Lock and load…it’s migration time!

Quite soon birds will be leaving Europe for warmer climes. Tiny swallows to huge eagles will be heading Africa-wards to escape the northern hemisphere winter. However, many will not get there and even fewer will make it back again to breed in 2011. Some will be predated along the way and others will fall to other natural influences like severe weather or poor navigation. But it is the human impact on the hundreds of species that make the journey across the Mediterranean that is most worrying.

At many significant points along the way, human development is encroaching on natural habitat that has been vital for migrating birds for centuries. The vast amounts of energy used when flying such long distances makes resting and refuelling stops essential. If these birds can’t find enough to eat along their journey, chances are they will starve and perish. With booming human populations, this global fight for space is a sensitive issue that has no quick fix or easy solution. Similarly, increasing energy demands and the quest for renewable energy resources has necessitated the erection of wind turbines that increase the risk to birds of mid-air collisions. However, one fight that migrating wildlife is losing that can and should be remedied more easily is the illegal shooting and trapping of migrating birds by poachers around the Mediterranean.

BirdLife Malta works tirelessly to monitor and reduce activities on the archipelago that threaten wild birds yet the high density of hunters makes their job difficult. Relatively few birds are resident on Malta in comparison to the 170 species that occur during periods of migration, making spring and autumn the height of BirdLife’s efforts. Almost anything avian is targetted by illegal hunters from beautiful hoopoes and European rollers to black storks and lesser-spotted eagles (check out BirdLife’s 2008 illegal hunting and trapping report). Birds of prey are specifically persecuted and so it’s not surprising to learn that Malta’s last remaining resident pairs of peregrine falcons and barn owls were all shot by hunters.

In 2009, volunteers at BirdLife’s annual raptor camp found the remains of over 200 birds stashed away in the Mizieb woodland and the reports and video footage captured by BirdLife staff and volunteers show that hunters are prepared to flaunt the laws protecting wild birds right under the noses of the authorities.

The presence of dedicated conservationists and their links with the local police may help to deter some poachers on the islands yet the confiscation of smyrna kingfishers and lappet-faced vultures from Maltese hunters after visits to north Africa shows just how far some individuals are willing to go to carry out their killings. It is thought that Maltese poachers bribed their way in to Egypt’s Gebel Elba National Park before smuggling guns and ammunition through various checkpoints. But Egypt is not the only other important site for conservation where birds are at risk on the Mediterranean. It is believed that bird trapping in nearby Cyprus accounted for an estimated 261,000 birds on the island during spring this year. Top conservation blog ‘Migrations‘ gives more in-depth information on the situation in Cyprus where many migratory birds are trapped for the restaurant industry. But if you want to help put a stop to the illegal killing of thousands of birds each year and also get to see the biannual spectacle of this mass migration then check out BirdLife Malta‘s autumn Raptor Camp and its springtime equivalent Spring Watch.

Visit my main website at www.conservationphotojournalism.com

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