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Volunteering for a Bird protection Camp in Malta,

A personal view by Jonathan Blair

Imagine the scene; it is 6.00am the sun is just coming up behind me. I stare at the brightening horizon scanning for a variety of birds of prey. The wind is whipping past my face so hard I can hardly stand up straight. David is standing beside me. It is a surreal moment. This is the final time I would be out on operations with CABS, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter. I feel quite emotional. In only four and a half hours I will be on my way to the airport leaving behind an amazing group of people.

Several months earlier while scanning the internet, I happened upon an advertisement. “Wanted, bird guards for operations in Brescia, Italy”. At the time I was well into my first year of Italian lessons. I had also visited the area previously while at university. I immediately e-mailed off for more information. When I got a reply the whole thing sounded too good to be true. I would be able to travel to Italy, practice my Italian, hike up mountains, another one of my hobbies, and watch and help protect birds. Great!

I e-mailed for an application form and anxiously waited for a reply. Several days later I had an e-mail from David Conlin. He wanted to know a little information about me. I replied rather too hastily, leaving a lot of information about myself out, focusing on the good points I could bring to the trip. I thought David might think that I had been taking liberties with the truth in an attempt to get a cheap holiday. These fears worsened when, after several weeks of communications between the two of us, I received an e-mail from him saying the Brescia camp was full. My heart sank when I read that. I had researched CABS. They are a German organisation committed to the eradication of illegal hunting, not just in Italy but also at several other locations throughout southern Europe. Every year they take people from all over the world to monitor migrating birds and observe and report on any illegal hunting activity.

I had been bragging to my friends about going to Italy. I now had to swallow a huge piece of humble pie and tell them I wouldn't be going anywhere. That was such an awful feeling. It wasn't to last though. I e-mailed David back, told him of my disappointment and wished him and the team well in the future. I thought that would be the last communication between the two of us.

I checked my e-mails one lunch time in work and there sitting in the in box was a message from David Conlin. The subject line simply said Malta?? As it turned out the Brescia camp was full but the Malta camp still had places. After having left university I hadn't done much in the way of conservation or ecological work. I had to jump at this chance. 'Yes I'd love to go to Malta and help with the camp' I replied immediately. I felt so relieved and excited, I told everyone in work straight away.

Jump forward to the beginning of September 2010. I had everything ready, the flights were booked, money changed into Euros, new binoculars on order, and plenty of high factor sun cream. Being very fair skinned that was the one thing I truly needed for this trip. Not having done any birdwatching for a while I popped along to the local RSPB reserve. This was a haven for sea birds, it didn't matter though, this was a chance to practice my ID skills. There all set and ready to go.

David had e-mailed with info for first timers, all useful stuff, and an article by an American journalist and best-selling author by the name of Jonathan Franzen. He had been with CABS in the spring to Cyprus. His article didn't make for good reading from my point of view, he had described an incident were the team had been brutally attacked by several poachers. I also had made the mistake of opening this article in work where several colleagues also read it, and inevitably the jokes started flying. Some became so concerned I would be attacked in Malta they had reservations about me going.

The situation in Malta is quite complicated. Located in the middle of the Mediterranean many migrating birds use it as a stopping point on their way from Europe to Africa. A number of species, especially birds of prey species, are endangered. These are the species that are being targeted and hunted in several locations throughout southern Europe. The government in Malta does little about the situation because the politics on the island are very complicated. Both main parties are worried about alienating the hunters. Elections on the island are so close that even a 5% swing, an estimate of the number of hunters on the island, could determine the outcome.

The day for me to fly out finally arrived. I made my way to the airport, somehow got through customs with my hand luggage, it being virtually impossible these days, and sat down on the plane. It wasn't until I was in the air that it suddenly struck me, I was heading to a country I'd never been to before, to meet people I'd never met before, and do something I'd never done before. Was I mad? I suddenly had a sick feeling in my stomach. This was made worse by the fact I had started reading a book about two men trying to circumnavigate the world on motorcycles. The first few chapters described their own feelings of being sick. Somehow that made me feel worse. When I calmed down a little I realised that this was just a perfectly normal reaction to this kind of thing, moving into the unknown.

