Tiger tales and tricks

January 2, 2014

times

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tiger tales and tricks

 Alfred E. Baldacchino

The first time I came face to face with a tiger was in December 1989 following Malta ratification of the CITES convention ­ – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

tiger 1

Along the years tigers had started being observed on a leash in Malta: at Marsa and Marsaxlokk and also being blessed at Church functions. Rumours abounded about one in a shelter in Valletta guarding some precious things. Another tale was of a tiger in a garage kept on valium – it had grown too big and dangerous – while another was sold as a cub for an initial Lm50 but fetched Lm1,000 after changing hands a number of times. It also spent some time in the company of a politician, God bless his soul.

tiger 16

captive tigers: caged either
1) to ‘educate’ the public; or
2) to servce as a background picture to newly weds! or
3) to perform under duress; and
4) for somebody to rub his hand in satisfacion.

There was one story of two felines in a wedding hall. After Cupid had homed in on his target and the couple had tied the knot, the felines provided a memorable photo as a background to the newlyweds. What a macabre souvenir! Animal lovers who were at the wedding made angry telephone calls and wrote letters protesting about the presence of the caged felines. Despite the intervention of the forces of law and order, not a whisker was found! Funny what circus-oriented animals can do.

I remember one particular year when a circus had just landed at the Valletta quay. Enquiries about African elephants accompanying the circus returned an official reply that no elephants were seen with the troupe. Yet three elephants appeared daily on every show. I became convinced that circus animals could indeed perform tricks.

It has become a rule of thumb that when a circus comes to Malta, miraculously, a tiger gives birth. Circus tigers and their cubs are usually housed in a long trailer divided into three compartments, with the middle cage housing the paraphernalia used by the cats to jump over, under or through, during the show. I cannot imagine for a moment that elephants can hide under such paraphernalia which if they did, understandably, would make them very difficult to see.

“Another tale was of a tiger in a garage
kept on valium – it had grown
too big and dangerous”

December 2013 indeed landed a circus bonanza: this time two tigers delivered. Seems that the smell of Maltese waters induces tigers to deliver, not just in the ring. Initially it was stated that the cubs were born after they set sail. This would have ruffled some feathers because felines, being CITES and EU listed species, cannot be transported without a certificate indicating their origin, even if born in captivity.

tiger tail 1

The air was cleared when it was realised that pregnant tigers could not travel, and this adjusted the date of birth of the tiger cubs. So the onus of certification reverts to the country of origin who have now to see to the paper work when, and if, the cubs return back home as a family, all in ‘good shape’.

EU Member States have to designate customs offices to carry out the checks and formalities for the introduction of listed species, and these have to be provided with trained staff to vet the obligatory certificates before the animals leave or enter a country.

tiger 19

One thing that displaying of captive animals, even  in circuses, can never achieve: the observation of the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat.

When, during the last couple of years, felines walked through customs as easy as a walkover and started appearing in private collections, even on roof tops, the then minister responsible for animal welfare, following uproar in the press, promised regulations for the keeping and housing of exotic animals which could be dangerous to humans.

Procrastination was the name of the game, and whether this is still on the back burner or in deep freeze, is well worth knowing.

tiger paw 2

In the meantime the Animal Welfare Act (Act No. XXV of 2001) administered by the Veterinary Services, covers the monitoring of ill treatment of animals, including aggressive animals which may present a danger to the safety of man or other animals. On paper these animals shall not be bred, imported or sold in Malta.

On a positive note, there were discussions on the use of wild animals, even if captive bred, performing in circuses after the end of 2013, following strong representations by animal welfare groups. A white paper has been promised, hopefully not a paper tiger, following the collection of signatures by an objecting minority group.

This year will hopefully bring relief for captive wild animals. These will be saved the crossing from Sicily, the stress of the insular voodoo, having to deliver during transit or after landing, and the humiliation of performing to ‘educate’ clapping crowds amidst a background of rubbing hands, before returning to their crammed caged compartments.

However, one would do well to remember that one who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. A Chritmas cracker in December 2014, if delivered, can hold the answer.

