This time of year the skies above Malta are filled with the sight of migrating birds on their way from Europe to Africa. But thousands of them will never reach Africa, shot instead by hunters on the island.
Five years ago the European Court of Justice ordered the Maltese government to ban spring hunting, but the practice appears to continue unabated. Enforcement is poor and political will to act against the hunters is weak. This is why the German organisation CABS, or Committee against Bird Slaughter, is preparing to launch an anti-poaching operation on Malta and neighbouring Gozo. They are frequent visitors to this tiny island, seeking out those responsible for illegally persecuting birds with traps or bullets.
CABS, along with birdlife Malta, say that hunters, poachers, trappers and animal traders represent a severe threat to birds along the whole of their migration routes.
Sounds of shooting
The sound of shooting in the autumn skies is a familiar one in Malta this time of year. Some of this autumn's first migrating birds have already been shot at and killed by illegal hunters all over this island, and for those trying to save the birds, seeing them being shot-down mid flight can be a traumatic experience. Nicholas Barbara is the Conservation & Policy Officer at BirdLife Malta.
"The situation [is that] with certain protected birds, for example flamingos, that rarely appear in our country, unless you have people watching over [them] during the night - they will definitely be killed," Barbara said. "That's [just the reality] and depending on the area the bird is roosting for the night, some times you can guarantee that you will have people watching over it - other places you can't because of private property restrictions or whatever - and in that case the police have quite a number of difficulties in finding the aggressor."
Barbara explains that basically there are not enough people to watch over the birds and guarantee that they will be able to complete their migration. "Just to give you an example, we were doing our September camp a couple of years ago, I had a team frantically calling me [because] they had a short haired eagle just five meters away from them. The bird was roosting on the rock, it flew off - it didn't fly even100 meters over the trees and gets shot. They can't see the hunter. They can't see the people who actually shot it. They can't see the people who actually recovered it. The police take five minutes to come to the area. Nothing gets found. Nothing at all. And actually [all this happened in] a five minute interval. First I get an excited call that the bird is there, then I had people on the phone crying - literally crying over the phone that the bird was shot in front of their eyes. That's how bad it is."
Back in the city, in the capital Valetta, bird hunting is a constant topic of conversation. Herman Grech, a journalist with the "Times of Malta" newspaper says that despite European rulings, the Maltese government are under continuous pressure from the powerful hunting lobby.
One of Malta's 'biggest problems'
"This is one of the biggest problems we have in this country and I think it's acknowledged by any law-abiding citizen," Grech said. "The Hunters' lobby is quite strong, and it's basically got some of the political parties [backing it]. [The hunting lobby] really does have an influence on the political parties, and we've seen this both with the previous Nationalist administration and now with the Labour government that they really do have some form of influence."
He goes on to explain that this link between the lobby and political parties is often picked up and criticized by his newspaper. The paper often asks how a lobby of about 10-12 thousand people, out of a population of just over 400,000 can have so much influence over the entire island, calling its disproportionate power "ridiculous".
Laws without teeth?
In 2008 the European Court of Justice ordered the Maltese government to ban spring hunting, and then ruled that bird trapping should be illegal too. However, even with these activities having been made illegal, enforcement is poor and political will to act appears weak too. Simon Busuttil is the leader of the main opposition Maltese Nationalist Party; he plays down the extent of hunting.
"I think hunting is present in Malta as much as it is in other countries, and illegal instances are present in Malta as much as they are in other countries," Busuttil said. "The only difference is that hunting in Malta is much more apparent because this is a country where you have a population density of 1200 per square kilometer. Now if you live in a country where you have one person per square kilometer, and he fires a shot at a bird, - no one hears him. If you fire the same shot in Malta, 1,200 people hear him. So there is an issue of exposure."
He then asks himself a rhetorical question, and answers it himself: "Have we done quite enough in limiting hunting considering the free-for-all situation that prevailed before EU accession? I think we've gone a long way."
The sounds of birds tweeting in Malta, though, is becoming less and less frequent. Despite Busuttil's assurances, the problem of illegal hunting continues to tarnish Malta's reputation in Europe. Environmentalists say they have suffered several violent attacks by hunters while recording bird migration and reporting illegal hunting. But they insist their work will continue despite the dangers, in the hope that they can bring this problem to the attention of a wider public.