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Interview | Sunday, 12 April 2009

Bullets over Buskett

Seeing is believing, and UK filmmaker and conservationist STEPHEN CUMMINGS thought the reports on illegal hunting in Malta were exaggerated – until he came here in person, to film a documentary on the subject last year

When Stephen Cummings came to Malta to ‘shoot’ a documentary about hunting, he didn’t realise the word could be taken so literally.
Birds Bins and Bullets premiered last Monday at the Eden Century Cinema in St Julian’s, to a select audience composed almost exclusively of BirdLife members and journalists. As the name suggests, the documentary is aimed at exposing the extent of illegal hunting in Malta, before and after the end of a legal spring hunting season in April 2008. Much of the resulting 71 minutes of footage is punctuated by the steady background music of gunfire.
The film’s director explains that he had long heard of the situation in Malta, and as both a filmmaker and wildlife conservationist in his own right he was curious to find out how much of the island’s notoriety was founded on fact.
“Several years ago I started to hear reports of illegal hunting activities that were going on in Malta – many of which seemed too shocking to be true, such as the shooting of swans from a boat in the middle of a bay frequented by tourists,” Steve says... adding that the effect of these and other incidents on Malta’s international reputation cannot be overstated.
“In conversations that I had with birdwatchers back home, I found that the general consensus was that they would never visit Malta because of the scale of the hunting that was being carried out there, and for fear of their own personal safety. Some time later, I also started to receive e-mails advocating a boycott of Malta until such time as the problem was brought under control...”
The seed for a documentary about hunting in Malta had already been planted, but it wasn’t until late summer 2007 that a group of birdwatchers from Yorkshire invited Steve to join them on a ‘Raptor Camp’ organised by Birdlife Malta.
“They actually suggested making a documentary before I got a chance to propose the very same idea to them myself,” he recalls.
Steve came to Malta in September that year, then again in April 2008: when the European Court issued interim orders to make sure the spring hunting season did not open for the first time ever. In a sense, it was a historic occasion which changed the local hunting landscape beyond recognition: but despite the fact that hunting was already being phased out, Steve was still taken aback by his first experience of the Maltese countryside in spring.
“The sheer scale of hunting hides and trapping sites, legal or otherwise, was the first thing that shocked me,” Steve recalls. “On arrival, my first visit was to Dingli Cliffs and I was overwhelmed by the number and density of hides that I saw all along the coast. This impression was fortified by what I saw at almost every other location I visited, such as Delimara, Mizieb, Girgenti and on Gozo.”
On closer inspection, Steve realised that the countryside itself was literally crawling with hunters. At one point in the documentary, over 20 hunters are counted over the same, tiny stretch of land close to the Dingli Cliffs.
“During the evening, gunfire would intensify as wave upon wave of birds of prey started coming in to roost,” Steve recalls of his Autumn ‘07 experience. “Although legitimate quarry species were also being shot, it was evident that many of the birds being targeted were birds of prey and large species such as herons, as the gunfire coincided with them coming in to roost...”
Out in the field, volunteers would exchange phone calls about protected species being shot down at other locations across the island. “Whilst at Nadur (Malta) we heard a report of a Black Stork heading in our direction. The bird never arrived, and a report of a Montague’s Harrier being shot down came in over the mobile. An Osprey was shot down at Buskett whilst I was filming an interview with one of the camp participants. At Laferla Cross and Girgenti, wave after wave of Honey Buzzards were being targeted as they left their roosts, or came in to roost. When a team of volunteers returned from a trip to Gozo I recorded their accounts of Flamingos being shot out at sea...”
But what shocked Steve more was the sight of a chest freezer full of protected species confiscated from hunters and taxidermists.
“Flamingos, Bitterns, Harriers, Orioles, Warblers, Kestrels, Shearwaters, Waders... Taxidermy collections containing a thousand or so birds? That shocked me!”