 

cracker and tiger3

Best before Christmas 2014

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

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EU stand on invasive species

October 29, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

EU stand on invasive species

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The public is becoming more and more aware of invasive species, not because of any proactive educational measures or political convictions or commitments but, unfortunately, because of the invasive species’ economic, social and ecological negative impacts.

We are talking of non-indigenous or non-native species that are introduced into a region or a country. These adversely affect natural habitats, which they invade and then establish themselves. Invasive species can be either plants or animals.

The European Union defines “invasive alien species” as those species that threaten biological diversity. These species can be introduced either intentionally or accidentally.

The modern means of aerial, terrestrial and marine transport, has aided the spread of such invasive species to the extent that, today they know no boundaries. Even island-states that once had a natural barrier against such invasive species are today as susceptible to them as much as land-locked states.

The EU has as one of its main aims the free movement of goods. It also has a number of legal instruments such as directives, regulations and decisions which oblige member states to do their utmost to control invasive species. Given the free movement of goods concept, such regulations are very frail. An ad hoc committee is in fact discussing measures to be adopted in this regard.

Over the years, the importance and need to address the issue of invasive species gathered momentum on an international level following their economic, social and ecological negative impacts. Controlling invasive flora, fauna and pathogens species is a major global challenge because they are among the greatest threats to biodiversity.

dead palm trees

Dead Palm Trees – the result of the introduced invasive alien Red Palm Weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus). Most of the Palm Trees in Howard Gardens, Rabat, and others in the surrounding areas have all been killed.

Their threat to global economic health is significant, estimated at $350 billion annually. The United Kingdom annually spends £1.7 billion to control the impact of just three freshwater species: the American bull frog, the red-eared slider and the American signal crayfish. The EU spends €16 billion to control the damage of some of the invasive species established in the Community.

Social entities, whether political, scientific, environmental, conservationists, even some economical, are belatedly realising that the free movement of goods concept, and the breaking down of trade and other barriers between people and nations just for economic gain, is only benefiting the entrepreneurs while externalities, or hidden costs, are being borne by society and the environment at large.

The EU is not a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) because the parties to this convention have not yet approved an amendment for the adherence of regional economic blocks.

Despite being just an observer to this convention, the EU has its own regulations that implement CITES in the EU member states. These regulations go further than those of the convention itself because the latter’s aim is the protection of the listed species per se while those of the EU encompass, to some extent, the social or ecological impact on the environment by the imported traded species.

These EU regulations are updated from time to time and one such measure is the updating of the list that includes the suspension of trade of certain species within the Community. This list includes, among others, the red-eared slider terrapin, the painted turtle, the American bull frog and the ruddy duck.

Following the Scientific Review Group report, the EU has added three invasive species of squirrels by suspending their introduction through international trade within the Community, namely the fox squirrel, native of North America; the eastern grey squirrel, native to the eastern and mid-western United States; and the Pallas squirrel, native of South Asia.

This regulation was published in the EU official journal of August 20 and became binding on September 10 in its entirety and directly applicable in all member states, including Malta.

Malta is not spared from the negative impact of invasive species. During these last few years, these have had their negative impact on the local natural habitats and also on indigenous species. Some of these were accidentally introduced while others were intentionally released in the wild.

Levant water frog

The Levant water frog (Pelophylax bedriagae) is an intentionally alien invasive species introduced in the wild in the island of Gozo, preying on the indigenous Painted Frog (Discoglossus pictus)and other indigenous aquatic species.

Some of the established alien invasive species, and their negative impacts visible in Malta include, the red palm weevil, the geranium bronze butterfly, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the fountain grass, the Hottentots fig, the Brazilian pepper tree, the Levant water frog, the mosquito fish and the red-eared slider, the latter three intentionally introduced in the freshwater pool at San Rafflu in Gozo, from where the former is spreading. There are also others, such as land snails, whose negative impact is not yet being seen or felt.

Fountain grass

The Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) extensively used in Government Landscaping programme, in one of the latest introduced invasive species which is found growing in some valleys and also along roadways.

The present scenario with regard to invasive alien species is that while entrepreneurs cash on the profits from the sale of imported traded species, society and the environment pay for the externalities of such trade.

Geranium Bronze

The South African Geranium Bronze Butterfly (Cacyreus marshalli) is another locally invasive species introduced in 2007. It is increasing rapidly and is found both in urban areas and also in rural areas, both in Malta and also in Gozo.

