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CABS Malta Autumn Bird Protection Camp


Final Report


Introduction

Shot Honey Buzzard rescued by IARShot Honey Buzzard rescued by IARThe Maltese Archipelago, with its central location in the Mediterranean, is an important stepping stone for bird migration between Europe and Africa. In addition to many song birds, numerous birds of prey such as Honey Buzzards, Harriers and a number of falcon species use the group of islands, some 315 km² in size, as a rest area on migration. Malta is the end of the road for many of these birds as, despite decades of protests by conservationists, the islands are still one of the hot-spots of illegal hunting in Europe. The Maltese islands, with its 15,000 registered hunters and thousands of trappers, has by far the highest density of hunters and trappers to land area on the planet. At the same time, there is no other member state of the European Union where regularly so many cases of shooting or illegal trapping of protected species are reported. We estimate that several hundred thousand migrant birds are killed or trapped every year on Malta, a large number of them illegally.

In order to combat and record the widespread poaching in autumn, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) conducts an annual bird protection camp with international participation on Malta. We work closely together on this camp with the Maltese environmental police unit A.L.E. (Administrative Law Enforcement), as well as the International Animal Rescue Malta (IAR) and BirdLife Malta. Our chief aim is preventive - to deter poaching through the constant visible presence of observers (Bird Guards) equipped with video cameras and binoculars. In addition all our teams are tasked with recording of offences in as much detail as possible and submission of the evidence to the authorities for charges to be preferred against the perpetrators. The consistent and where possible up to the minute publication of incidents of wildlife crime, in the internet as well as through press statements and conferences, is intended to sensitise the Maltese authorities and public to the poaching problem and to promote more commitment towards bird protection and conservation.

Methods of operation

In autumn 2009 a total of 28 volunteers from Bulgaria, Germany, Israel, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, the UK and USA participated in operations from 11 September to 4 October 2009. All were experienced ornithologists and activists supported by 3 permanent staff from CABS and a veterinary surgeon. In order to cover as many of the hot spots of illegal hunting as possible, teams of two persons were formed, each equipped with a rented car, binoculars, spotting scope and video camera. Each team was allocated a specific zone of operations, up to 15 km² in area, in which they carried out daily foot and vehicle patrols and set up strategic observation posts. Operations were restricted to the island of Malta (246 km²). In addition to recording of offences against bird protection regulations, flocks of birds arriving in the afternoon or evening were recorded as well as the exact location of their night roosts or rest areas. In order to hinder the shooting down of birds on their morning departure to the coast, teams were in position before dawn to observe the departure from night roosts and the passage routes to the coast. These varied from day to day, some times considerably. When a team witnessed a wildlife crime incident, the CABS control room was immediately informed by mobile telephone of the nature, time and place of the incident. Depending on the precise circumstances, the report was relayed to the A.L.E operations room and the presence of a patrol requested as necessary.

Results

CABS team in Mizieb, the second most important bird dormitory in MaltaCABS team in Mizieb, the second most important bird dormitory in MaltaIn the course of the 3 week operation a total of 486 cases of illegal hunting were recorded. These included 23 directly observed shooting down of birds of prey, some of which were captured on video. In addition 24 observations or finds of protected birds, with what were evidently shot gun injuries, were registered. Four cases of illegal wader species trapping and the discovery of one illegal cage trap containing a dozen freshly-caught Turtle Doves were also recorded. In the course of nightly mapping of illegal electronic bird lures, used by hunters and trappers to lure birds to their nets or shooting hides, 119 ‘bird callers’ were located. Between 15 and 30 September CABS teams registered a total of 286 shots after the afternoon hunting curfew imposed by the government. The following individually listed incidents are based on observations and notes of all teams deployed, as well as our diary entries and reports received by CABS from external sources.

Directly observed shooting down of protected birds (19 incidents with at least 23 dead and 4 injured birds)

