its range in Europe: the stork is a symbol of kindness, mercy, maternity, a bird that is encouraged to nest on homes in north and east Europe in the belief that it will bestow harmony on the household.
Imagine the horror then of the news of the Maltese shooting these mythical birds out of the sky, picking an entire flock bit by bit, just to serve as someone’s bird trophy.
Yet more worrisome in this latest abomination is not so much its occurrence (a significant minority of hunters remain unreconstructed to modern thinking on hunting; bird trophy collections remain objects of desire for an even larger percentage of hunters), but that the government announced no new ideas or initiative to redesign the current inadequate law enforcement set-up.
Environment Minister José Herrera, on being asked what can be done to deter illegal shooting of birds, reportedly told the Times of Malta: “You can legislate and have strong enforcement but you can never stop criminals. You can only try to minimise.”
Legislation is now robust, the courts take the shooting of protected birds seriously, but law enforcement remains patchily ineffective. For, although the shadow of the law and other societal factors have tamped down the shooting of protected species in recent years, the incidence of illegal shooting still remains unacceptably hideous, probably the worse in Europe. And enforcement now falls way short of what’s required to bring down the incidence of shooting on protected birds any further.
Virtually every flock of large, colourful birds is still greeted with volleys of shots. The fact that the gauntlet of shooting remains dense and deadly, to the point where every flock runs a high risk of being gunned down, shows that the current enforcement effort has reached a point of stasis.
I am talking of enforcement operations that are systematic, targeted and intelligently designed to leave an aftereffect
That’s because the police unit that deals with hunting crimes – the ALE, which stands for Administrative Law Enforcement, a misnomer – is mostly reactive. Its patrols during open seasons are conspicuous, and thus only patchily preventive.
Moreover, if the police get wind of the arrival of flocks of rare birds, the tracking and monitoring operation they mount is also a preventive effort that has little effect on foiling or stymieing future events. In most cases the ALE only reacts to reports of illegal hunting that flow in from Birdlife and CABS: the intrepid, dedicated activists of those organisations carry out the more sophisticated legwork and tracking operations and then call the police to investigate.
In this situation the bird shooters who track and target spectacular birds, as well as those who shoot on protected species that come into range when they are out hunting generally, take calculated risks in the knowledge that the risk of being caught remains small.
That calculus would only change if the enforcement becomes more effective generally, and particularly artfully debilitating or demoralising. I am talking of enforcement operations that are systematic, targeted and intelligently designed to leave an aftereffect. The most obvious example, as far as the shooting of protected birds go, is an intelligence-led undercover operation that would target taxidermy of protected birds. Without taxidermists willing to take a risk on protected birds there would be little incentive to shoot protected birds in the first place.
Police teams can also be deployed in the field covertly to document and prosecute illegalities. There can also be other targeted campaigns. For example, illegal electronic bird callers are so common in some valleys during the migration seasons that the calls rise to a din during the night in some rural areas, but the police do not seem to do anything about these unless a report is made by CABS or Birdlife. An enforcement campaign would tackle this in a systematic, multi-pronged manner, including points of sales.
All of this can only be carried out by a dedicated, well-resourced enforcement set-up. Birdlife has been calling for such a set-up – a Wildlife Crime Unit – for many years, but governments have opted to retain the current inadequate set-up and faulty design. The suspicion is that the government is not really interested in more effective enforcement because of electoral expediency.
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