SEE ALSO

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/roundabout-plants-described-as-invaders/

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/the-red-palm-weevil-another-alien-species/

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/the-introduction-of-alien-species-into-the-natural-environment-%E2%80%93-a-european-concern/


The time for the green itch

November 5, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The time for the green itch

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Every five years or so there is an itch in the air – a political itch – that intensifies at the eleventh hour. The environment is not immune to this five-year itch. In fact, the last environmental itch centred around an environmental pillar. What a noble idea, I thought! But when the itch subsided, the mass media was inundated with criticism regarding official decisions and actions not exactly having the environmental-pillar base.

These included: the discharge of treated sewage water in the sea, declared as having “no economic value”; mismanagement of Natura 2000 sites, declaring part of Dwejra “to be just bare rocks”, building adjacent to a freshwater stream of EU importance; Buskett saved by the skin of its teeth from being turned into a public garden; planting and covering substantial areas with declared invasive imported species, despite international obligations and recommendations by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority; channelling scarce resource of rainwater along roads to the sea; compliance certificates issued to buildings that do not conform to the legal requirements that each should have a cistern of a capacity of at least three cubic metres for every five square metres of the floor surface of each room; over-extraction of the already precarious groundwater; disbanding the National Sustainable Development Commission; opposing an EU proposal for the listing of the bluefin tuna on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; permitting buildings that make it impossible for neighbours to tap solar energy; negative impact of black dust politically regarded as an alien phenomenon; “cleaning” valleys by bulldozing their ecosystems… Space does not permit me to go on.

The virtual environmental-pillar was knocked out flat by the commercially-driven economic-pillar. It was not strong enough to withstand the official onslaught by those who have a collective responsibility to defend it. The environmental pillar is now dead and buried under commercially-driven decisions, perhaps at Wied il-Qasab Nadur cemetery.

Now it is time for a new itch: the green itch time. A draft National Environment Policy has been published for public consultation. What a noble idea, I think! The draft in hand encompasses legal international environmental concepts and principles, the great majority of which are already transposed in national legislation. These are juxtaposed in a colourful mosaic but, unfortunately, like all mosaics, hairline cracks abound, which, with some political acumen, can easily develop into loopholes. Some are already evident.

Such an essential document does not even have definitions of important concepts like “sustainable development”, “environment” or “precautionary principle”. International environmental legal obligations all have such definitions but do the political players have the same definitions in mind?

Some important concepts have also been mishandled. Can an environment policy disregard biodiversity as a resource? I cannot image that such omission is meant to cover the government’s stand against the listing of the bluefin tuna, an endangered international natural resource! The draft NEP lists a number of measures, all of which can definitely contribute to the sustainable use of the environment, though one comment betrays an inferiority complex.

Besides, a number of measures cannot be implemented within this legislature. Considering that some could be sitting on different seats, not necessarily of a different colour, following a musical chairs festival, one cannot exclude the possibility that such a policy will not necessarily be handled with care. The more so when some colleagues in the corridors of power do ignore national environment legislation, published over the signature of the Prime Minister himself. And the competent authority responsible for environment legislation habitually stands and stares, licking its wounds and cursing its impotency to take action.

I do, however, admire the tenacity and drive of Environment Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco but I cannot help feel that he is a lonely voice in a political wilderness, abandoned even by his environmental watchdog. A few days ago, another colourful environment document metamorphosed. This spelled guidelines for controlling alien species. A much-needed effort, though it retrospectively tackles negative economic, social and ecological impacts of introduced alien species and does not address the cause. They seem more like guidelines on how to control horses that have bolted after housing them in stables without doors.

This is why I have become very allergic to nicely-coloured printed documents that undoubtedly are attractive to the illiterate. Could be because I have not yet recovered from the decision to disband the National Sustainable Development Commission, flavoured by the now popular political dictum that one should not be judged by what one says but by what one does. These do not help at all to dispel any of my fears.