I had received instructions from David the night before about where in the airport I was to meet him. He would be a little late in getting there, so I was to find a seat at a café and wait for him there. Firmly entrenched in my seat and sipping a nice cooling drink it hit me that I had never even met David. I sent a text saying I was wearing my red jacket. That was to be a bit of a mistake. The heat, even though the building was air conditioned, was very warm for my delicate British disposition.

David arrived at the airport and introduced himself. My first impression of him was one of authority. He had been in the army as an officer and it showed. There was a self confidence about him that said if anything goes wrong on this trip I'll be safe. As we sat talking, waiting on a flight coming from Italy brining more volunteers he showed himself to be also a very dedicated, amusing and motivating person. For over an hour he regaled me with stories about what the volunteers had been up to in the past week, one involving a particularly dicey incident with a man nicknamed the buffalo, and what I could expect to be doing.

David asked if I was a birder, well sure I was yeah? I hold a degree in ecology from a very prestigious university, I'd been birdwatching before now and although I was a little rusty I had brushed up on my skills. I promptly replied that yes I was a birder. Little was I to know how wrong that statement was.

At the hotel I was introduced to the rest of the team. Axel was a tall German with a welcoming personality, even when we had woken him up. Alex, not to be confused with Axel, was a small man always running around with a lot to do. Andrea lived up to his Italian heritage as I would find out later in the week. He had a fiery temperament when it came to protecting birds, however later in the days he would relax and always had time to talk, in 5 languages, and especially about birds.

It was time soon enough for me to go out on operations for the first time. I was to be included in team Germany, as the rest of team U.K hadn't yet arrived. On the team were Tony and Jan. Tony spoke English fairly well after I had tuned my ear to his accent. Jan didn't speak English at all.

I was taken on a small tour of the island and the areas I would be covering in the next week. As it was late in the afternoon and not many birds had arrived on the island that day, there was nothing much to see. David was kind enough to point out some of the indigenous species, species I wouldn't have seen in the U.K such as the Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius). We ended the day in an area used by picnickers and party goers. This was also used as a hunting site. It was hard to believe. The scene was so tranquil, with people going about their business, much as I would with my friends in the U.K. The hard thing to imagine was the fact that hunting of birds could happen here at all. The hides were so close to where people were sitting, eating and kids playing. Surely people would be appalled at hunting in an area like this? Hunters walk about with large shotguns, you can take all the precautions in the world, accidents still happen.

We moved to a more remote area, further up in the hills and away from the tourists. I had very good views of most of the island. It seemed on first sight to be a drier version of our countryside. There were similar sized fields of various crops, the same small country roads and little dry stone walls to mark the boundaries. One thing that did strike me was the amounts of little stone dwellings dotted all over the landscape. At first I had taken them to be some old ruins, perhaps used by sheep herders to take shelter in or dwellings used to store food in, keeping it out of the harsh sunshine. «What are they?» I asked David «Hunter's hides» he replied. This struck me like a blow to the face. «What, all of them? Surely not? » There were far too many of them and they were in plain view for anyone to see. «All of them» replied David. In one small field alone, used for nothing except hunting, I counted 8 hides. Malta has a serious problem.

That night was the first time all of the group would be together. There were people from Germany, Italy and the U.K. I met Fiona, a volunteer from Nottingham. She, along with David, completed team U.K. It was somewhat of a relief to meet someone who also only spoke English. The flux of languages at first was exhilarating, simply because it was new, however after a while could be daunting. Not knowing what was going on was a little frustrating. This feeling was shared amongst other volunteers however.

Feeling very tired after my long day I decided to retire to bed. I had been put in a room with Paolo. Paolo only spoke very broken English, and I only spoke very broken Italian. Between the two of us we managed to muddle through. Deciding what time to get up at etc.

The next morning we awoke at 4.30am. Sleepily getting washed and changed everyone met in the hotel lobby. There is nothing quite like the site of a group of conservation volunteers at 5.00 in the morning looking bleary eyed and not knowing quite what to expect.

