Malta Bulletins 2001

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Article in the Times of Malta, 22. January 2002

St Thomas Bay swans massacre
Three to be arraigned amid chorus of condemnation

by Michael Testa

Two brothers and their cousin are expected to be arraigned today in connection with the shooting of seven mute swans at St Thomas Bay on Sunday, police sources said.

The police arrested the third man in connection with the case yesterday afternoon.

Two of the hunters were arrested on Sunday as they were hauling the boat from which the birds were allegedly shot.

The sources said the hunters were found in possession of cartridges loaded with lead shot of an illegal size and were carrying loaded guns ashore.

The police were given photos of the hunters shooting at the swans.

The sources said the police were investigating reports that the same people could have been involved in shooting another three swans in the same place some three weeks ago.

If found guilty, the hunters face a maximum fine of just Lm500, the confiscation of their shotguns and, possibly, their boat, the police sources said.

The hunters on a white speedboat shot the swans dead as the graceful birds were being admired by onlookers.

People at St Thomas Bay were so impressed by the swans that they phoned NET TV asking the station to send a crew to film the birds. But the scene the cameraman shot was very different from what they had expected. The crew arrived to film the swans being taken ashore dead.

The shooting drew expressions of outrage from a wide cross section of society - politicians, political parties, environment organisations and the hunting associations themselves.

The Environment Ministry strongly condemned the killing, which it described as a "barbaric act that showed there still were individuals who felt they could break the law as if nothing was happening".

The ministry said in a statement that incidents such as the one at St Thomas Bay not only harmed hunting but also the country in general.

Apart from brazenly breaking the law, the culprits had also acted in an inhuman and anti-social manner, the ministry added.

When contacted, Environment Minister Francis Zammit Dimech said those perpetrating the act were irresponsible. Apart from the fact that the swans were protected, the hunters had broken several sections of the law, he said.

The fines contemplated were harsh in themselves and one hoped that when the culprits were brought to court and found guilty the courts would also recognise the seriousness of the act, Dr Zammit Dimech said.

Tourism Minister Michael Refalo said, when contacted, he expected all hunting and trapping associations to strongly condemn the sadistic behaviour.

"If the accused belonged to such associations, their membership should be suspended pending court proceedings and a final decision taken when the due process of the law is complete," he said.

Dr Refalo remarked that shooting protected birds out of the water was not sport but cold blooded murder... "murder for greed, as I am told that a stuffed mute swan fetches Lm500 on the open market," Dr Refalo said.

These people gave Malta and law-abiding hunters and trappers a bad name, he added.

Nationalist Party general secretary Joe Saliba said the party strongly condemned the shooting of the swans and appealed to the public to also condemn it.

Mr Saliba said the more time passed, the more conscious people were becoming about the need to protect the environment.

He said that what happened at St Thomas Bay on Sunday was not only ugly because the swans were brutally killed but also because of the blot on the country.

Contacted by The Times, Labour Party general secretary Jimmy Magro joined in condemning the killing.

Such abuse put the hunting lobby in a very bad light and unfortunately made a mockery of arguments in favour of hunting by those who abide by the law.

These culprits are in the minority but are giving a bad name to hunting, Mr Magro said.

Joe Buttigieg, president of the Federation of Hunting and Conservation said the federation met with urgency yesterday morning to discuss the incident.

He said the federation's council had decided that if it found that the culprits were members of the federation they would be automatically suspended pending court proceedings. If found guilty by the court they would be blacklisted and would never be able to join the federation as members, Mr Buttigieg said.

As current regulations stipulate that hunters required a recommendation from a recognised hunters' association, this would imply that those guilty would be unable to obtain a licence, should all organisations take a similar stand.

"Incidents such as that occurring at St Thomas Bay on Sunday destroy all the work done by the federation to promote respect for the law. These ugly acts mar the image of hunting in general," Mr Buttigieg said.

He said his federation wanted the law breakers to be brought to book but noted that action by the police was only taken against the small offenders rather than against the "bullies".

He said it was not the first time that the federation took disciplinary steps against members.

At present, the federation was not participating in the environmental monitoring board for hunting in protest over various matters, including the failure by the police to act against the "big offenders".

The environmental monitoring board is made up of the ALE, the AFM, representatives of the hunters and of the Environment Ministry and of BirdLife among others.

It was set up by the government in 2000 to bring together all the parties with an interest in the hunting situation.

"We want the police to control hunters but not through systems whereby those committing venial sins are apprehended while those committing the mortal sins escape scot free," he said.

Hunters were often booked to appear in court for simple offences such as being found without possession of the hunting licence which they may have forgotten in their car, he said.

The callous shooting of the swans also brought condemnation from other hunting associations, such as Kaccaturi San Ubertu, whose secretary, Aldo Azzopardi, insisted on stricter measures before the issue of hunting licences. Obtaining a licence should not just be a formality, he said, insisting on educational courses leading to a licence.

"We condemn such shooting of protected birds. It is because of these illegal and irresponsible acts that hunters are looked at in such a bad light," he said.

Charles Galea, secretary of the Association of Shooters and Trappers (Tal-Gabjun) deplored the incident and stressed that regulations were there to be observed and the association had no place for abusers. These were harming both the hobby itself and also those who obeyed the law to practise their sport, he said.

Nature Trust (Malta) condemned the shooting and said this was another perfect example of how the hunters themselves were giving a bad name to the Maltese Islands.

Nature Trust said those responsible should be made to pay all the costs incurred by the authorities to capture the culprits. The authorities needed to be harsher in such cases.

"This is the only way the authorities will prove that the environment is high on their agenda," the trust said.

Joseph Mangion, president of BirdLife, said the shooting of mute swans occurred from time to time.

According to BirdLife records, he said, 13 swans were shot at in the south of Malta in December 1995. Twenty-five were shot at near Ghadira and nine in the vicinity of Ghallis in January 1993. Lone birds were also shot at Ghadira, Simar, St Thomas Bay, Salina and St Julian's in December of the same year; at Marsaxlokk, Delimara and at Gharb and Qala, in Gozo in December 1988 and at St Thomas Bay, Marsaxlokk and Delimara in January 1985. Shot had been fired at a flock of 12 swans in various localities in December 1984, Mr Mangion said.

He pointed out that the same swans could have been sighted in different localities.

Mr Mangion said that two mute swans which had probably survived the shooting at St Thomas Bay were spotted over Gozo on Sunday. It was subsequently discovered that these swans were also killed, sources said.

In a statement after the shooting, BirdLife said the outrageous act was just another of the type that occurred daily in Malta, with the difference that this time a large number of people were present to witness it.

BirdLife said it had repeatedly called for harsher penalties for those found guilty of such cases and felt it was about time that the equipment used for such law infringements should be confiscated.

Mute swans are fairly rare visitors to Malta. Adult birds are large white and graceful birds reaching a length of 1.5 metres with a wingspan of well over two metres. Immature birds are brownish in colour.

Swans are common breeding birds found in central and eastern Europe but do not winter further south than northern Italy. However, the unusually cold weather that lately hit Europe pushed the birds as far south as Malta, where the mute swans met their death.

Over the past month there have been several other sightings of rare swans, and geese had a similar fate as the swans of St Thomas Bay.

Mute swans were normally not afraid of human beings, BirdLife noted.

The Nationalist Party also condemned the killing of the swans and said it hoped such an incident would never be repeated.

"NOT THE FIRST TIME" STATES BIRDLIFE MALTA

Eurobirder/Proact-Malta David Conlin 2001