A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But a vote in the bag seems to be worth more than both, even if it comes at the cost of Malta’s international reputation. BirdLife director TOLGA TEMUGE outlines the implications of government’s current showdown with Europe over Spring hunting
“Fifteen days between the first and second full moon in March…” It sounds like something straight out of The Last of the Mohicans; but despite the pagan phraseology, this is not an ancient timetable for human sacrifice, nor a primeval form of contraceptive programme. It is actually the hunting lobby’s formal reply when asked to recommend specific dates for this year’s Spring hunting season at last Monday’s Ornis meeting.
Sitting at his desk at BirdLife’s Ta’ Xbiex offices, Tolga Temuge, the NGO’s Turkish-born executive director, jokes about the “exotic”, “tribal” language used to couch the unusual request. But beneath the humour, the underlying concern is serious.
“Coupled with their insistence on a season for hunting at sea during spring, this is as clear an indication as possible that the hunters are not really interested in only shooting turtle-dove and quail, as the supposed derogation states,” Temuge explains. “In reality, the requested timeframe coincides exactly with the wild duck season, as unlike other migratory birds, ducks follow a lunar, not a stellar, migration pattern.”
There is more. Wild ducks, Tolga continues, are most commonly observed by day over the Gozo channel – unlike either turtle-dove or quail, which tend to migrate over the sea by night, and therefore cannot realistically be shot from boats. According to Temuge and his colleagues at BirdLife Malta, all this points towards what the hunters are really after with their insistence on hunting in Spring: a blanket open season to shoot anything that flies.
But for the benefit of those who don’t actually give a flying duck about the hunting issue to begin with: why all this fuss about hunting in spring? And what, exactly, is at stake for Malta?
“A lot,” comes Temuge’s swift reply. “The issue is no longer just about birdlife or even conservation. It is now about the hefty fines that Malta will almost certainly incur if it persists in its obstinacy. It is also a question of safeguarding Malta’s rapidly deteriorating reputation overseas.”
But before looking into the wider implications, Tolga Temuge invites me to consider the particular significance of the EU directive in question. “The first thing we have to bear in mind is that this issue revolves around what it means to be part of the European Union,” Temuge claims. “Basically, the EU sets the rules of engagement for everything you care to name: fisheries, communications, energy production, agriculture, the environment… and also birds. As an EU member state since 2003, Malta is required by European law to transpose the Birds Directive in its entirety. But what is the Birds Directive, and why is it so important?”
Answering his own question, Temuge defines the 1979 law as quite simply “the best conservation legislation of its kind in the world.”“What makes it so good is that it was the result of discussion and co-operation between three different entities: the European Commission, the federation of European hunters (FACE), and BirdLife international. The resulting legislation therefore enjoys the blessing of all parties concerned. This means that, everywhere except Malta, the hunters themselves agree that wild birds should be given a chance to reproduce.” Apart from clearly prohibiting any form of hunting in the nesting season, and the trapping of wild birds at any time of the year, the Birds Directive also safeguards natural habitats by requiring member countries to designate areas for special protection. This, in turn, guarantees Europeans access to pristine natural environment.
“But then, you get one country which refuses to play ball, and suddenly the whole set-up is at risk,” Temuge adds. “What many people do not realise is that if Malta gets away with this act of violation, it could spell the end of the Birds Directive in Europe. After all, if an exception can be made for Malta, then why not for everyone else? What would happen if Italian or Spanish hunters start claiming the same derogation? This is why the EU cannot possibly afford to concede to Malta’s request. The consequences of the resulting domino effect would be disastrous for European wildlife.”
Yes, but what about the government’s claim that it had obtained a derogation on spring hunting during pre-accession negotiations? A claim repeated by both Environment Minister George Pullicino and the Prime Minister earlier this week, precisely in defence of last Monday’s decision?
Tolga shakes his head. “The only derogation obtained by Malta is a five-year transitional period regarding trapping, which is limited to seven species, and which expires at the end of next year,” he explains. “As regards spring hunting, the situation is different. Malta made the case during negotiations that its circumstances were exceptional. But it still has to prove this. If the government claims that there is no alternative to spring shooting, that claim must be substantiated. And here is the trouble: the government knows it can’t substantiate this claim, because our circumstances are not exceptional at all.”
Temuge also points out that, despite having applied for the derogation at pre-accession stage, the Maltese government has so far failed to abide by the usual derogation process, refusing to actually send in its justification for the request for three consecutive years. Why is that, I naively ask? Tolga smiles wryly. “Because it can’t. Neither government nor the Ornis committee has any scientific data to justify the need for hunting in spring. Not because there is no data on the subject; there is, and it is available to everyone who cares to look, including the Commission. No, the trouble is, existing data does not add up to a justification for any derogation on spring hunting. On the contrary, all it shows is that there is an alternative to spring shooting: shooting in autumn. This is why the government is playing for time.”
And it appears that time is very much on the government’s side. As Pullicino himself said in his press conference last Monday, the process leading to fines by the European Court of Justice is “lengthy”. By the time any decision is reached, the next general election will be ancient history, and Pullicino himself will most likely no longer be Environment Minister. But Temuge counters this by arguing that the fines, when they eventually come, will be all the higher for having been delayed. OK… but how high? How much is Malta’s insistence on spring hunting expected to cost the taxpayer in the long term? Tolga shrugs. “That will be up to the European Court of Justice to decide. Judging by the experiences of other countries such as France, which paid over EUR100 million over a breach of the Fisheries Directive, the amount will probably be a lot.”
