by Maya Farrugia & Shana D’Anastasi
When we talk about endangered wildlife, very often we talk of endemic species which are geographically constrained to one particular place, often islands. Humans have pushed more than a handful of animals to this state of being in danger of extinction through hunting and habitat loss.
Renowned for hunting at night, the barn owl or “Barbagann” is usually about 24cm in length. Barn owls are not found in the wild in Malta anymore, and they can only be admired in specific reserves and organizations. Some people also keep barn owls as pets, and so last February, a project was launched in a farm in Buskett, to breed and raise barn owls to be eventually released into the wild. This will hopefully re-establish the barn owl population in the wild. Another measure which was taken is that rodenticide which is poison to kill rats and mice will no longer be in use since the birds feed on mice in Buskett, and then eventually die. This was also in the newspapers. On the 15th of May 2018, The times of Malta published an article called “FKNK’s barn owl re-introduction project well under way” and on the 25th of May 2018 maltatoday had a similar one called: “Owl righty then! Buskett gets ready for the return of the barbagann. We were so intrigued by this idea that we had to go and see these owls and snap some beautiful photos of them!
Overhunting causes harm to the population of a species. People hunt for many reasons such as vanity, sport and survival without realising the impact they have had on the species of an animal. Due to illegal hunting a total of 11 birds have fallen victim during the autumn hunting season in 2018, 96 protected birds have been shot dead, an increase of 14 from 2017. This sort of hunting does not give the bird time to breed and thus the decline in numbers continues.
The Blue Rock Thrush. “il-Merill” is Malta’s national bird, although this species has quite an extensive range across the world. The overall human interference has pushed the species mainly to the sea-cliff habitats. In the early years of the last century its population in Malta was already showing a very marked decrease. Although protected by law, the young are still frequently taken illegally from any accessible nests to raise in captivity, which is the main reason for this dramatic decrease. In Malta, the hedgehog is considered quite rare because its numbers have been diminishing by urban encroachment and dogs, but mainly being squashed to death in roads by vehicles.
Overfishing also contributes to the loss of species. Some fish like the grouper take more than six years to be able to have young, therefore, catching this fish at a young age is interrupting the life cycle. However, it is not just over fishing and over-hunting that causes this. One major pollutant is plastic which takes over 50 years to break down. Some animals like Sea turtles and seabirds eat plastic because they mistake it for their actual food.
No wonder the Sea Turtle’s numbers are on the decline. There are other reasons too. These include: accidental trapping and entanglement in fishermen’s long lines and nets, getting caught on hooks while eating fishing bait as the hooks and lines cause infections that may lead to a cruel death and also ingestion of plastics bags, eaten by Sea Turtles who mistake them for jellyfish. Strikes from boat propellers, coastal development and destruction of nesting beaches are other reasons as are destruction of feeding habitats and insensitive touristic development.
The Maltese Freshwater Crab is endemic to certain areas within the Maltese Islands and is found at Baħrija, Mtaħleb, San Martin and Lunzjata Valley (Gozo), where running water is present all year round. Protected by law, this subspecies of crab is very rare and its numbers have been decreasing in recent years due to drying up or pollution of the springs it lives in or capture by humans. But we were lucky enough to manage to see one and take a photo of it, during one of our country walks!
Similarly, the freshwater Painted Frog, the only Maltese amphibian with a colour which varies from olive-green to grey, is trapped to keep at home as pets and of course this prevents the frog from living in its natural habitat and reproducing.
Another contributor to the decline of animals in Malta is the building industry where fertile land and habitat is being lost to be used for construction. Many species in our world today are becoming endangered because of the loss of their main habitat, and this is also the case in Malta. Pesticides and chemicals used for farming are also contributing to the death of many animals. This has a twofold effect, those that die by coming directly in contact with the poison and others that feed on the poisoned animal. Even though the use of pesticides with farmers is now being controlled, chemicals that have been used over the past years are still present in the environment and also in the water table and will take a lot of years to go away. In the meantime, their effect will keep on being felt. Malta is a small island, animals in the wild are limited, so, it is such a pity that we might lose some of them forever. We should do our best to respect nature and educate the public in order to be more careful with wildlife, so that future generations can enjoy them too!