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NEWS | Wednesday, 25 March 2009

‘The black spot of the Mediterranean’

‘The black spot of the Mediterranean’

When BirdLife Malta launched its major anti-Spring hunting offensive in 2008, among the personalities to grace the campaign billboards was former MHRA president Winston Zahra Jr.
Many expressed surprise that the Malta Hotels & Restaurants Association president would lend his name and face to such an intensely political lobby; but Zahra insisted that illegal hunting was damaging Malta’s international reputation... and therefore, by extension, the tourism industry.
“From direct feedback we get from tourists, because of the way a number of hunters go about the practice, people strolling in the countryside are often scared and intimidated,” he said in an interview with sister newspaper Business Today. “It is also a fact that a lot of tourists do not perceive hunting as a hobby or a sport – and we know this from feedback we directly receive from our guests.”
Hunting has in fact been inextricably linked with Malta’s reputation for at least 20 years: a situation brought about in part by complaints in the international press by increasing numbers of dissatisfied tourists.
Of these angry tirades, the most emblematic was arguably an article that appeared in the London tabloid The People (July 1996) under the headline “I’m More Than Cross with the Cruel Maltese.”
Finding fault with Malta on a wide variety of issues, its author, Vernon Coleman, lambasted the island for its lack of birdsong, which he attributed to the excessive number of uncontrolled hunters and trappers. Coleman concluded by recommending to France (at that time embroiled in controversial nuclear testing programme at Muroara) to consider using Malta as a target instead.
As was no doubt intended, this article elicited a furious reaction from hunters and non-hunters alike, with dozens of indignant replies appearing in the local press. But in the 1990s, the hunting community still wielded considerable power over both political parties, and international criticism seemed to only harden the lobby’s resolve.
Pressure began to mount on the Maltese government in earnest only after 1998, with the re-activation of Malta’s EU bid. Letters began appearing regularly in local newspapers, by tourists who claimed their holiday had been ruined by experiences with hunters. And when Malta finally joined Europe in 2003, the local hunting issue gradually came to attract increasing levels of international interest.
In May 2007, the BBC website published a series of photos of birds injured or killed over Malta, under the heading “Malta’s hunt victims.” Nearly all the species involved were supposedly protected at law; some, like the Pallid Harrier, were critically endangered.
Two months later, the Royal Society For the Protection of Birds (UK) presented a 115,000-signature petition to the Prime Minister, demanding that Malta “respect the EU bird protection laws, make sure those laws are enforced and stop spring hunting in Malta.” The petition was left on the doorstep of Castille, after Lawrence Gonzi refused to meet the RSPB delegation on three separate occasions.
The following January, The Wall Street Journal – a New York-based broadsheet with a worldwide circulation of more than 2 million – dedicated a front page story to the issue of spring hunting in Malta: which it defined as “one place you wouldn’t want to be a falcon.”
Apart from highlighting numerous hunting abuses, the article also alluded to an attack on Ray Vella, the BirdLife park ranger who was shot in the face by a hunter the previous October.
Elsewhere, Italian newspaper La Repubblica quoted the World Wildlife Fund’s Anna Giordano on the unacceptable levels of illegal hunting in Malta. “What I saw in Malta I have never seen anywhere else. In front my eyes they killed an osprey. They shoot black storks, honey buzzards, lesser spotted eagles: all protected species…”
Even after the European Commission pressured Malta not to open the 2008 spring hunting season – a decision repeated this year – the bad press continued unabated.
In its end-of-week News Quiz for January 2009, the BBC website asked its readers to identify which symbol had been chosen to represent Malta in the notorious “hoax” art exhibition at the European parliament building in Brussels in January.
Among the multiple-choice options? “A dead bird”...


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