It would be an understatement to say that the Maltese are fond of hunting.
The trio of small islands in the Mediterranean south of Sicily has one of the world's highest densities of hunters. Some 60,000 firearms are registered in the nation of about 375,000. Roughly 1 in 10 Maltese men goes hunting or trapping during the year, (women are largely not part of the culture), and the sportsmen's lobby wields influence that might make the US National Rifle Association jealous.
But what the Maltese love to hunt is birds, some of them endangered, and as Malta negotiates a membership in the European Union it may have to crack down on the traditional pastime to achieve its goal.
"Each year, 3 million birds are killed or trapped on Malta while migrating between Europe and North Africa," says John Borg, warden of one of Malta's two wild-bird preserves.
Such activities, he says, are leading to an increase in the island nation's rodent population and to a gradual decline in beloved European bird populations, who traditionally seek refuge on Malta's rocky coast.
Hunters have all but destroyed the country's namesake: the Maltese falcon. Hunters on the island of Gozo shot the last pair of nesting Maltese falcons, also known as peregrine falcons, in 1982.
Their deaths brought a foreboding close to a tradition that began in 1530, when the Spanish emperor gave control of Malta to the knights of the Order of St. John in exchange for the annual payment of one live falcon.
Malta became an independent nation in 1964, after 150 years of British rule. Lacking in natural resources and struggling to make a name for itself in the European marketplace, Malta is looking to join the EU by 2003.
But a report released in February by the European Commission, the EU's ruling body, states that "important efforts" will have to take place to bring Malta into line with the Birds Directive. Under the terms of the 20-year-old directive, Malta would have to ban all wild-bird trapping and significantly shorten its hunting season.
Currently, Malta allows hunting of seven varieties of wild birds and is the only European nation that permits hunting during the spring mating season.
Thousands of goldfinches, greenfinches, bullfinches, and linnets are routinely trapped in giant homemade nets in the Maltese countryside. It is not uncommon for robins, sparrows, and the occasional bee eater to be illegally trapped as well.
Many of the birds are sold at the marketplace in Valletta, the capital. Others are kept in cramped cages or live in lavish private aviaries, which can sometimes encompass two or three rooms of family homes. Larger birds, such as herons and owls, also are regularly shot by hunters, often in an effort to enlarge private collections.
"The rarer, the more colorful the bird, the better," says one bird collector, who agreed to show his "small" collection of 150 birds, but refused to give his name.
It is technically illegal to kill large birds of prey, as well as exotic African birds, on Malta. But antipoaching laws are about as difficult to enforce as antispeeding laws, says Lino Farrugia, spokesman for the Hunting and Trapping Federation of Malta.
"We do what we can to help enforce the law ... but there are bad people in every country," he says.
Vincent Gauci, acting director of Malta's Environmental Protection Agency, is charged with cleaning up Malta's bird policy, and, in turn, its reputation among European neighbors. "The government of Malta wants to conform to EU regulations, whether that will take one month, or whether it will take 10 years," Mr. Gauci says. "But," he adds, "any measure that contemplates a change of culture will be hard and necessarily must be implemented over ... a reasonable time frame. You cannot expect a change of culture to be carried out overnight."
Mr. Farrugia argues that the Maltese government and the EU shouldn't fight hunting and trapping at all. "Those are the traditions for which we have fought. We are not prepared to budge an inch." On Farrugia's side is an impressive lobby. The outcome of the last three national elections has hinged on the hunters' votes.
Trapper Frans Camailleri says, "I think this is a hobby, a part of life, on Malta. It was a way of life for my father and my grandfather. On Malta, we don't have large game, we don't have forests, we don't even have rivers. But we have the birds."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society