Screwed up: Hunting enforcement below standard, as no one is held accountable for last year’s killing of White Storks

June 6, 2019 3:53 pm

A hunter from Dingli was today acquitted from the charges involving the killing of White Storks in last year’s massacre despite footage presented as evidence in court showing both the highly-protected birds being shot down and also a person holding a carcass. The court presided by Magistrate Astrid May Grima, however, freed the hunter on the grounds that he was not identifiable from the video footage, and also because no White Stork carcass was found in his possession.

James Magri, accused of killing White Storks on 10th August 2018, is freed of charges involving White Stork killing, yet is fined for shooting out of season

It was on 10th August 2018 when a flock of 18 White Storks landed in Malta. Within minutes of their arrival there were shots at them over Rabat and Dingli. A cyclist who was in the area at the time filmed the whole incident on his action camera, and called BirdLife Malta and police. The cyclist filmed the whole action which involved at least two storks being killed and, soon after, he also caught on film an individual running with a dead stork in his hand, before entering a property in the area.

Picture taken from the video evidence presented in court

Whilst BirdLife Malta was on site in a few minutes, on that fateful evening the police did not turn up until one hour and a half later, despite our continuous calls for assistance. An off-duty inspector turned up later and retrieved one of the two dead storks.

Investigations ensued only on the following days with James Magri identified by the Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) police unit as a suspect, from owning property in the area, and from the video footage provided.

In court hearings, two persons who accompanied James Magri on the day recalled how he had disappeared with his gun after the storks were sighted, and how he was later seen agitated and called upon one of them saying “Għaxxaqtha!”, meaning “I screwed up!”.

The cyclist, who had taken all the footage with a bicycle-mounted camera, had testified in court that he had stopped to photograph the storks after spotting them: “By the time I got off the bike one of them flew off. I heard some shots and saw some birds go down. When I turned the corner, I saw a man running with a shotgun in one hand and a bird in the other.”

One of the two White Storks gunned down in Dingli (August 2018). The other stork was filmed but never retrieved (Photo by Nik Barbara)

Despite all the above, the court – on the basis of the arguments by the  defence – ruled that the culprit is not identifiable from the video footage, and no White Stork carcass was found in his possession. James Magri was therefore not found guilty of the White Stork killing charge. On the other hand he was sentenced with a fine of €3,500 and had his hunting licence suspended for two years and his shotgun confiscated, after having admitted to having used his shotgun on the day.

In contrast to the outcry from the general public, back in August the hunting lobby had reacted to the massacre with a statement in which it blamed the European Commission and the European Court of Justice for these illegalities, hinting that this is what can be expected when their lobby doesn’t get what they want. This was in clear reference to the ECJ verdict which brought to an end finch trapping in Malta.

On the sentence delivered today, BirdLife Malta Conservation Manager Nicholas Barbara stated: “This sentence depicts the sorry state of enforcement Malta is currently facing, and results from inadequate police resources dedicated to wildlife crime. On the day of the incident two staff members of BirdLife Malta were quicker than the police to reach the place of the incident, after they themselves took to actively chase the storks for fear they would get shot.  Video footage voluntarily collected by a cyclist has been crucial in identifying the culprit in question and bringing to light the incident. Yet on the day, police were nowhere to be found, up until the off-duty ALE inspector had to himself show up, losing precious time during which the culprit could be caught red-handed or in possession of the carcass.”

Dead White Stork (Dingli, August 2018) Photo by Nik Barbara

This situation also goes to show that unless there are reports from NGOs and volunteers – no one would be even taken to court. In fact, despite the assistance of the public in the days that followed, all 18 storks perished and no one was held accountable. It also shows that enforcement authorities including the helpless Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU) are not equipped to actively prevent such incidents or to be able to prosecute without the assistance of the public or NGOs.

In the current situation, where such incidents will continue happening, it is the Government’s responsibility to live up to its task to protect wildlife and prevent such crimes from happening again. We remind Parliamentary Secretary Clint Camilleri that the Ornis Committee has unanimously approved the need that a Wildlife Crime Unit is setup, and call on him to put into action such a plan, with the collaboration of the Minister for police. Following the incidents of the storks from last year, the only move made by Camilleri was a relaxation of the rabbit hunting legislation which opens the possibility for more of such incidents – hunters out unchecked during a period when ALE are occupied with other duties as was the case last August!

Read the Maltese version of the press release here.

Video evidence presented in court – unpublished to date – showing the White Storks being shot down and a person holding a carcass (Original footage by Joseph Psaila)