Bird aviary il­le­gally hold­ing pro­tected birds goes miss­ing af­ter po­lice re­port – Chris Pack­ham

● Po­lice of­fi­cer and in­di­vid­ual in­volved not present in court

Malta Independent - - FRONT PAGE - Ju­lian Bon­nici

BBC jour­nal­ist Chris Pack­ham has con­demned the “lit­tle po­lit­i­cal will” of the gov­ern­ment to en­force hunt­ing reg­u­la­tions af­ter a num­ber of pro­tected birds held within an il­le­gal en­clo­sure mys- teri­ously van­ished, the nat­u­ral­ist re­vealed dur­ing an in­ter­view with The Malta In­de­pen­dent.

This oc­curred af­ter Mr Pack­ham had ear­lier re­ported the in­ci­dent to Goz­i­tan po­lice.

Mr Pack­ham’s at­tempts to film the then-empty en­clo­sure re­sulted in his high-pro­file ar­rest on charges of as­sault­ing the two men to whom the en­clo­sure be­longs.

He was later ac­quit­ted by Goz­i­tan courts af­ter the pre­sid­ing mag­is­trate was shown footage show­ing the men and po­lice of­fi­cers shov­ing and shout­ing at the group.

The episode, Mr Pack­ham ex­plained, all be­gan on Tues­day morn­ing when, along with his col­league and a Bird Life ac­tivist, he stum­bled upon an aviary in Gozo.

“We looked at them and we thought there was a good chance that th­ese birds were be­ing kept il­le­gally.”

The group then cap­tured a video of the birds trapped within the en­clo­sure, and con­tacted the po­lice.

“When the po­lice ar­rived, the owner of the prop­erty came out and emerged with a list. Some of the birds were not on the list he pro­vided, so he added them to it.”

The po­lice in­formed the group that they could not do any­thing about it un­til an investigation by the Wildlife Bird Reg­u­la­tion Unit (WBRU) would be con­ducted, which would oc­cur two days later on Thurs­day.

The same day, the group stum­bled upon a sec­ond aviary in a dif­fer­ent area completely un­re­lated to the first.

“We sus­pected il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity and called the po­lice for a sec­ond time. This time when they ar­rived

they were ac­com­pa­nied by the WBRU.”

Once the WBRU fin­ished in­spect­ing the sec­ond site, where they found noth­ing ir­reg­u­lar, Mr Pack­ham re­quested that the WBRU of­fi­cers vis­ited the orig­i­nal site.

The group ac­com­pa­nied the of­fi­cers, how­ever when they ap­proached the orig­i­nal site, the aviary, which was full of birds the pre­vi­ous day, was now empty.

“We were pre­par­ing to film the empty cage, when two cars drove quickly up the road. The car stopped right be­side us, and the driv­ers leapt out and started shout­ing at us, telling us that it was pri­vate prop­erty. He also in­sulted me.”

One of the two men inside the car, who was older, be­gan to push and shove Mr Pack­ham.

“My col­league was told to stop film­ing, but rather than stop­ping, she placed the cam­era by her waist, so you could still see their shad­ows and hear their voices.

“What is clear is that dur­ing the en­tire al­ter­ca­tion I did not say a word to the men in­volved un­til I spoke to the po­lice­man at the end.

“The po­lice of­fi­cer also started push­ing and shov­ing my col­league and my­self up the street.

“Af­ter telling me that I had to en­ter my ve­hi­cle and leave the area since it was pri­vate land, he told me twice that he would use the ev­i­dence pro­vided by the two men to pros­e­cute me.”

The BBC jour­nal­ist re­leased the video of the en­tire in­ci­dent on YouTube.

Mr Pack­ham then said that the group waited in their ve­hi­cle roughly 40 me­tres away from the site while the po­lice con­ducted their investigation.

The same po­lice of­fi­cer then re­turned to the ve­hi­cle and told Mr Pack­ham to visit the po­lice sta­tion and pro­vide the of­fi­cers with iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

“When we got to the po­lice sta­tion, I no­ticed that the two men were talk­ing to the po­lice of­fi­cers. Once they left, the of­fi­cer in­formed me that I was be­ing charged with as­sault and that the Bird Llife ac­tivist would be charged with falsely re­port­ing ev­i­dence.