  • 11.09.2009, 15:32 hrs, Bahrija: Approx. 10 shots at a flock of Marsh Harriers. At least one bird falls to the ground and another bird is injured but flies on.
  • 14.09.2009, 8:30 hrs, Fawwara: A CABS team manages to film the shooting down of a Honey Buzzard but the unidentified shooter escapes.
  • 15.09.2009, morning, Laferla Cross: Bee-eater shot.
  • 17.09.2009, 7:50 hrs, Delimara: Approx. 6 shots at two low-flying Honey Buzzards; one bird falls to the ground and another bird is injured but flies on.
  • 17.09.2009, 8:35 hrs, Blue Grotto: A team manages to film the shooting down of a small falcon (probably Common Kestrel) from some considerable distance.
  • 19.09.2009, 7:00 hrs, Ghar Lapsi: A Honey Buzzard is shot down. A search for the shooter and the bird are unsuccessful.
  • 19.09.2009, 8:02 hrs, Dar tal-Providenza: A Honey Buzzard is shot down.
  • 19.09.2009, 16:00 hrs, Victoria Lines, Bingemma: A dozen shots fired at a flock of Honey Buzzards. Two birds are killed and at least one bird is injured but flies on. The CABS team films one of the birds being shot down.
  • 20.09.2009, 8:20 hrs, Bahrija: Hunters shoot down two Ospreys within the course of a few minutes in full view of a CABS team. A large scale search by 10 activists and 4 police officers fail to find the birds. CABS member with a freshly shot Marsh Harrier found in MiziebCABS member with a freshly shot Marsh Harrier found in Mizieb
  • 23.09.2009, 7:15 hrs, on the coast near Bahrija: A flock of 5 Marsh Harriers come under fire. One bird falls to the ground and another bird flies on, clearly injured.
  • 24.09.2009, 7:55 hrs, Laferla Cross/Girgenti: A Hobby is shot down.
  • 24.09.2009, 7:55 hrs, Laferla Cross/Girgenti: A small falcon is shot down. A later search for the bird by the police is unsuccessful.
  • 24.09.2009, 18:45 hrs, Delimara: 8 shots at a flock of Marsh Harriers arriving from the sea. At least one bird is shot and killed.
  • 24.09.2009, morning, Azur Window (Gozo): A group of tourists observe the shooting down of a heron and later report the incident to CABS.
  • 24.09.2009, morning, Mellieha: A farmer informs a CABS team in the area that a hunter has shot down a Common Kestrel.
  • 26.09.2009, 8:05 hrs, Bahrija: A Marsh Harrier is shot down.
  • 29.09.2009, 7:10 hrs, on the coast at Bahrija: 4 shots at a Marsh Harrier; the final one mortally injures the bird.
  • 29.09.2009, morning, Bahrija: A hunter informs a CABS team that a poacher has just shot down a Marsh Harrier, but a subsequent search is unsuccessful.
  • 03.10.2009, evening, Bingemma: 2 persons fire 30 shots at a large flock of Barn Swallows and Sand Martins. At least 3 birds are hit.

Directly observed shooting at protected bird species (27 incidents)

  • 11.09.2009, evening, Mgarr: Shots at song birds, probably Spanish Sparrows.
  • 11.09.2009, evening, Mgarr: Shots at song birds, probably Spanish Sparrows.
  • 12.09.2009, evening, Girgenti: Shots at a Marsh harrier coming into roost. The bird veers away but flies on.
  • 14.09.2009, 7:50 hrs, Ghar Lapsi: 2 shots at high-flying Honey Buzzards on their way to the sea.
  • 14.09.2009, morning, between Ghar Lapsi and Fawwara: several shots at Bee-eaters.
  • 14.09.2009, afternoon, Ghar Lapsi: Secondary feathers of a Honey Buzzard with obvious shot gun damage found.
  • 17.09.2009, between 17:45 and 19:15 hrs, Gnejna Bay: A hunter fires at song birds from his vehicle.
  • 18.09.2009, at about 18:00 hrs, Il Qaws: 3 shots at a flock of 5 Honey Buzzards. None is hit.
  • 19.09.2009, 7:10 hrs, Ta´ Zuta Chapel: A Honey Buzzard shot at and flies on injured.
  • 19.09.2009, 7:25 hrs, Ta´ Zuta Chapel: 1 shot at a female Montagu’s or Pallid Harrier. The bird flies on.
  • 19.09.2009, 7:30 hrs, Ghar Laps: 2 shots (one of them a hit) at a Honey Buzzard. The bird flies on injured.
  • 19.09.2009, 7:37 hrs, Fawwara: Shots from at least 2 hunters at a Honey Buzzard. The injured bird flies on.
  • 19.09.2009, 7:55 hrs, Laferla Cross: A Honey Buzzard comes under fire from a group of trees. It veers sharply away but continues its flight to the coast.
  • 19.09.2009, 8:25 hrs, Ghar Lapsi: 2 shots at low-flying Bee-eaters. It is unclear if a bird was hit.
  • 23.09.2009, afternoon, Laferla Cross: several shots at a flock of Bee-eaters. Two birds probably shot and killed.
  • 23.09.2009, 19.45 hrs, on the coats near Bahrija: A team sent to guard a flock of 120 roosting Marsh Harriers record 9 shots from the area of the reed beds where the birds are resting.
  • 24.09.2009, 19:00 hrs, Gudga: 5 shots at an overflying Night Heron.
  • 24.09.2009, evening, Siggiewi: A Maltese birdwatcher informs a CABS team of a night roost of some 10 Night Herons where several salvos of shot were fired at dusk. The birds were had disappeared the next morning.
  • 25.09.2009, 7:25 hrs, Dwejra Lines: A hunter shoots at a Marsh Harrier which escapes with injuries. As the offender notices the nearby CABS team he advances towards them shouting abuse and fires a warning shot over their heads. Skuls of raptors and herons found under stones in MiziebSkuls of raptors and herons found under stones in Mizieb
  • 26.09.2009, afternoon, Ghajn Tuffieha: 4 shots at Spanish Sparrows.
  • 29.09.2009, 8:20 hrs, Bahrija: A hunter attempts to shoot down a Marsh Harrier flying low overhead but his weapon is not loaded. As the bird lands in a nearby tree the man moves towards it with his now loaded gun. The presence of a nearby CABS team deters him however from his purpose.
  • 30.09.2009, 15:30 hrs, western Victoria Lines: 2 high-flying Honey Buzzards are shot at twice but escape unscathed.
  • 30.09.2009, 15:35 hrs, western Victoria Lines: The 2 Honey Buzzards fired at 5 minutes earlier again come under fire (3 shots) from another location. As the birds are high up they fly on unharmed.
  • 01.10.2009, 8:45 hrs, Bahrija: 1 shot at an overflying Honey Buzzard. Not hit.
  • 01.10.2009, 8:50 hrs, Bahrija: 1 shot at a Honey Buzzard which flies on uninjured.
  • 01.10.2009, 15:30 hrs, Mgarr: 2 unsuccessful shots at a high-flying Honey Buzzard
  • 01.10.2009, 15:55 hrs, Mgarr: 1 shot at a Honey Buzzard which flies on uninjured.
  • 01.10.2009, between 16:10 and 16:25 hrs, Mgarr: Several dozen shots at a flock of Barn Swallows. Two fall to the ground.