Team U.K. was assigned to a place known as the Golan Heights. Named after an area in the Middle East the city of Golan was used as a city of refuge in biblical times. This name was assigned by CABS for the area, as the hunters in the area can be quite aggressive, and stay in close contact with each other using walkie talkies and other communication devices. If a hunter were to hear a CABS member refer to the place as the Golan Heights then they wouldn't know where to go.

Arriving before sunrise the area had an eerie quite about it. The sky was so clear and with very little light about I couldn't help but have a look at the stars above my head. Living in the city it was a rare sight for me to see so many constellations at once. As I turned my head I saw that Fiona was doing exactly the same thing. The night was so dark that we couldn't even see to the end of the road we were standing on. David pointed out some of the features in the area. He also pointed out some cars parked against a wall. On first sight it looked very innocent, so what? Someone had parked their car next to their house for the night. As we looked harder we noticed though that this was no house. This was a rather tall wall keeping everyone and everything out. Later when the sun came up the letters RTO could just be made out on the wall, having been there so long they had faded almost to nothing. RTO in Maltese means Riservato, Keep Out. The Maltese guard their private property fiercely. The last thing CABS wants is to give hunters ammunition against CABS in the papers or worse in court. This particular hide was the property of the Buffalo, the man David had had a confrontation with not too long ago. Bearing all this in mind, we kept our distance.

It is very serene in those early hours. Not much is stirring, which gives a perfect opportunity to watch the sunrise. The colours are intense; a deep rich orange fills the sky with a light blue background. Surely this is the side of Malta we should be here to see. 'There's a bird on the horizon,' Fiona shouted, breaking my thought on sunrises. At first I struggled to find where the bird was. It was very far off. A dark speck on the horizon. Once I had it though the binoculars were straight up. I tracked the bird, a Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), all the way across the valley and off into the south. The first bird of the day. Soon after there was another one, and another. I was having a wonderful time birdwatching when suddenly we heard shots off in the distance, reminding me why I was here. Under European law hunting of certain species is allowed so, not being able to see what the hunters were shooting at exactly, there was nothing we could do about it. All we could say for certain was the protected species we observed and filmed were not being shot.

Three hours later and we were back in the hotel having breakfast. We were free now until 1pm. Usually the volunteers are free till 3pm, however I had decided to help out with lunch time operations looking for evidence of shot birds.

After a quick trip to the fruit van to stock up on supplies I headed along the road to have a look at the place I would be calling home for the next week. Malta is such a beautiful place. Everyone it seems has a boat. The island is so small and the ordinary people we met were so warm and inviting. After talking to some holiday makers they asked why I was in Malta, with my pasty white skin and ginger hair I was obviously not local. When I replied I wasn't on holiday people always asked what I was doing. When I told them they were always shocked and horrified. The fact they hadn't heard anything about the situation also seemed to affect some people. I was wished well and set on my way. I can only wonder at how many people decided to read up on the situation after I had gone.

1pm. Time to head out again. This time we were heading to the Victoria Lines. Malta is a former British colony and the Victoria lines are part of a fort built in the 19th Century. Now long abandoned the area has been taken over by farmers and archaeologists. A CABS member had previously witnessed the shooting down of a bird in this area. A preliminary search hadn't found anything, however the lines can be quite dangerous to search on your own. As a group we set out, some people searching a ditch which had been dug out long ago to make the walls of the fort much harder to penetrate. The vegetation proved to be as much an obstacle to CABS as the walls were to invaders 100 years ago. The ditch was quite frustrating as, at one point, we could look down into it and see a dead bird. What made it more sickening was the bird was obviously a bird of prey, protected under law, and had been shot, recovered, tied in a plastic bag and thrown down the ditch. The walls were much too steep and unstable to climb down without protective gear and the overgrown vegetation made it impossible to walk into. There was nothing we could do but leave it there, take whatever photos we could and head back to the hotel. A very frustrating event.