“We may not know what the WBRU found in their investigation, but we know that the aviary was full of birds pre­vi­ously.”

Mr Pack­ham was then told that he would need to ap­pear in court yes­ter­day morn­ing or face ar­rest.

“What was un­usual is that when we turned up yes­ter­day morn­ing the po­lice of­fi­cer who filed the com­plaint and claimed that I had at­tacked the man was not even present.

“The older man was also miss­ing, with the younger one pre­tend­ing that he was the one who had pushed and shoved me.”

Mr Pack­ham pro­vided his video ev­i­dence to the court.

“It is clear as day that I was in­no­cent and it was the man and the po­lice of­fi­cer who were be­ing ag­gres­sive.”

Mag­is­trate Joe Mif­sud, who presided over the ar­raign­ment, ac­quit­ted the men over a lack of ev­i­dence and told the court that jour­nal­ists were an im­por­tant part of democ­racy and should be pro­tected.

“I got a sense that he was a lit­tle bit agitated and an­gry that this case had been brought to court in the first place. He thought it was a waste of time and that the po­lice had be­haved in a man­ner that was in­ap­pro­pri­ate.”

“From my point of view, I see this ex­pe­ri­ence as a pos­i­tive thing since it al­lows us to demon­strate to the peo­ple of Malta and Gozo, and across Europe, the in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances both Bird Life and CABS work un­der merely be­cause they are demo­crat­i­cally and legally ask­ing for the law to be up­held when it comes to bird crime, and what they face is in­tim­i­da­tion and threats.”

“This will hope­fully show peo­ple that there seems to be lit­tle po­lit­i­cal will to in­struct the po­lice to have the law up­held.

“The po­lice of­fi­cer and his col­leagues were ob­struc­tive, we ended up in court, and the man who is sus­pected of il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity is nowhere to be seen. That’s re­ally dis­ap­point­ing.”

Po­lice en­force­ment

Mr Pack­ham first en­tered the Mal­tese pub­lic con­science fol­low­ing his re­lease of ‘Mas­sacre on Mi­gra­tion’ in 2014, in which par­tic­u­lar episodes fo­cused on the sit­u­a­tion in Malta.

Since then, there was an un­suc­cess­ful ref­er­en­dum to ban spring hunt­ing and an in­crease in en­force­ment.

How­ever, Mr Pack­ham be­lieves that the at­ti­tude po­lice of­fi­cers have to­wards en­force­ment on the is­sue re­mains mixed.

“I’ve come here over the last four years and we have seen po­lice­man ar­rive promptly, lis­ten to what Bird Life have to say, and acted upon it.”

He pointed to an in­ci­dent ear­lier in the week when CABS in­formed po­lice of il­le­gal nets in the coun­try­side.

“The po­lice ar­rived in 30 min­utes and con­fis­cated the nets im­me­di­ately.”

He did con­cede that on other oc­ca­sions po­lice have ap­pre­hended hunters in pos­ses­sion of shot pro­tected birds but failed to fol­low up on the case.

“There is a lack of po­lit­i­cal will to or­gan­ise and de­vote more re­sources to the po­lice force to have prop­erly trained of­fi­cers in the field who un­der­stand and want to up­load the law in­de­pen­dent of any in­ter­est they may have them­selves.

“In the whole of Malta the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties only have one po­lice car which can en­ter this ter­rain and can only be oc­cu­pied by two po­lice of­fi­cers.”

Gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion

In an in­ter­view with The Malta In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day, Min­is­ter for the En­vi­ron­ment Jose’ Her­rera said that while he condemns the num­ber of pro­tected birds that were shot in the pre­vi­ous Au­tumn hunt­ing sea­son, “If you had to take a col­lec­tive ac­tion ar­bi­trar­ily, I think you would be act­ing un­justly. For ex­am­ple, if some night­club own­ers mis­be­have, you don’t close all the night­clubs, you only do it when there is a threat in one area in­fring­ing in­di­vid­ual rights.”

In re­sponse, Mr Pack­ham said that while Bird Life is not in­ter­ested in col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment and there are hunters who act per­fectly le­gal, the law has to be fol­lowed and en­forced.

