Monday, July 1, 2013

Barry, D. (2013) Concern over ‘responsible’ ownership of exotic animals

The Malta Independent. June 24th: 2

DUNCAN BARRY speaks to the co-founders of the Malta Herpetological Society, Arnold Sciberras and Chris McGowan, who have expressed concerns over the lack of specialised knowledge of some owners and in the private business sector in the upkeep and trading of exotic animals imported to Malta. In a bid to raise awareness, the society’s representatives have embarked on a campaign to protect the health of exotic animals, maintain public safety and the country’s ecological integrity.

The Malta Herpetological Society – founded this year to promote the scientific study and conservation of local wild herpetofauna and education for the responsible ownership of herps and related animals – expressed concerns over the “responsible” ownership of exotic animals imported to Malta, pointing out that the upkeep and trading of exotic animals entails much more than one may think.

According to the society, those seeking these unusual animals cannot ignore the threats these animals may face as a result of poor knowledge.

Mr Sciberras and Mr McGowan said one of the society’s main concerns is that exotic animals being imported to Malta are in some rare instances being released into Maltese wildlife, ending up alien to the environment, the result: a negative effect on local biodiversity and greatly decreasing the animal’s chances of survival.

The two also said that some of those owning or trading in reptiles or amphibians don’t always have the proper knowledge on how to treat such animals while more awareness needed to be raised among the public in general to highlight that reptiles don’t necessarily pose a risk to humans.

Their calls follow a number of incidents that hit headlines involving exotic animals imported to Malta, mainly referring to the case of ‘Skittles’, the five-foot Rainbow Boa that went missing last year and had been found dead near the Junior College in Msida.

Mr Sciberras also referred to another case, this time involving an imported frog which was dumped in Gozo back in 2004 and since then believes has contributed to the destruction of some dragon fly species frogs rely on to survive while also pointing out that it is “competing” with the local frog species.
The owner of the boa constrictor had claimed that it is very gentle and docile and there was no reason for alarm, requesting help from the public. He had appealed to anyone who was not scared of the snake to gently scoop it up from its belly and place it in a box. At the time, a vet had also confirmed that the snake was neither aggressive or nor venomous.

However, two weeks after its escape, the boa was found dead after reportedly having been run-over by a vehicle.

Mr McGowan pointed out that reports of snake sightings in the Kennedy Grove area has so far always turned out to be local snake species, which meant that most people were not aware that Malta played host to four different snake species.

“How many out there are aware of the fact that four different species of snakes breed on the islands, one of which is mildly venomous,” they asked, referring to the cat snake, while emphasizing that its bite is not fatal.

Mr McGowan, interested in the subject since childhood, and who has conducted a number of presentations on the subject in different countries, said that the society has forwarded a number of proposals to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority on how best to enhance awareness and education to lessen the unfounded fears and scaremongering among the public, as well as guidance for amateur breeders and the private sector, referring to pet shops.

They said that the authorities should also re-evaluate between which animal should be legally imported and ones that should be banned from being imported to our islands.

He said that it is vital studies are conducted to establish how many people own reptiles or amphibians in Malta while also emphasising that some pet shop owners and amateur breeders needed to be better informed of what measures, such as the right type and amount of lighting and heating, should be used when when taking care of exotic animals.

The society covers many branches related to herpetofauna activity in Malta, including animal welfare and education for the responsible ownership of exotic animals, and ‘herping’, deriving from the word herpatologists ­- an activity or technique used to search for species under natural cover objects such as rocks and logs.

While the society endorses caging standards, sound husbandry, escape prevention, and an integrated approach to vital conservation issues and control of alien species, the society’s main goal is to enhance cooperation between the authorities, the scientific community, and the private sector in order to produce policy proposals that will effectively address important animal welfare, husbandry and conservation issues.

“The health of these animals, public safety, and maintaining ecological integrity are the primary concerns of this NGO,” Mr Sciberras said.

While urging the public to handle exotic animals with care and respect, the NGO urged all those seeking information on exotic animals to turn to the society by contacting it through its Facebook account

Turning to local species, they highlighted that it is illegal to even touch let alone collect local snake species.

They said that they are willing to support anyone requiring any information on exotic animals.

