Although only a small country, the Maltese archipelago has a disproportionate importance to migratory birds as the islands are situated on the central European-African migratory flyway.
Every spring and autumn, Malta becomes a vital stepping stone for birds using this migratory route to move between European breeding and African wintering grounds and the islands act as a place to rest and regain fat supplies before continuing on these long and taxing journeys. Due to its strategic location on this key migration route, Malta has a long and impressive species list, totaling 389 species that have been recorded. Of these, over 170 occur with regularity on migration, in many cases in significant numbers. Scientific ringing studies carried out by BirdLife Malta since the 1960s have shown that birds from at least 48 countries (36 in Europe and 12 in Africa) use Malta during migration.
Malta also has an exceptionally high density of hunters and per square kilometre has the densest population of hunters in the European Union. According to the latest official figures Malta had 11,929 registered hunters and 4,616 licensed trappers. This gives a density of around 47 hunters and trappers per square kilometre, which is significantly higher when compared to a density of 2.5 hunters per square kilometre in Italy - another country in the Mediterranean with large numbers of registered hunters.
Perhaps due to this very high density of hunters, combined with a lack of law enforcement and environmental education, illegal hunting is a widespread and serious problem, with poachers specifically targeting raptors (birds of prey) and Herons as well as rare migratory birds such as Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, Black Stork Ciconia nigra and Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia among others. This persecution reaches its peak during migration periods, when large numbers of raptors, herons and other protected species are killed by poachers.
A Grey Heron with severe gunshot wounds, found by police on 17th September 2009. Photo by A Raine 2009.
Furthermore, illegal hunting continues throughout the year and it is primarily due to this intense persecution that Malta has the dubious distinction of being the only country in Europe and the Mediterranean with no regularly breeding birds of prey. Species such as the Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, once a widespread breeder along the cliffs of Malta, have become locally extinct along with the Barn Owl Tyto alba and the Eurasian Jackdaw Corvus monedula. In the case of all three species, the last breeding pairs are known to have been shot by hunters.
Since 2007, BirdLife Malta has been keeping a centralised database on illegal hunting and trapping incidents witnessed by BirdLife Malta staff, ornithologists, volunteers and members of the public known to the organisation. Other reports from unknown individuals and hearsay reports are not included in this database. An analysis of the database is published annually.
In 2007, a total of 741 illegal hunting and trapping incidents were recorded by BirdLife Malta alone, with illegal hunting recorded in 84 locations. In 2008, this increased to 2,401 illegal hunting and trapping incidents (the increase largely due to hunters hunting illegally during the first closed spring hunting season) spread over 128 locations.
As well as recording illegal incidents, BirdLife Malta also regularly receives shot protected birds from members of the public and the police. During the period 2007 till the end of 2009, BirdLife Malta alone has received 282 shot protected birds (excluding the remains of over 200 protected birds found concealed in the Mizieb woodland), the vast majority of which were birds of prey.
The most common shot protected birds received by the organisation include Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus and Honey-buzzard Pernis apivorus, as well as Red-listed species such as the Pallid Harrier (IUCN Red List: Endangered) and Annex 1 species including Purple Heron Ardea purpurea, Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax, Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni and Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris diomedea.
Pallid Harrier recovered shot in 2007.
It should be noted that the protected birds received by BirdLife Malta represent only the tip of the iceberg, as the birds first have to escape the poacher who shot them, then be found by someone who would be willing to handle the bird and collect it, and then be passed on to BirdLife Malta. To illustrate this point, between the beginning of 2007 and the first two months of 2008 the National Museum of Natural History of Malta received a further 338 shot protected birds that were confiscated from poachers by the Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) unit and the local police. Since the police force has very limited resources to deal with illegal hunting activities, this high number of confiscated protected birds demonstrates the seriousness of the situation in Malta. Most of the protected birds that are killed or trapped by poachers are never found. BirdLife believes that thousands of protected species (majority of which are Raptors and Herons) are gunned down each year and most are never found.
As a member of the European Union, Malta has an obligation to protect migratory birds under the Birds Directive. At an international level, Malta is also a signatory of the Convention on Migratory Species which also includes a Memoranda of Understanding regarding ‘Birds of Prey of African and Eurasia’. This Memoranda explicitly includes an agreement to protect migratory raptors and control the illegal shooting of these protected species. Malta also has a responsibility to those countries that invest significant amounts of money protecting these birds in their breeding grounds, only to have them illegally killed in Malta during migration.
Listen to a podcast discussing the illegal hunting situation in Malta.