Observations and finds of protected birds with shot gun injuries (18 incidents, 24 birds affected)

  • 10.09.2009, Bahrija: Find of a living, juvenile Marsh Harrier with shotgun injuries.
  • 12.09.2009, 16:05 hrs, Dwejra Lines: Peregrine Falcon with gaps in plumage.
  • 12.09.2009, afternoon, Laferla Cross: Two Bee-eaters with several missing flight feathers.
  • 14.09.2009, late afternoon, Buskett Gardens; A Honey Buzzard is sighted with missing primaries on one side.
  • 15.09.2009, 19:10 hrs, north of Dingli: A Common Kestrel with an injured and dangling leg is sighted.
  • 16.09.2009, 17:41 hrs south of Mgarr: A Hobby with clear gaps in wing plumage.
  • 20.09.2009, 8:15 hrs, on the coast at Bahrija: A low-flying Osprey damage to main plumage. The bird was later shot at again.
  • 20.09.2009, 8:50 hrs, Bahrija: Find of a newly-shot juvenile Common Kestrel. An X-ray reveals 5 shot pellets in the bird’s body.
  • 20.09.2009, 9:10 hrs, on the coast at Bahrija: During the search for an Osprey shot in the morning the team discover numerous breast and wing feathers of a Honey Buzzard with traces of shot damage.
  • 23.09.2009, 9:30 hrs, Xemxija: A Common Kestrel with severe plumage damage flies in a south-westerly direction.
  • 24.09.2009, between 7:00 and 9:00 hrs, on the coast near Bahrija: Observation of 3 HoneyBuzzards and a Common Kestrel with obvious damage to main plumage, as well as a MarshHarrier with an injured and dangling leg.
  • 24.09.2009, evening, Buskett: Sighting of a Marsh Harrier with large gaps in primary feathers.
  • 24.09.2009, at about 16:00 hrs, on the coast at Bahrija: Find of a freshly dead female Golden Oriole with shotgun injuries.
  • 25.09.2009, between 7:30 and 8:00 hrs, Fawwara: A CABS team observes and films 2 Honey Buzzards with badly damaged flight feathers leaving their night roost.
  • 26.09.2009, at about 9:00 hrs, Manikata coast: A CABS team discovers and rescues from under the cliffs a juvenile Marsh Harrier with a shotgun injury to its wing and hands over the bird to an A.L.E. patrol.
  • 26.09.2009. Delivery of a juvenile Common Kestrel to the IAR station in Hamrum. The bird was found by passers-by in the Dingli area the previous evening.
  • 29.09.2009, 8:25 and 8:45 hrs, Bahrija: Sighting of two Marsh Harriers with severe shotgun damage to plumage.
  • 01.10.2009, at about 16:00 hrs, western Victoria Lines: A freshly dead Common Kestrel is found at a CABS observation point, obviously left as a warning. An X-ray reveals numerous shotgun pellets in the body.

