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Tribute to Joe Sultana (1)

I first met the ornithologist Joe Sultana in the late 1980s after I had seen the light. I was a hunter in my late teens; I had shot and wounded a kestrel – a small falcon – and spent months nursing its broken wing back to good health.

Photo: BirdlifePhoto: Birdlife

Then I spent six months painstakingly training the kestrel for falconry and making all the falconer’s paraphernalia (I had bought a couple of books to learn the trade). By then my transformation was complete: I abhorred bird shooting, its mindlessness and wantonness, with a passion only possible of a convert.

Sultana had also been a much-earlier convert, and I went to see him at the Department of Environment to ask for a falconer’s licence. He advised me to write to the minister, and then chatted profusely about ornithological bird ringing, inviting me to join him in the field. 

Years later, after he had become my mentor, he confided that after he had advised me to write to the minister he had himself urged the minister to desist from permitting falconry in Malta as it could become another ‘craze’, on top of hunting, that could be difficult to control. 

He had played along with my fancy, and refrained from reporting me to the police for keeping a protected bird illegally, to channel my passions into the world of ornithology and environmentalism.

It was a continuation of his mission: he had been the president of the antecedent of Birdlife Malta (whose CEO is now his son, Mark), and he was constantly seeking to nurture promising individuals to widen the vanguard and carry on the battle for the protection of birds.

Sultana was an obsessive – it takes an obsessive to achieve so much.

He lived environmentalism in the last decades of his work-life in the civil service (he had started off as a teacher, eventually joined the nascent Parliamentary Secretariat for the Environment) and after work he immersed himself into the world of birds (in bird ringing and ornithological inquiries, in activism for Birdlife Malta and in publishing books with longtime collaborators Victor and Desiree Falzon).

It would be no exaggeration to state that Sultana dedicated his life to the study, appreciation and conservation of birds. He employed a range of skills – in writing and photography, in activism and strategy, in organisation and delegation – to his lifelong mission, and remained loyally in the service of Birdlife Malta for more than 50 years since its year of inception. He also got involved in ornithology overseas; the list of awards he has garnered is a testament to that. In bird conservation in Malta he remains inimitable and without peers.

Eventually, upon retirement, he moved back to Xagħra, where he had been born. Retirement gave him the chance to dispense his time more freely: he worked on more books, on field ornithological pursuits and travelled more (for bird-watching of course).

He also immersed himself in his “nature patch”, an allotment area at the back of his house which he carefully created for wildlife, complete with a small natural pond.

And in the evenings he retreated to his study with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves also crammed with mementoes from his travels.

It was the “nature patch” that he missed most when he was consigned to a wheelchair by the degenerative motor neuron disease which has now caused his demise.

But I can imagine him in the house surrounded by all those books and mementoes and photographs, finding solace in the nobility and tenacity of his life’s efforts.

Age: 78.

Day of Death: 11 September 2018.

Survived by wife Lucy, children Mark and Ruth.

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