The day was to get even more frustrating though. On the way back to the cars Andrea and a few others could hear shots off in the distance. This was well past the official Maltese set curfew on hunting of any species. I hadn't been paying attention and so was summoned into the car. As we sped off down a country road I had to ask what was going on. I was told where we were going and what we had to do. We tracked Honey Buzzard, some of which got away. One however wasn't so lucky. Unfortunately we were unable to find the culprit. We stayed out until after it got dark and headed back to the hotel.

The next day was to be the busiest day I would have on the island. At 5.30am off we went again. This time to a different location. I was to be with Team Germany this time to an area nicknamed Death Valley. This area was one of the most dangerous places on the island and as such the team was accompanied by a security officer. We arrived at around 5.50am. As we were setting up three hunters came down the same path and disappeared into some private land. The presence of security officers at this sight made me feel more apprehensive, especially as, when they passed us on the road, I could clearly make out large shotguns in the back of pick up trucks, and on one occasion, a bike. Living in the UK I am unaccustomed to seeing guns out on display like this, the blasé attitude of the hunters did little to calm my nerves.

As the morning wore on we just got down to business. The birds started to rise, we tracked and filmed them and fortunately heard no shots from any of the hunters. They all knew we were in the vicinity. A fact confirmed by Sami the security guard, who could hear them talking to each other over two way radios. Despite the first impressions, that of simple country folk, the hunters are using quite sophisticated methods to track and hunt birds and also not to get caught doing anything illegal. Perhaps because of this or perhaps because there are international volunteers in the area, the police make regular patrols and visits to this area.

Back to hotel for a quick breakfast before heading out again. This was no ordinary operation though. This was a joint operation between CABS and BirdLife Malta. The previous year a search of a woodland, called Mizieb, produced around 200 dead protected birds. A police investigation was called for; however the authorities have done nothing about it. So a year to the day another search was organised, this time with a press conference to be held.

On a hot afternoon with the sun beating down, everyone met in a dusty car-park, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. After a quick photo op, everyone set off to one end of the woodland. With military like organisation everyone was paired up and lined in a row. We were to comb the woodland in a style rather reminiscent of police forensic lines seen on the nightly news. This was after all, to some, a wildlife crime scene.

The brief given to us was to search as many rocks and bushes as possible, to check for any signs of dead birds. Mizieb is the largest area of woodland on Malta and is used extensively by hunters, to the point where fake signs are used to warn members of the public not to proceed onto hunting territory. The woodland is public land and as such accessible to everyone, hunter or not. The FKNK, the Maltese Hunting and Conservation CLUB claim that hunting is a long standing tradition and a right in Malta, and as such they have a right to hunt on public land.

As the search got under way Heiko, my partner, and I turned over many rocks and searched many bushes. The morning rolled on and we found nothing making me personally feeling ambiguous. On the one hand it was reassuring that there was nothing there, on the other I had to wonder, was I searching the thoroughly enough? This was compounded by hearing the word BIRD shouted out every few minutes from the BirdLife Malta team.

It was late in the day when Heiko found our first bird, a Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) hidden in a hole in the ground, covered by some foliage. We estimated that it had been there for about two weeks, the smell was rancid and the body decaying in the heat. We bagged the bird and recorded the time and location it was found along with some information on the species and any possible injuries. This was clearly a bird that had been shot down. Another bird, clearly shot down and hidden was a Hoopoe (Upupa epops). This was the first time I had ever seen this bird, as it does not occur in Britain.

Time passes slowly in the heat especially when doing a frustrating job. It is easy to drift off from your assigned partner and this is exactly what happened to one of the volunteers. Fiona, finding a dead bird under a rock was putting it in a bag when two large men appeared out of nowhere. Shouting and intimidating her, they grabbed her arm, took the bird from her and smashed the skull of the bird so that an identification could not be made. Fearing she might be abducted, Fiona screamed for help. Luckily someone was nearby. David, a documentary film maker, making a documentary about CABS operations, was close to the scene and ran to help. The two men couldn't intimidate him as much and so demanded to see the organiser of the search.