The Mizieb ‘bird cemetery

CABS volunteer shows a Hony Buzzard's skeleton under a rusted tankCABS volunteer shows a Hony Buzzard's skeleton under a rusted tankOn 20 and 21 September 2009, members of CABS and BirdLife Malta discovered more than 200 dead birds of prey, Herons, Golden Orioles, Bee-eaters and a Nightjar under stones and piles of rubbish in a hunting reserve allegedly managed by the Maltese hunting and trapping association FKNK. Together with BirdLife Malta, CABS has put together a comprehensive dossier for the European Commission.

Copies can be ordered free of charge by email to our main office. komitee@komitee.de - Subject: Mizieb Dossier.

Illegal bird trapping

Although combating illegal trapping was not the main task of the teams this September, several illegal trapping sites or bird traps were discovered in the course of our daily patrols.

On 12 September a CABS team near Bahrija found a trapping site the size of a tennis court. The call of a Redshank, a protected species, was heard from the loudspeaker mounted on the trapper’s hut. On the site four clap nets, 25 m long and 3 m wide, were set under tension. As the trapper noticed the team he ran towards them, verbally abused them and spat in the face of one of the bird guards. The scene was captured on video. The police were called, arrested the spitting trapper and searched his trapping site. They discovered and seized 29 protected birds including Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper and Little Stint. It later became known that the man already faced charges for illegal trapping as the police had seized almost 50 protected waders at the same site in August this year. Although he had been caught twice, this did not discourage him. On 19 September, at about 05:00 hrs, the trapper’s hut was again occupied, nets were set out and the Redshank sang in the background. The CABS team recorded this incident on video using a camera with night vision. On the night of 16/17 September, not far from the Fiddien Bridge, the recorded calls of protected Redshank and ducks could be heard several kilometres distant. A CABS night patrol followed the calls as far as a high wall and alerted the police. When the police checked the area the next morning they discovered a trapping site with a newly-built small pond in the centre. Police investigations continue.

On 20 September, at 07:00 hrs, a CABS team near Bahrija located a trapping site with an activated Redshank electronic lure. As the team left their vehicle to get a better look, they saw through their binoculars three men running out of the hut and hurriedly removing clap nets and plastic wader decoys. A later police check brought no results. A photograph of plastic Dotterel decoys visibly stored by a trapper in his hut near Birzebugga gave an indirect indication that this uncommon protected wader species is also a target of trapping. There was a newly-built pond in the centre of the trapping site as well as frames for the installation of clap nets A further indication of illegal trapping or keeping of protected wader species was found by a CABS team in the immediate vicinity of a trapping site on the easterly Marfa Ridge on 13 September. Inside a box with the label ‘live animals’ was a dead Stone Curlew with a green plastic ring. The bird was probably used as a live decoy for others of its species. On 24 September, during a search of woodland east of Marfa, a further CABS team discovered an illegal cage trap, measuring some 2 x 2 m (Fig. 8), with more than 10 trap funnels and about a dozen freshly-caught Turtle Doves. The police later caught the operating the trap and prosecution will follow.

Use of electronic bird lures for Common Quail

Illegal mist net on MaltaIllegal mist net on MaltaAlthough the use of acoustic lure devices is banned on Malta, CABS night patrols mapped the locations of 119 permanently mounted electronic ‘bird callers’, used by the hunters to lure nightly migrating Quail in front of their shooting hides. As the area checked by our patrols is only a small part (approx. 15 %) of the land area suitable for Quail hunting, we estimate that the total number of illegally installed devices is considerably more than 500.

Contravention of the afternoon hunting curfew

In order to curb the illegal hunting of birds of prey arriving on migration in the afternoon and evening, since 2007 the Maltese government has imposed a hunting curfew after 15:00 hrs during the main migration period (15 - 30 September). On Sundays and holidays hunting is forbidden after 13:00 hrs. During the period of curfew CABS teams registered a total of 286 shots. As experience shows that few Turtle Doves or Quail are out and about at this time of day, and that these species may legally be shot in the morning, it is reasonable to believe that these shots were for the most part fired at protected species. The exact locations and times are published in our online diary

