from The Scotsman, January 22, 2002
Shocked Malta in uproar over hunters' slaughter of swans
By Tim Cornwell Deputy Foreign Editor
A CROWD of onlookers had gathered to watch a rare sight in Malta's St Thomas's Bay: about ten large mute swans, gliding gracefully through the water. Until, that is, three hunters on a speedboat roared through the water and blasted the birds with shotguns, killing all but two.
Hunting, and particularly bird hunting, is a passionate pastime in Malta. Hunters on one of its trio of islands, Gozo, shot dead the last pair of Maltese falcons in 1982, it is said.
However, the "Swan Lake massacre", with the birds mown down under the noses of tourists and children, made for shocked headlines in all four of the islands daily newspapers yesterday.
"There has been an incredible outcry," said Vanessa MacDonald, news editor of the Times of Malta. "This was so public it was quite shocking."
Three men in the speedboat, ignoring shouts from the shore, first shot at the birds in the water, then downed the rest on the wing. "At first we thought someone was drowning because we heard screams," said one British woman tourist. "But then we learned the truth."
The issue of bird hunting in Malta resonates with ornithologists well beyond the Mediterranean islands. Monitoring groups estimate that as many as three million birds are shot or trapped each year, most of them migrating between Europe and North Africa, driving down populations on the two continents. Songbirds are trapped and sold at market, while larger birds of prey or rare species are stuffed for collectors.
However, hunting is part of the island's culture, it is said, with tens of thousands of people as registered gun-owners and hunters in a nation of just 400,000. One local objection to Malta's planned accession to the EU is that European directives could limit the sport. Hunters' groups insist that only a tiny minority shoot endangered birds, but wildlife groups say the toll is high.
Mute swans, while common in northern Europe, are rare visitors to Malta.
The three men were arrested as they left their boat, having dumped the swans' bodies in the water as they were tracked by a police helicopter and boat.
They were to be charged today with shooting at protected birds, with shooting during a Sunday afternoon when hunting is not permitted and with hunting close to shore.
"They should execute them in public," said one mother, who had been enjoying a Sunday stroll with her daughter.