The two men were taken to the car park, which was the meeting point for everyone, and taken to Axel. They attempted to intimidate him, even in the presence of many volunteers from both organisations, members of the press, private security personnel hired by CABS and police officers in the vicinity for the press conference. Things escalated and the hunter struck Axel in the face. The security people, being exceedingly good at their jobs, restrained him against a car. The police arrested and took him off. Having been arrested the identity of the hunter turned out to be a senior member of the FKNK council.

The press conference continued as normal and around 80 dead protected birds recovered, and handed to the police. Many reporters from all over the island taking notes heard about the incident and wanted interviews with Fiona and Axel. The incident was well publicised in the local papers. The justice system in Malta works very swiftly, the court case for the hunter was scheduled for the next day at 9.00am. Everyone involved was taken to Valletta the main city on Malta for the case. The hunter didn't turn up and his lawyers, employing delaying tactics had the case postponed until the next month. This didn't matter much though as he was eventually fined. To some it was not enough, but to CABS it was a victory. A hunter, who has been vociferous about how wrong CABS are to be in Malta, and who had been intimidating their members, had been arrested and fined. The story appeared in all the major papers on the island.

The rest of the week went well. There were incidents of CABS members hearing over 60 shots in one afternoon, some saw birds being shot down, however they managed to record the incidents and have the police investigate. On one night over 60 Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) roosted in a reed bed, the only on the island. As a team member had witnessed several hunters in the area and heard shots being fired in the vicinity we were dispatched to the scene. Indeed there were a number of hunters still on the far side of a small valley, and once we arrived they walked off. Axel, looking through his scope found an injured bird. He and a local police officer went off to the far side to recover the bird. It turned out to be a young Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) which had to be taken to a vet for treatment. Members were asked to volunteer to stay in the area for the whole night to make sure that nobody came back to the scene the rest of the night. Hunters have been caught going to roosting sites at night and simply shooting birds out of the trees at point blank range. This hardly seems sporting as the bird hasn't got a chance of even flying away.

A highlight of the week for me was the chance to meet the German ambassador to Malta. The ambassador, Mr Brown, was interested to know what CABS were doing on the island especially in light of the recent confrontation at the woodland of Mizieb. A meeting was set up where the ambassador would visit us at one of the sites we monitor and see what we did and how. He was a very gracious man and made time to talk with everyone who was there. Ironically the only birds we saw were two Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) also a protected European species that the hunters use for target practice.

The whole week passed far too quickly and, for me, was more of a holiday than work. I had the chance to see birds and wildlife I couldn't see in the U.K. I met some people passionate people, dedicated to protecting wildlife, ensuring birds can migrate from one continent to another safely.

On the final day I went back to the Golan Heights, the first place I was taken to. The Buffalo was there, as usual. David Conlin and I were the only two members of CABS present, along with Sammy the Maltese security guard. David and I decided to keep our distance from him given the confrontation from the previous week. Sammy however had no such reservations and decided to go and talk to him. He is obviously good at his job as the Buffalo offered all of us a cup of coffee. By the end of the morning we talking and laughing together. It was like the end of a TV program, very surreal. It was windy and cold, the tail end of the storms from the previous night and as such there were no birds flying. Perhaps this was the reason for the friendliness.

Back at the hotel I had to make some emotional goodbyes. I felt like a little kid again who had made the best of friends on holiday and now had to go home. Perhaps the heat and tiredness were getting to me.

It is now Sunday morning. 6am. I'm lying in bed, this is well past the time I'm now used to getting up at. What am I going to do? The first thing that pops into my head is obvious, go birding. I get up, put on lots of layers, this is Britain after all. I walk around to the local park, find a good spot and just sit and wait on the birds. There were no birds of prey, just passerines; however there were no shots off in the distance either. If nothing else the trip has given me a renewed enthusiasm for wildlife and ecological matters. I would urge anyone else to just get involved. You don't have to go to Malta, just go to the local nature reserve, talk to other wildlife enthusiasts; you'll make friends and learn something at the same time.

The article, which appeared in our house magazine 'Artenschutzbrief', can be downloaded as PDF file below:

Volunteering - a personal view wo-n.pdf371.97 KB