Evaluation and demands

The observations presented in this report represent, as ever, only the tip of the iceberg. Our teams were only able to guarantee simultaneous visual coverage of some 5 % of the areas used for hunting, and they were necessarily not continuously deployed in the countryside. One can therefore assume that the number of illegal shooting of protected birds and other offences was considerably greater. In summary it can be confidently stated that there has been little improvement in bird protection on Malta. Despite accession to the EU, and the presence of numerous observers, illegal trapping and the shooting of protected birds of prey is as before widespread and present a problem of international dimensions for the conservation of many species. The Federation of Maltese Hunters and Trappers (FKNK) appears to have no influence over the hard core of illegal hunters and trappers, many of whom are presumed to be members of the FKNK or other smaller Maltese hunting associations. Instead reports by outsiders of illegal hunting practices are either dismissed as exaggeration or, as in the case of the mass discovery of dead birds at Mizieb (see above), allusions are made to possible conspiracy by conservationists or other third parties.

Although the great majority of the Maltese population are vehemently opposed to illegal hunting, the political will to effectively combat the massive contravention of the European Bird Protection Guidelines, is still completely lacking. The hunting curfew imposed by the government in the afternoon for a limited period during migration has undoubtedly led to a marked reduction in shooting after 15:00 hrs. Notwithstanding this measure, it represents only a stay of execution of a single night for many birds of prey, as they come under fire at the latest on their departure on migration the next morning. This is particularly the case for especially rare birds such as eagles, large falcons and Black Storks, whose chances of leaving Malta alive continue to be extremely slim. The naming of our 2009 bird protection camp Operation ‘Safe Haven’ reflected a hope rather than the reality. Unless the political will to eliminate permanently illegal killing and trapping of protected birds is exhibited, Malta will remain far from a safe haven for our migrant European bird species.

Demand No. 1 - Police reinforcement and equipment

Maltese police agent with a shot Marsh HarrierMaltese police agent with a shot Marsh HarrierIn order to more effectively protect flocks of migrant birds roosting overnight on Malta, CABS believe that it is absolutely essential for more police officers to be committed to this task and that the specialist unit A.L.E. should be better equipped. As in previous years the police play a reactive role for the most part, reacting to reports from bird activists and the public. On days where migration numbers are high the few available police officers are completely overstrained. In order to effectively curb poaching, the risk to the poacher of being apprehended and charged must be significantly increased. This will only be the case when the number of officers available is far greater and they are provided with the necessary competence and appropriate specialist equipment. Parallel to this reinforcement, proactive and preventive measures such as a standing presence at roost sites as well as systematic searching of hunters and their vehicles in the affected areas, should be introduced and conducted.

Demand No. 2 - More severe punishments for convicted poachers

Birds on Malta can only be meaningfully protected if convicted poachers receive appropriate punishments. The penalties imposed by the Maltese courts for offences against the hunting law are often closer to the minimum end of the permissible range of punishment. On 6 October 2009, a man from Bahrija, convicted of cruelty to animals and the illegal possession of 75 strictly protected waders, was fined a total of only 600 Euros, an average of some 8 Euros per bird. The accused came to the attention of the authorities when a CABS Bird Guard patrol suspected that there was a concealed bird collection in the man’s greenhouse. This was confirmed by a police raid shortly thereafter. In another case, a bird trapper, caught red-handed illegally trapping Ortolan Buntings and Red-throated Pipits near Zurrieq by CABS Bird Guards in May 2008, was sentenced to a derisory fine of 466 Euros on 18 February 2009. In CABS opinion such low fines are more of an illegal trapping tax than a severe punishment for the offender. The consequences of such judgements are disastrous, and also a slap in the face for the A.L.E., who despite their lack of resources do a magnificent job. CABS demand of the Maltese government that it impose a significant increase of the minimum penalties fore offences against the hunting law, as well as the permanent withdrawal of the hunting or trapping licence for convicted offenders. This is the only way to impress upon poachers and their ‘colleagues’ that the game is not worth the candle in the long run.

Demand No. 3 - Designation of huntingfree bird protection reserves

A further important and long overdue measure is the designation of large scale hunting-free zones in the vicinity of important roost and rest places for migrant birds on Malta and Gozo. These areas should be classified according to the requirements of the Bird Protection Guidelines as Special Protection Areas (SPA). In June 2007 Malta received its first written warning from the European Commission because it had not fulfilled its obligations under the Bird Protection Guidelines to designate enough specially protected areas for birds. In view of the discovery of more than 200 dead protected birds in the Mizieb FKNK hunting reserve, CABS hereby renews its demand of Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to declare the Mizieb woodland an SPA. According to our data, Mizieb is one of the most important bird of prey roosts on Malta and should have been designated an SPA in accordance with the requirements of the Bird Protection Guidelines some time ago.

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