The eleventh hour is nigh. When the clock strikes one, will the environment policy slowly, silently, diplomatically, slide down in repose on the shelves of history, like the National Sustainable Development Commission did after all? National environmental legislation has been brushed aside; an environmental-pillar has been laid to rest; why not a policy? I am wishing, hoping and praying that I am wrong but I fear that Greenwich time will prove me right.


That business-as-usual stand

January 15, 2011

Saturday, 15th January 2011

That business-as-usual stand

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity was first discussed at length at the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 giving birth to the Convention on Biological Diversity, today having 193 parties. The European Union, a party to theConvention, in a 2001 summit initiated ambitious commitments agreed upon by heads of state and of government to halt the loss of biodiversity in the EU by the end of 2010. This became one of the main targets for managing and conservingnatural resources and was later endorsed by the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.To achieve such targets and put biodiversity on course to recovery, the EU, in 2006, approved a detailed action plan, aiming primarily to clarify responsibilities concerning the implementation of legislation already in place. As a sign of further support, in 2007, the UN declared 2010 as the International Year for Biological Diversity. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgentlyneeded”. Such concept was elaborated in September 2010 at a high-level meeting of the UN with the participation of heads of state and of government.

The IYB’s main aim is to raise awareness on the importance of biodiversity with a view of engaging all stakeholders for protecting life on earth, to influence decision-makers and to raise biological diversity to the top of the political agenda. Everyone has to do one’s part. It is unacceptable not to take immediate and effective action. There cannot be a new vision excluding stakeholders. Only such a broad-based partnership, commitment, cooperation, coordination andcommunication can ensure life can continue to flourish on this planet for the benefit of species, naturally including humankind. This is the only way a commitment can be acquired to reinforce the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. An evaluation report has to be submitted to the UN General Assembly in 2011.

As a member state of the CBD, the UN and the EU, Malta is bound by all these commitments. What were Malta’scontributions towards halting biodiversity loss? Apart from the official periodic educational snippets, on the line of what environmental NGOs used to do more than 40 years ago, there is little one can highlight except for the occasional declaration of a protected area without any follow-up whatsoever. On the other hand, however, there is, unfortunately, quite a long list of decisions, actions or lack of them, which not only did not contribute to the prevention of biological loss but had a completely diametrically opposite effect. Considering the source of such negative impacts on biodiversity, this shows the importance of Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business asusual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed”.

An off-the-cuff glance at some local “contributions” is a sine qua non. What comes to mind first is the number of alien invasive species that established themselves in the wild these last few years. Some have already managed to prove very costly not only economically but also ecologically and socially. Some of these introductions, albeit not all intentional but all due to lack of any foresight, include the red palm weevil, geranium bronze butterfly, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the tomato leaf miner, the Levantine water frog and about a dozen molluscs(snails) spreading from around some garden centres. Others might not have yet made an impact but when they do it will be too late for any action.

Climate change increases additional costs to control IAS. Britain spends £1.7 billion a year and EU costs amount to about €12 billion. No official figures are available for Malta despite the fact that IAS’s negative impacts are becoming more widespread. And the importation of flora and fauna, the main carriers of IAS,  goes on without any hindrance at all,  except, perhaps, for a phytosanitary/veterinary certificate on which some IAS have travelled.

More of a concern is the fact that the authority responsible to control and eliminate such IAS hinted at the possible intoxication of a fresh water pool to eliminate an alien frog in eco- Gozo. Much the same like advice from Josef Fritzl on how to protect children from sex abuse!

Still very unfortunate were development permits (none related to the management of the areas) issued inside EU Natura 2000 sites. A quick recollection reveals Mistra, Baħrija, and Dwejra – again in eco-Gozo. And, naturally, Buskett, another Natura 2000 site, saved by the skin of its teeth from becoming a public garden where, possibly, pansies and geraniums would have joined the numbers of IAS at this site.The business-as-usual stand adopted by Malta in international fora on the listing of the bluefin tuna in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of  Wild Flora and Fauna and against adjusted quotas, both raised within the EU, is perhaps the cherry on the IYB’s cake.  Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed” seem specifically coined for the political fraternity.

The year 2010 has come and gone and with it a number of species of wild flora and fauna, which either gave up the ghost in the year of deliverance or else have been pushed to the brink of doing so. The target date has now been extended to 2020. By that time, today’s actors’ names will be engraved in stone – as a reminder of who was accountable for preventing biodiversity loss by 2010.