“The Prime Min­is­ter has twice closed down the hunt­ing sea­son, af­ter few il­le­gal­i­ties, and I can­not un­der­stand why he has failed to take ac­tion. It may be be­cause it is close to an elec­tion and the hunt­ing lobby com­mands a 10,000 strong mem­ber­ship not in­clud­ing their fam­ily mem­bers.”

In the same in­ter­view the Min­is­ter ad­mit­ted that in “Malta our en­force­ment is not up to mark” and that Gozo’s “dou­ble in­su­lar men­tal­ity” and cul­ture of omertà, has meant that it is dif­fi­cult to main­tain en­force­ment.

For Mr Pack­ham, this line of rea­son­ing is “rub­bish”.

“If Malta wants to be a mod­ern demo­cratic coun­try, which it de­serves to be, it needs to up­hold all laws. You can­not choose where to draw the line. Will you not re­port your friend if he’s steal­ing from a bank or com­mit­ting a worse crime? It can­not be flex­i­ble, if the law is writ­ten down, that’s it.”

EU re­sponse

The gov­ern­ment of Malta has al­ready found it­self in hot wa­ter on the is­sue of hunt­ing, in par­tic­u­lar to that of finch trap­ping. Malta cur­rently en­joys a dero­ga­tion through the EU Birds Di­rec­tive for trap­ping us­ing tra­di­tional se­lec­tive claps.

How­ever, in 2014 the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion ini­ti­ated le­gal pro­ceed­ings against Malta, which are be­ing heard by the courts at the mo­ment.

For Mr Pack­ham, some of the Mal­tese, not all of them, he stressed, have a com­plete dis­re­gard for EU reg­u­la­tions.

“Il­le­gal trap­ping is a real is­sue in Malta, this spring (when there is a com­plete ban on the ac­tiv­ity) CABS found in ex­cess of 100 trap­ping sites on the coast.

“Malta de­serves to be part of a mod­ern Europe, but you have to stick to the rules that gov­ern all of us. Those rules have been put in place to pro­tect species of birds that are en­dan­gered.

“For ex­am­ple, in the case of the stone curlew, which was shot dur­ing the spring hunt­ing sea­son this year, the UK and other EU mem­ber states spend thou­sands of pounds per bird to keep them alive, build habi­tats, and pro­tect them from peo­ple, so they can con­tinue to breed.”

Here, he ex­plains, there are two con­trast­ing at­ti­tudes be­tween Malta and the rest of Europe.

“Across Europe, peo­ple spend loads of time and en­ergy to pro­tect th­ese birds, and here in Malta some­one shoots them.

“It just does not fit with this day and age, and this when even if some peo­ple ar­gue that it is tra­di­tion, it is tra­di­tion that is no longer ac­cept­able or sus­tain­able. Slav­ery was a tra­di­tion, beat­ing your wife was a tra­di­tion, per­se­cut­ing ho­mo­sex­u­als was a tra­di­tion. Th­ese are all un­ac­cept­able things that we do not want in our so­ci­ety any longer. We can­not use tra­di­tion as an ex­cuse for il­le­gal­i­ties.”

The Or­nis Com­mit­tee, which is stip­u­lated in the EU di­rec­tives, is per­ceived to be a tooth­less com­mit­tee which rarely seems to in­ter­vene on the is­sue.

“There cer­tainly needs to be some­thing new,” Mr Pack­ham said. “For in­stance, the At­tor­ney Gen­eral in Malta had called on the gov­ern­ment to place tur­tle doves as a pro­tected species af­ter their lev­els dropped, but the WBRU did noth­ing.

“Th­ese are the very peo­ple who should be mon­i­tor­ing the de­cline of th­ese birds, and chang­ing hunt­ing poli­cies in Malta to en­sure their pro­tec­tion, but it seems that they wanted to sup­press what the AG was say­ing.”

“The coun­try was ex­tremely lucky not to be taken to court by the com­mis­sion by say­ing that they would stop the shoot­ing next year.

“The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s job is to po­lice mem­ber states. Kar­menu Vella is the cur­rent com­mis­sioner and he is tak­ing too long to im­ple­ment leg­is­la­tion, we are los­ing too many birds.

“We ap­peal to any of our sup­port­ers to con­tact the EU com­mis­sion and the Mal­tese gov­ern­ment to do some­thing about it.”

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