Much of this is recorded in Birds, Bins and Bullets, but Steve Cummings’ own perspective is curiously absent from the film. Interviews were carried out with Birdlife members, volunteers, Administrative Law Enforcement officers, journalists and at least one vet... but Steve himself does not supply any form of running commentary or narration.
He explains that the basic premise was to observe the situation through the eyes of foreign conservationists.
“In order to provide background information to the situation, I arranged interviews with various people who live and work in Malta and who could comment on some of the historical and political aspects that have given rise to the current prevailing conditions. As I did not have the resources of a professional television production company, the presenters would have to be the people in front of the camera so the documentary becomes a collection of their stories and viewpoints, rather than mine. When making a documentary such as this, the film takes on a life of its own. I knew I needed to cover various elements but I never had anything that was set in stone at the beginning. In a sense, the film directed me...”
In a sense, however, this approach also served to create an inbuilt bias – understandably, as the declared aim of the film was to expose the excesses of illegal hunting from a conservationist viewpoint. Nonetheless, the corresponding hunters’ perspective is completely missing, and the only “interviews” with hunters involve heated exchanges on the field – a fact which helps consolidate their reputation as a bunch of violent thugs.
Certainly, the birdwatchers’ close encounters with hunters make for the film’s most tense and dramatic moments.
“I had several encounters with angry, abusive hunters that mainly involved verbal abuse, and there had been threats posted on hunters forums that made me cautious. I was more concerned about having my camera damaged rather than for my own personal safety,” Steve explains. “Perhaps the scariest moment was at Kuncizzjoni, where we were surrounded by a group of angry and excited hunters all shouting and swearing at us by the edge of the cliff. But as we confronted them and engaged them in conversation, they started to calm down to a point where we could continue a rather heated discussion until the arrival of the police...”
The debate continued for a long time whilst the police observed from a distance, and it ended with the hunters apologising for shouting at us and they all shook hands and left on very good terms.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for an exchange of views between hunters and conservationists. As Pete Grice says when commenting on the event in the film, “... dialogue, not confrontation is the way forward.”
That said, much of the documentary was shot at a time when foreign activists such as the RSPB (UK) and CABS (Germany) were being accused by the hunters’ representative organisation FKNK of ‘baiting’ them into open confrontation, with a view to afterwards accusing them of resorting to violence. How does Steve respond to this kind of criticism?
“I find the FKNK’s attitude towards conservationists difficult to understand sometimes. They seem to be their own worst enemy. The last ‘K’ in FKNK is supposed to stand for conservation, but I can see no evidence of them undertaking any conservation activity of any merit; and they appear to be complicit in allowing illegal hunting of protective species to continue under a smokescreen of legitimate hunting.”
Steve also questions the wisdom of insisting on a spring hunting season for Turtle Dove, at a time when the bird will be getting to ready to breed.
“It makes no sense whatsoever, in hunting terms, to shoot or catch your quarry species during its breeding season, and many hunters seem to be in denial as to the effect that spring hunting is having on the number of Turtle Dove that they see today as compared to several years ago...”
Steve stresses that he is not a hunting abolitionist, and like the volunteers of Raptor Camp his concern was to protect birds that, after all, belong as much to Europe and Africa as to Malta.
“Millions of Euros and hundreds and thousands of volunteer hours are invested in the protection and conservation of these species, and the FKNK need to realise that they should be part of the solution rather than be part of the problem. They should be listening to the conservationists and adopting policies that will allow the continuation of legitimate hunting within a legal framework. By allowing misinformation and xenophobic comments to circulate on their website and forums, and thus within the hunting community as a whole, they themselves are causing a great deal of paranoia and distrust towards birdwatchers and conservationists amongst the hunting fraternity.”
For all this, the main difficulty encountered while shooting Birds, Bins and Bullets definitely turned out to be different and entirely unexpected.
