Poachers 'making most of the season'
Two men cover their faces with white balaclavas and run through a wheat-field wielding shotguns. They have been reported for hunting illegally, and despite their attempts to flee, the police have quickly intercepted them and taken them in for questioning.
This is just one of the incidents witnessed by the BirdLife's team of birdwatchers who have come to Malta from eight different countries to record bird migration and keep an eye open for illegalities.
They use similar tactics as the hunters, hiding in bushes and waiting for their targets to expose themselves unwittingly. But their weapons are video cameras and mobile phones, and as soon as they witness an illegality, they alert the police.
Hunting is illegal in spring and has been since last year but videos shot by BirdLife's team in the past week show some hunters are ignoring the law.
BirdLife yesterday showed the media footage portraying hunters shooting next to residential areas, killing protected birds and running from the police. One video showed two men beating a bird with a rock and then stashing it in a rubble wall.
"The police are doing an amazing job with their limited resources. But their resources are very limited. It was only after we spoke to the Office of the Prime Minister that things have improved," BirdLife president Joseph Mangion told a press conference yesterday.
He said many times when reports were made, the police would not arrive in time to catch the perpetrators.
BirdLife said more than 950 shots were recorded by its team in the past nine days. Since the beginning of March, 17 shot protected birds were passed on to BirdLife, compared to four during the same period last year.
"There has been a significant increase in the number of shot birds compared to last year. Many poachers are making the most of the season with impunity to the law," he explained.
The government had to commit itself to developing a Wildlife Crime Unit to carry out investigations and work side by side by the police, he said.
"We are not going to give in. Malta can benefit from things like eco-tourism, since we are lucky enough to be on the migration route. But these things are damaging out reputation."
He said that in response to more surveillance, the hunters had employed new tactics, like shooting birds while they were asleep at night, or using muffled guns.
He said not all hunters were defying the law and it was unfair on those who obeyed the law if those who committed illegalities were let off lightly.
When contacted, the hunter's federation, FKNK slammed BirdLife's tactics and said all these allegations were simply part of an ongoing misleading campaign.
"The media is not interested and doesn't seem to care what hunters and trappers are being subjected to, both health wise and mentally," FKNK spokesman Joe Perici Calascione said.
"If you bother to ask around, you will probably get to know about two if not three terrible tragedies that occurred just last week as a direct consequence of the ban on Malta's traditional socio-cultural passions, and which are not reported in the media," he added, without specifying.
When asked whether FKNK agreed with BirdLife's Wildlife Crime Unit proposal, he said the federation had always condemned any illegal hunting.
"We believe the police are already going out of their way in this issue and do not deserve this obsessive and unfair criticism from BirdLife."