THE ANNUAL bird-shooting season starts this weekend, when about 1,500 Jamaicans will pack their coolers with ice, shoulder their shotguns and head for "bird bush".
They (and their young children) will be dressed in boots and camouflage kit (looking everything like jungle guerrilla warriors when you encounter them), taking up inconspicuous positions in forests and wetlands across Jamaica below known bird flight paths (between nesting and feeding areas), the better to shoot them on the wing as they fly overhead.
Hunting in Jamaica used to be much less regulated. In his Handbook prepared for distribution at the Chicago Exhibition of 1897, Lt. Col. Charles James Ward, C.M.G., (1837-1913), Custos of Kingston, and the nephew in J. Wray and Nephew Ltd., writes that there were only seven species of Jamaican birds and a few migratory species which could be legally hunted (gamebirds): the blue pigeon, bald pate and white wing (which could only be shot from September 1 to February 28 annually) and the white belly, partridge, peadove and ring-tail pigeon (which could only be hunted between July 26 and February 28); migratory duck and teal could be hunted during the winter months, the only time when they are seen. In addition, crocodiles and wild hogs were regularly hunted.
Colonel Ward waxed lyrical in 1897 describing the hunt: "Exceedingly pleasant are these morning excursions when, starting from your home before daylight, you watch the grey morning light flicker up, and see the first red streak of the coming sunset aglow the eastern sky, and breathe the dewey freshness that everything exhales in this, the sweetest hour of the whole day's round.
And when you have got into position, how your nerves tingle at the cry of 'mark' as a plump baldpate comes whizzing along overhead; and how satisfying the crack of the gun and the thud that follows it, as your first bird falls headlong, a crumpled heap of feathers".
Hunting in those days was not a sustainable sport. Colonel Ward describes the ring-tail pigeon as "the most delicious of all", and hunters were so successful at killing them that they became endangered, and have been removed from the list of birds which may be legally hunted. Also successfully hunted such that their wild populations became critically low, were the blue pigeon, partridge, duck and teal, and they are now also forbidden to hunters.
So that the populations of the remaining gamebird species should not also became critically low, such that they also be placed under the ban such that eventually hunting might not be banned altogether the Wildlife Protection Act was passed in 1945 regulating hunting in Jamaica. Even so, the gamebird population fell so low 20 years later that a moratorium on hunting had to be introduced. Sustainability is indeed difficult to achieve and maintain, especially when some do not co-operate!
The present regulations ban shooting in 17 game reserves and several forest reserves throughout the island. In addition, many landowners refuse to give permission for shooting to take place on their property, making it illegal to hunt there. The legal hunting season has been reduced to about 60 hours per year in 18 sessions, running over six weeks. Shooting is allowed only on Saturdays and Sundays: between sunrise and 9 a.m., and 2.30 p.m. and sunset on Saturdays, and only the morning session on Sundays.
Only four species may now be hunted (white-winged dove, bald-pate, peadove and long-tailed pea dove) and the total number of gamebirds which may be shot by each hunter (bag limit) is also restricted. The bald-pate is the most endangered gamebird, and if that is the only bird hunted, only 15 per session are allowed. The limit per session for each of the others is 20 if that is the only gamebird hunted.
So that the species may be more easily identified by patrolling wardens, while in the field, the complete set of feathers on one wing must be left in place. Last year 136,802 gamebirds were reported killed by about 1,400 hunters, fewer than in 2001.Þ Age studies on a sample showed that most were under six months old.
I believe that it is possible for bird hunting to be sustainable in Jamaica (such that bird population levels remain steady year after year) if only the shooting dates and times and the bag limits were obeyed by every hunter. Let me say at the outset that most of the hunters that I know are very conscientious about their sport: they want their children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy hunting for decades to come, and they seek to conserve not only the birds but also their wetland and forest habitats. The world over, some of the most avid environmentalists are hunters.
But equally true is the sad fact that there are unscrupulous hunters who shoot outside the hunting season, start shooting before sunrise, continue to shoot after 9 a.m., and who grossly exceed the bag limit, and who pluck all the feathers from their birds making identification (and prosecution) a little more difficult. As a game warden myself for nearly 10 years I have seen the whole range of breaches. It is a rare morning as I travel toward the shooting stands about 5 a.m. that I do not hear the crack of shotguns - jumping the gun. And so on.
I have also seen birds break cover attracting a fusillade of shots, none of which hit the mark.
This year the enforcement effort to ensure that the hunting regulations are obeyed will be the biggest and the most organised ever. More police officers and more game wardens than ever before will be involved, and they have been better trained. This year, each hunter received at the time they purchased their Hunter's Permit, a hunter's handbook containing all the regulations, maps of all the game reserves, and clear field guides allowing them to easily distinguish gamebirds from other wild birds. This year for the first time, the excuse that "I didn't know" won't hold water.
Those who really love hunting should be the first to adhere to the regulations, so that their sport can have a future. Lawbreakers: beware!
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and is executive director of an environment and development NGO.