“Getting people to speak on camera was incredibly difficult,” Steve acknowledges. “Members of the public would tell me horror stories that they would not relate on camera. Local birdwatchers did not want to be seen on camera, hunters would speak to me but would not speak on camera and some police officers did not want to be seen on camera either.”
This was not necessarily because they were shy. According to Steve, it was more because they were afraid of reprisals from that element that exists within the hunting community.
“I recorded many scenes of volunteers relating other people’s stories to camera, but none of them made it into the final film, with only one exception. Clearly, a second hand account does not carry the same authority as someone relating their firsthand experience, and as such, I left only one of these accounts in the final film...”
However, this sort of selectivity may open Steve Cummings to criticism. Of the subjects interviewed, the overwhelming majority are birdwatchers or people sympathetic to their cause. There was no one to represent the situation from the hunters’ own perspective.
Maltese hunters – be they FKNK members or otherwise – defend their unpopular hobby on the grounds that its effects on bird populations are not (they claim) nearly as dramatic as portrayed by conservationists. Hunters question the view that Malta is on the main central European flyway; they pour scorn on the figures reported by BirdLife regarding raptors shot over Malta; and above all, they argue that theirs is a “traditional way of life” that is also part of the country’s cultural identity, and as such also deserves to be defended.
One question the hunters will surely ask themselves on seeing Birds Bins and Bullets is: what gives people like Steve Cummings the right to come here and tell them what to do? Isn’t this a case of imposing one’s own value system on others?
“It is everybody’s right to stand up for conservation issues,” Steve counters. “As I said earlier, massive conservation efforts are conducted to protect some of these species within Europe, and it is a criminal offence to shoot them. We all have to recognise that fact. Many of these species were traditionally shot throughout Europe, but are now protected: Great Bustards were hunted to extinction in the UK, but now they are being re-introduced and are protected by law. It was a tradition to hunt Bald Ibis in central Europe until they became extinct in the 16th Century. They are also being re-introduced and are now protected. Any species that is in decline needs protection methods to prevent it from becoming extinct, and the hunters need to honour that...”
Steve argues that it is in the hunters’ own interest that their hobby adapts to the changing circumstances.
“Years ago, Malta, like any country, had a smaller population with fewer hunters and more birds passing through, so the impact that hunting had was not quite so significant. Other factors besides hunting will also have an effect on bird populations, including the legitimate quarry species, and many of the older generation of hunters recognise that numbers are declining, so observing a closed season in spring will benefit the hunters in the long term.”
One aspect of the hunting issue to be brought dramatically to the fore is the mismatch of resources between the hunting community, and the ALE responsible for its monitoring and control.
“Considering their limited resources, I think the ALE do a wonderful job,” Steve explains. “Twenty-eight officers to police 15,000 to 20,000 hunters and trappers? It’s not a lot really, especially considering that they are not all on duty at the same time, and they have other duties to carry out besides apprehending illegal hunters and trappers...”
Steve admits he can’t compare local statistics with those of police forces in other countries. “However, in the UK we have a dedicated Wildlife Crime Unit that was set up purely for that purpose. The nature of Wildlife Crime in the UK is very different to that in Malta. It is much harder to detect and requires a lot of undercover work and specialised equipment: resources that the ALE simply don’t have at their disposal. Setting up a specialist Wildlife Crime Unit on Malta would have real benefit in combating the problem, as would increasing the penalties for those that are caught...”
For all this, Steve – like many wildlife conservationists – is optimistic about the future of birdlife in Malta.
“I think changes are already being made for the better and the long term outlook is good. If the hunters continue to observe a spring hunting ban there will be an increase in the number of birds breeding in the Maltese islands. Coots have just bred for the first time on record, and Black-winged Stilts have made an attempt to do so. At the moment I think the biggest problems to phasing out illegal hunting is the distrust of conservationists and birdwatchers that is prevalent within the hunting community, and the attitudes and policies of the FKNK itself.”


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