Conservation and Society

: 2021  |  Volume : 19  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 202--203

Hunting in Malta: Illuminating a Dark Corner of European Politics of Conservation

Frédéric Keck 
 CNRS (Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale), Paris, France

Correspondence Address:
Frédéric Keck
CNRS (Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale), Paris

How to cite this article:
Keck F. Hunting in Malta: Illuminating a Dark Corner of European Politics of Conservation.Conservat Soc 2021;19:202-203

How to cite this URL:
Keck F. Hunting in Malta: Illuminating a Dark Corner of European Politics of Conservation. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jan 24 ];19:202-203
Available from:

Full Text

This book is modestly presented by its author as “an ethnography of hunting and conservation in what bird protectionists widely regard as one of the darkest corners (Malta) of a black spot (the Mediterranean) for migrating birds” (p. 2). Mark-Anthony Falzon, who teaches social anthropology at the University of Malta, succeeds in convincing his reader that what happens in this small territory is of the utmost importance for the future of conservation and that the Mediterranean Sea is an exotic place where relations between humans and birds find complex and entangled forms.

A group of islands covering 360 km2, Malta is the smallest member state of the European Union and one of the most densely populated. It also situated on the central Mediterranean route favored by more than 120 migratory bird species which compose a major part of the 400 species recorded in Malta. These two characteristics make Malta a target of the European governance of conservation. Indeed, the EU recently passed regulations to control the traditional practice of bird hunting in the islands, and supported the claims of birdwatchers on the contribution of hunters to the decrease of several migrating species.

Mark-Anthony Falzon confesses that, although he feels more sympathy for environmentalists, he had to side with both groups who observe birds either through binoculars or through guns. Following the ethnographic method which takes “the native's point of view” as well as the material culture method, the author describes how technologies orient the perception of the world. In order to take the perspective of hunters on birds, he starts from the local idiom of namra which describes the passion for bird hunting as a substance that is transmitted in the blood between males over generations, and that is common to humans and dogs. Yet he notices that namra is not an irrational drive but rather an intentional emotion regulated by social practices, as is revealed by the discourse on the efforts made by those who engage in this activity (delizzju) such as getting up early, learning the technologies of trapping or following the seasonal changes of migrations. This idea of a self-restrained man, conveyed by the term gabra, (analysed p. 62), is constitutive of the traditional view of the Maltan rural inhabitant who hunt birds for food, by contrast with aristocrats who catch birds for specimens.

Falzon then narrates the history of bird conservation in Malta, starting with the creation of the Malta Ornithological Society in 1962, two years before the independence of the former British colony (the first members were Maltese teachers and British expatriates). In 1996, it changed its name to Bird Life Malta to reflect its partnership with Bird Life International and its insertion in global networks of conservation. Its attacks on bird hunting as a cause of bird extinction led to the creation of the National Association of Trappers and Hunters in 1973. Hunters used the term “ national “ to criticise the international image of birdwatchers, and pretended to have a better knowledge about conservation; their association was later renamed Federation of Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists (FKNK). While environmentalists used images of dead birds to show the damages of hunting, hunters replied that these dead birds had been conserved on a “ BirdLife freezer “ and defrosted to take valued pictures.

While taking part in these two opposite groups, Falzon observes how they talk about each other, and describes their conflicts on contested places and landscapes where they meet over migrating birds. While hunters value their sense of “ being there “ and their knowledge of the sites where birds can be found, they paradoxically plant eucalyptus, a foreign fast-growing tree, to attract birds in deforested lands, which bird conservationists criticise as a sign that hunters do not have a sense of natural landscapes. Hunters and conservationists are also opposed in the transformation of land by surveillance. While birdwatchers use cameras to photograph not only birds but also hunters, hunters refuse to have their pictures broadcast by conservationists because of their claim over the land. In 2017, Bird Life Malta was thus charged with trespassing over a private land after the BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham showed images of hunters, but the court cleared them of all charges because hunters could not show evidence that they had rights over the land (p. 157). A hunter confesses to the anthropologist “It's my private land, why should I have drones flying over and cameras pointing at me?” “What if I decide to share a moment with my wife here?” (p. 167) In the absence of a natural reserve dedicated to conservation, the whole territory of Malta becomes a contested site where claims of ownership and belonging are counter-balanced by technologies of surveillance.

The last chapter of the book describes how these contested claims between hunters and conservationists are arbitraged using numbers, which displaces contestation at a more administrative level. Birdwatchers are trained in producing numbers of birds and were successful in popularising the figure of three million birds shot in Malta every year, produced by Natalino Fenech's Fatal Flight in 1992. Hunters replicated this with other figures showing that threatened species such as the turtle dove had declined much more in Europe than in Russia and argued that the migrating birds in Malta came from these two areas. They concluded that bird hunting in Malta is a sustainable harvest on populations of birds affected by other environmental changes than hunting, such as pollution or urbanisation. As Malta joined the European Union in 2004, Maltese politicians convinced hunters that this membership would not alter their practice, despite the EU regulation on hunting. Consequently, they asked for a derogation permitted by the EU Bird Directive for the “ judicious use of certain birds in small numbers “ (quoted p. 191). Falzon calls “ enumerative modality “ the technique of government by numbers required by the EU and adopted by Malta's administration: “ a whole industry developed that sought to define 'small' for each species affected by derogations and effectively make the case for sustainable hunting. “ (p. 192). Negotiations between hunters and conservationists were brought to the court on the numbers of birds allowed for killing in hunting seasons, and hunters self-reported their killings through text messages. While this involvement of hunters in the politics of numbers leads to massive under-reporting, it also flattens incompatible views on the morality of killing birds through an administrative procedure.

This book convincingly uses the anthropology of hunters and conservationists, following the works of Bertrand Hell, Garry Marvin, Kay Milton and Anna Tsing, to reflect on the paradoxical situation of Malta, an island where “ birds of passage “ have become objects of conflicting views on what belonging and protecting mean. Hunters, far from the traditionalistic men described in the accusations of conservationists, have used technological innovations to paradoxically support a sustainable attachment to birds migrating in the spring and autumn season, combining guns and laptops in their watching and trapping activities. Falzon shows how the national, European, and international scales of governance change the passionate attachment of his informants to the islands and those who pass through them, by studying the regulation of killing activities.

One may regret that these paradoxical conceptions of migrating animals are never paralleled with the treatment of migrating humans, particularly since Malta is on the route of migrants seeking economic and political refuge in Europe. Of course, migrants are not the objects of the book, as the author focuses on technologies to perceive birds, but it reveals that the research was not attentive to all beings composing the environment, and the capacity of birds, as both migratory and resident animals, to metaphorically represent these beings. In Hong Kong, where I studied collaborations between birdwatchers and virologists, birds were clearly described as metaphors of the condition of Hong Kong citizens as residents and migrants in an endangered ecology. Malta could be compared to Hong Kong in a role of sentinel post for the surveillance of bird migrations, where the recent increase in the population has led to the modernisation of hunters' competences, and where financial speculation also influences the way birdwatchers count birds and speculate on their future. The author was interested by the position of Malta at different scales of the European governance rather than by its position in Europe's geopolitics. However, he succeeds in showing that a “dark corner” of European politics of conservation is an illuminating place to study politics of conservation.