This contribution is from Mike Wood, the Knysna author of Warm Heart. He asks that you please spread this post and help avert an avian disaster. If you’re South African bird lover, you can start by joining Birdlife SA.
Ebola, mass Mexican student murders, rapes of toddlers in South Africa (not an Africa-wide phenomenon and thus pointing to a specific sickness in SA society), ISIS massacres, religious intolerance, the aftermath of Israel’s over-the-top aggression in Gaza, Russia’s theft of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine, the state of global banking… the list seems endless.
Against the background of these multiple crises, it’s easy to forget the continuing assault on nature.
The scandalous extent of rhino poaching here in SA has recently been eclipsed by news from Tanzania – a country that has a strong tourism dependency – that in the last five years, its elephant population has plummeted from 177,000 to fewer than 55,000. They’re butchering more than three a day in their lust for easy money. As ever, the implacable Chinese are implicated. Driving the demand, paying the poachers, profiting hugely from the plunder of African natural resources. Those of us who care, feel helpless, don’t we? We don’t even complain to our politicians any more. The pricks wouldn’t answer your letter even if you did.
When you’re incensed by some or all of the ‘big issues’ listed above, you may be unlikely to consider very much, a few ounces of flesh and feathers that attempt a remarkable migration every year from Europe to Southern Africa, and then back again. Beautiful bee-eaters, dainty avocets, plovers of various shapes and sizes, terns, falcons, godwits, acrobatic martins, swallows, swifts, and all the wonderful little song birds like the warblers, which even if unseen, are capable of making us feel good about life, just because we heard them.
But something is wrong, very wrong.
Bird populations around the globe, and particularly migrants, are suffering huge and unsustainable losses, pushing many to the brink of extinction. In absolute terms that means extinguishing multiple avian species before our own lives come to an end. It’s an awful thought and shocking reality that this will be the present generation’s legacy. Something for which children as yet unborn will remember us. For in all likelihood, a child which comes into the world 2020 will never hear the call of a Common Cuckoo, a Mistle Thrush or a Willow Warbler . He or she will never see the crazy looking flight of lapwings over ploughed fields. All will be gone unless drastic corrective action is taken. Right now. There can be no room for lethargy.
For those who have not seen it, I commend to you the Aljazeera Witness documentary entitled ‘Emptying the Skies.‘ It will sadden you to watch it, but it is compulsive viewing. Every year, and I do not use this numerical term lightly, BILLIONS (think about it) of migrating birds are killed by tossers who describe themselves as hunters, while the birds make their perilous passage across the Mediterranean. The following is an extract from Jonathon Franzen’s essay (also entitled Emptying the Skies) – the full text is here:
‘The Republic of Malta, which consists of several densely populated chunks of limestone with collectively less than twice the area of (Washington DC) is the most savagely bird-hostile place in Europe. There are twelve thousand registered hunters (about three per cent of the country’s population), a large number of whom consider it their birthright to shoot any bird unlucky enough to migrate over Malta, regardless of the season or the bird’s protection status. The Maltese shoot bee-eaters, hoopoes, golden orioles, shearwaters, storks, and herons. They stand outside the fences of the international airport and shoot swallows for target practice. They shoot from urban rooftops and from the side of busy roads. They stand in closely spaced cliffside bunkers and mow down flocks of migrating hawks. They shoot endangered raptors, such as lesser spotted eagles and pallid harriers, that governments farther north in Europe are spending millions of euros to conserve. Rarities are stuffed and added to trophy collections; non-rarities are left on the ground or buried under rocks, so as not to incriminate their shooters. When bird-watchers in Italy see a migrant that’s missing a chunk of its wing or its tail, they call it “Maltese plumage.”’
Here is another:
Italy is a long, narrow gauntlet for a winged migrant to run. Poachers in Brescia, trap a million songbirds annually for sale to restaurants offering pulenta e osei—polenta with little birds. The woods of Sardinia are full of wire snares, the Venetian wetlands are a slaughtering ground for wintering ducks, and Umbria, the home of St. Francis, has more registered hunters per capita than any other region. Hunters in Tuscany pursue their quotas of woodcock and wood pigeon and four legally shootable songbirds, including song thrush and skylark; but at dawn, in the mist, it’s hard to distinguish legal from illegal quarry, and who’s keeping track anyway? To the south, in Campania, much of which is controlled by the Camorra (the local mafia), the most inviting habitat for migratory waterfowl and waders is in fields flooded by the Camorra and rented to hunters for up to a thousand euros a day; songbird wholesalers from Brescia bring down refrigerated trucks to collect the take from small-time poachers; entire Campanian provinces are blanketed with traps for seven tuneful European finch species, and flush Camorristi pay handsomely for well-trained singers at the illegal bird markets there. Farther south, in Calabria and Sicily, ….. poachers ……. will shoot anything that flies.
Countries like Malta, Cyprus and Italy deserve the strongest condemnation for allowing this wholesale slaughter to perpetuate. Members of the EuropeanUnion, they are supposed to abide by legislation designed to protect migrating birds. But the EU is a toothless giant which prefers to impose its might on those who would dare to make a tasty sausage variety which does not have Commission imposed ingredients. Or in crushing the life out of the Cornwall and Devon apple industry. Bastard Brussels dimwits.
So what are we who care, to do? Short of joining the activists who bravely challenge ‘hunters’ in Situ and often experience violence perpetrated against them by people defending their ‘custom’ to kill, it seems we will have to rely on the lobbying strengths of valued organisations like the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection for Birds (one million members including me) and Birdlife whose struggling South African branch only has a few thousand members.
Come on guys. Take a stand. Get subscribed. It might be the most precious and crucial contribution you make to nature in your entire life. A subscription to Birdlife SA costs only R420 and includes six issues of their fantastic African Birdlife magazine. Don’t just turn the page, or say to yourself ‘tomorrow. I’ll do it then. Please, take your stand now.