But there is another dimension that Temuge thinks we are all overlooking: that the cost is not limited to EU fines alone. Unrestrained hunting carries a hefty price-tag in other spheres too. Not least, tourism. It is difficult to quantify the exact impact of hunting on the islands’ hospitality and leisure sector. But recent developments suggest that Malta is already paying too high a price for its overindulgence of the hunting community’s demands. According to a 2003 Malta Hotels & Restaurants Association (MHRA) survey, a staggering 391,000 tourists a year – a figure almost equivalent to the total Maltese population – “noticed” hunting and trapping in the course of their stay. Of these, 20 per cent claimed the experience had a “major negative impact” on their holiday… prompting former MHRA president Justin Zammit Tabona to observe: “It is very preoccupying that the very substantial investment in the hotel and restaurant industry, and the 20,000 jobs this provides, should be at the mercy of a minority who can only see gun barrels beyond their noses”. More recently still, a delegation from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (UK) came to Malta to present the Prime Minister with a 115,000-strong anti-hunting petition... only to be repeatedly denied an appointment, and left waiting on the steps of Castile.
“It’s a shame that Malta refuses to take advantage of the situation to improve its environmental credentials,” Temuge laments. “Look at Slovenia, for instance, another recent EU accession state. It has designated two-thirds of its total area as a special environmental protection area. The result? A country of great natural beauty, which attracts educated, cultured and high-spending tourists. In Malta, on the other hand, we have a national branding campaign directed precisely towards the same goal; but then, we discourage quality tourism by insisting on allowing this kind of disgraceful behaviour. In the end, Malta will only attract the sort of tourist who doesn’t care about beauty or culture, but only about drinking. In other words, tourists who spend less money and cause more trouble. Is this what we really want?”
On another level, Malta’s constant defiance of European law on the environmental front is causing untold damage to our reputation overseas. This, Temuge claims, is a pity, when you consider that unlike other countries, Malta has no other major blemish on its credentials as a respectable, law-abiding nation.
“Let’s face it: Malta is not the United States or Afghanistan – to name two countries which, for different reasons, are often viewed as ‘rogue’ states with scant regard for international law. On the contrary: Malta is a small country, a beautiful country, which does no harm to anyone. People should think of Malta and smile. They certainly should not regard Malta as a black spot for the destruction of wildlife and natural beauty…” But this, Tolga insists, is how a growing number of people are beginning to view our country as a result of our obsession with killing birds. And looking at the current situation from a foreigner’s perspective, it becomes increasingly difficult to fault their perception.
Tolga Temuge enumerates the progressive stages of deterioration in Malta’s ornithological track record: “For years, the Maltese government has not really done anything to put a stop to illegal hunting. On the contrary, it has done everything in its power to appease the hunters. More recently, the government made it painstakingly clear that it has every intention of openly defying the Birds Directive by allowing spring shooting. Meanwhile, the government has failed to reply to the reasoned opinion, sent by the EU Commission last June, despite the lapse of two deadlines. “And now, with the latest scandalous turn of events, the Environment Minister has shown he is capable of violating his own government’s laws – in particular, legal notice 79, which was published just last year.”
Talking about Monday’s Ornis meeting, Temuge can scarcely conceal his contempt for the proceedings. “The entire affair was farcical. Not only did an Ornis committee member reveal that the decision had already been taken by the government, in direct breach of section 9.2 of LN79; but it emerged that the date given (April 10) also violated section 10.6, which specifies that a minimum of six weeks’ notice is required before the recommendation of a date for the open season is even submitted…”
The meeting was incongruous for other reasons, too. Not least the fact that the Minister first claimed that it was supposed to be “behind closed doors” – for which reason he objected to BirdLife’s subsequent divulgence of details to the press – but then found no objection to the surprise attendance of FKNK president Lino Farrugia, who walked uninvited into the meeting despite not being an Ornis committee member.
“And then, at seven o’ clock, the minister held a surprise press conference to present his own version of events, knowing full well that details of the meeting had already been leaked to the press,” Temuge adds.
During the same press conference, the minister said that there will be increased penalties in the case of hunters caught breaking the law. How does Birdlife react to this particular announcement?
“The minister also announced that the spring hunting season will take place ‘under strict supervision’,” Temuge replies with more than a hint of sarcasm. “How exactly does government plan to implement this, when there are fewer than 30 ALE officers to monitor the activities of some 16,000 hunters (excluding trappers) in both Malta and Gozo?”
Turning away from last Monday’s meeting, I ask Temuge if he feels BirdLife enjoys the support of the public at large: more specifically, whether we can expect the NGO to return to its earlier, 1980s strategy of holding colourful demonstrations in the streets.
“BirdLife has no intention of taking to the streets in the near future,” Temuge replies. “If other people want to organise an anti-hunting protest, they are more than welcome. I for one will attend, just like I attended the protests against the ODZ extensions last June.”
But Tolga Temuge also agrees that there is a general sense of apathy when it comes to civic action. “Not just about the hunting issues. It seems that there is a lack of public participation in most spheres. Having said that, mass protests of the kind you saw in the 1980s are not necessarily the best way to fight the cause. Look at the hunters: they seem to get what they want even without taking to the streets. This is the point we are trying to make: if the anti-hunting majority continue to bury their heads in the sand, hoping that things will change after the election, they are terribly wrong. This, in fact, is what the government is basing its calculations on: that people don’t care enough to base their vote on this issue. However, I think that very soon now, they will realise that they have grossly miscalculated.”