The Malta Massacre on Migration: Can we reconcile conservation with tradition?

In 2015, Chris Packham, the British naturalist, launched his crusade against the ‘Malta massacre on migration’. In doing so he brought the referendum on whether Maltese hunters should be allowed to shoot turtle doves and quails in the spring shooting season to the attention of the UK media. Despite the best efforts of Packham and organisations such as BirdLife Malta, the ‘Yes’ campaign won by a slim margin of 50.4% so this controversial spring shooting remains. The European Commission’s 1979 Wild Birds Directive bans member states from hunting wild birds during spring as birds are en route to their breeding grounds. However, Maltese governments successively implement a derogation (exemption) allowing the killing of these two rapidly declining birds. This begs the questions, when spring shooting is outlawed in all other EU countries, why is Malta the exception? Why should the activities of a country of less than 500,000 citizens concern us? And a year on from the referendum what is the current situation in Malta? Malta’s derogation to the Wild Birds Directive is instated on the basis that hunting in the autumn season does not provide a ‘satisfactory solution’ to uphold this strong Maltese tradition. Therefore, for the derogation to be justified you would expect fewer birds to be shot in autumn than spring. However, recent figures show that the level of hunting in autumn in fact exceeds that of spring. Comparisons of hunter’s bag statistics show that on average 2.5 times more turtle doves and 14.3 times more quails are shot in autumn than in spring. Therefore there are sufficient birds for hunters to shoot in autumn and so the autumn season does provide a satisfactory solution. This shows that the grounds and legality for this derogation is very questionable. There are 10,000 licensed hunters in Malta but the quotas are set at 5,000 turtle doves and 5,000 quail that may be shot. So in theory, each hunter is only expected and allowed to take one bird during the two week-long season. Importantly, these quotas are set based on the number of birds recorded shot in the autumn shooting season. Therefore, quotas aren't based on annual mortality rates and don’t reflect the global population sizes. Most worryingly, these figures are reported by the hunters themselves. Hunters are inherently bias to under-report their catches to allow them to catch more making the figures unreliable. Lack of accurate and complete data not only makes it difficult to establish the true impact of hunting but it also hampers the ability of governments and organisations to implement policy and set priorities.

Quail Image courtesy of Pixabay @ echels

While this issue has permeated the political sphere of Malta, it extends beyond, to the whole of the Mediterranean region. Over-exploitation is one of main threats to bird populations globally, with the extent of hunting across the Mediterranean becoming an increasing concern. Recent estimates of the number of birds illegally killed across the Mediterranean regions is between 11-36 million individuals. This level of hunting is simply unsustainable and poses a significant international conservation problem. As the Mediterranean country with the highest estimated number of birds hunted per km2, Malta can act as an important case study. Compared to North Africa and Italy, Malta may be a small part of the problem but it is an important part nonetheless. Tackling this issue in one region will not suffice, these birds need to be protected across their migratory route. The recent reclassification of the turtle dove from ‘least concerned’ to ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) makes the need to reassess quotas and the terms of Malta’s EU derogation even more important. Despite this IUCN reclassification, the 2016 spring shooting season went ahead, albeit with lowered quotas. However, when pressed, the Maltese government could not provide evidence of the scientific basis on which these new quotas were set. More importantly, at the end of April 2016, the IUCN directly weighed in on the argument. The IUCN announced that they had written a letter to EU Commissioner for Environment and Maritime Affair, asking the Commissioner to impose a suspension on spring hunting in Malta and advising that the suspension should be maintained until the Turtle Dove shows signs of recovery and until its hunting can be proven to be sustainable. The involvement of such a major conservation organization has the potential to create pressure and drive change. Whether the spring shooting season will be opened in 2017 remains to be seen. Ultimately, in order to progress Malta needs strong support and legislation from the government and better supervision of their derogation from the EU. Most importantly there needs to be systematic monitoring systems in place in order to set accurate quotas based on empirical evidence. In order to reconcile conservation with tradition there needs to be more public education and engagement. A focus on educating and inspiring the current and future generations to change their traditions and outlook from one of exploitation to appreciation can help to create a long-term resolution.

2 collared doves Image courtesy of Pixabay " evgeniypetrenko82 Fenech, N. (2010). A complete guide to the birds of Malta. Valletta: Midsea Sultana, J (2014). The saga of spring hunting in Malta. British Birds. 107(4): 188-190 Brotchet, A et al. (2016). Preliminary assessment of the scope and scale of illegal killing and taking of birds in the Mediterranean. Bird Conservation International, 26(1): 1-28 Caruana-Galizia, P & Fenech, N. (2016) The importance of spring hunting in Malta on European Turtle-Dove, Streptopelia turtur, and Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix, populations. Bird Conservation International. 26(1): 29-38

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