In search of tiger’s documents

January 11, 2010

Tuesday, 15th September 2009

Talking Point

In search of tiger’s documents

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Following the red palm weevil, the Geranium bronze butterfly and other alien species, which got a foothold on these islands, now a Bengal tiger has surfaced on a rooftop! Without doubt, this felid was brought to Malta, either imported from a country outside the European Union or transported from one of the EU member states.

The Bengal tiger hunts medium to large prey such as wild pigs, deer, antelopes and buffalo. This second largest wild big cat can reach a length of three metres from head to tail and weigh about 250 kilogrammes. It can jump a horizontal leap of 10 metres and a vertical jump of five metres. It is estimated that there are fewer than 3,000 wild Bengal tigers, each having a minimum territory of 20 square kilometres.

Because of widespread illegal trade in wild animals and plants, which, incidentally, is second only to international drug trafficking, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) came into force in 1973. The Bengal tiger is listed in the convention’s Appendix I, which includes the most endangered animals and plants threatened with extinction. International trade in such species is prohibited. In exceptional cases trade may take place provided it is authorised by the granting of both an import permit and an export permit. This means that:

If the Bengal tiger was legally imported from outside the EU, the Maltese Cites management authority, which is Mepa, had to issue an import permit after the scientific authority had given its advice that the import will not be detrimental to the species involved. An importation and export permit from country of origin had to be surrendered to Mepa.

If the Bengal tiger was transported to Malta from within the EU, then two EU wildlife trade regulations, (EC) 338 of 1997 and (EC) 865 of 2006, which implement the provision of Cites, come in play. The object of these regulations is to protect species of wild fauna and flora and to guarantee their conservation by regulation trade therein. The introduction into the Community of specimens of the species listed in Cites Appendix I is subject to the completion of the necessary checks and the prior presentation of documents at the border Customs office at the point of introduction, which member states have designated and notified the EU and Cites secretariat accordingly.

If the Bengal tiger was imported legally, then Mepa, which is the management authority both for Cites and also for the EU regulations, should have all the documents at its finger tips. If it does not have any, then the Bengal tiger was imported into Malta, and into the EU, illegally.

The importation and exportation of wild flora and fauna is not just the responsibility of Mepa, which is just concerned with the ecological aspect. Nonetheless, the importation of living species can have a social and an economical negative impact, something the local administrative entitles are finding it so difficult to apprehend. Poisonous species like snakes and spiders are of concern to the Ministry for Social Policy, responsible for health. Dangerous animals, like felids, chimpanzees and also reptiles, also fall within the wing of the ministry responsible for veterinary services.

The Veterinary Service Act designates a “border inspection post” for carrying out veterinary inspections by veterinary officers on imported live animals. The EU and Cites both have been notified of these specific posts. This means that the Bengal tiger had to enter Malta through one of these designated posts, accompanied not only by the Cites/EU documentation but also by a veterinary health certificate issued by the country of origin. The Animal Welfare Act, administered by the veterinary services within the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs, is also responsible for the monitoring of ill treatment of animals and aggressive animals that may present a danger to the safety of man or other animals and which are classified as such by the minister. These animals shall not be bred, imported or sold in Malta.

In another section of the press, the Director of Animal Welfare is reported as having said that the Bengal tiger is being taken good care of, has an air-conditioned room, is fed chickens and there are no indications that it has bothered anyone from the surroundings. Yet, no mention has been made of any veterinary health certificate that had to be surrendered to the veterinary services at the border inspection post, more important as felids are included in the Fourth Schedule of the Veterinary Service Act.

So while a search for the importation and veterinary documents is being conducted, the Bengal tiger is comfortably in an airconditioned room, eating chickens. And during such search for the legal documents, will it come of age and start searching for a mate? Will it do the Houdini act? When pigs can fly in Malta, why cannot their predator fly too? Will it be infected by some endemic virus and be eaten by rats overnight? Time will tell. In the meantime, the search from all sides goes on. But the most important question, considering the above legal provisions, is: But how on earth did such a blessed tiger manage to surface on an urban rooftop?

aebaldacchino@gmail.com