SCIBERRAS, A. (2013) A Celebration of Butterflies

The Malta Independent. June 16th:42.

Cassar ,C.(2013)Dried Flowers. acsessed 16.3.13

Dried Flowers 

Over the past months we have been busy trying to refurbish the school’s library. We are nearly there, with all the books ready to go to the School’s Library Services for cataloguing.

However, this is not about the books but rather about a strange looking piece of furniture with a Latin inscription that we found in the library. The inscription was easy enough to decipher “Flora Melitensis” – Maltese Flowers.

What was even more interesting was what was inside. The various “trays” open to reveal a collection of dried Maltese plants.

A chance encounter and conversation made this discovery even more significant. Mr Arnold Sciberras happened to be at school installing some pigeon spikes. Mr Sciberras graduated in agribusiness and he dedicates his free time to the the study and conservation of local wildlife. He is an entomologist (someone who studies insects) and the only local herpetologist (someone who studies amphibians) on the island. We started chatting about this and that, and I happened to mention this collection of dried flowers. Mr Sciberras immediately took an interest to it. He promised he would come to school and help us restore this piece of history.

Sure enough, he did. After some quick research, we can safely date the collection to the early 1950s. The cabinet was probably made at school, and within the collection, there are a number of photos showing the cabinet in the making. Unfortunately, we have not managed to find out who actually made the cabinet or was responsible for collecting the plants, but we are hoping that someone might know something more about it.

The collection boasts over 150 species of plants, a few of which are either endemic or extinct from the Maltese islands. So far, about 70 plants have been identified. At the moment, Mr Sciberras and his brother are restoring the collection. The trays are being dry freezed to eliminate any pests. When possible, plants that have gone missing will be replaced and eventually, we are hoping that this cabinet will have pride of place in our newly refurbished school library. Charlot Cassar Head of School

Schembri.J.(2010) Verdict is still out on Selmunett wall lizard: disagreement on whether subspecies is extinct or not.

The Times July 19th pg.12
The verdict is still out on whether the Selmunett wall lizard is extinct as the planning authority and a naturalist disagree on its status. The Podarcis filfolensis kieselbachi, as it is known scientifically, is a subspecies of the Maltese wall lizard which lives exclusively on St Paul's islands. Naturalist Arnold Sciberras, who has been studying the lizard for 13 years, visits St Paul's Islands monthly and says he has not spotted one since 2005. However, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority will not concede officially that the lizard is extinct because, according to the red list criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a species is considered extinct "when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died". Mr Sciberras reacted to Mepa and adamantly said: "I have no reasonable doubt that the Selmunett lizard is extinct in the wild. St Paul's islands are small and it's not like searching an area the size of Malta to find a specimen of a creature." Although not certain about it, the naturalist believes rats were to blame for the population's decline. Mepa said international herpetological experts, assisting it in field surveys in 2008, were of the opinion that the lizard's decline was attributed to factors other than rats, such as vector-borne diseases, a lack of insect prey due to widespread use of pesticides and "direct persecution and collection of specimens". Mr Sciberras disagrees: "If vector-borne diseases were the cause of the lizard's disappearance, other subspecies across the Maltese islands would have been affected. As for pesticides being used on St Paul's islands, there hasn't been any agriculture on the island since 1940. I've never seen anyone collecting specimens to keep either," he said. Mepa undertook a rat eradication project in 2005, making the islands rodent-free by the following year. It said the last sightings its officials made of the lizard were in 2007. It was not aware of any scientific studies ever conducted on the Selmunett lizard, noting that anyone wanting to conduct a scientific study on St Paul's islands would require a permit. "What permit? I used to go and observe the lizards, not physically handle them or disturb them. It is legal for anyone to go to St Paul's islands after sunrise, so long as they leave again before sunset," Mr Sciberras said. A spokesman said Mr Sciberras's admission that he had been carrying out "unauthorised work" on the islands since 1997 came as a "surprise" to Mepa. It did, however, acknowledge that Mr Sciberras had taken part in a scientific study on captive breeding, coordinated by a University professor. Mepa had "regularised" his position by issuing a permit allowing Mr Sciberras to keep the specimen as part of this project. Seven specimens were collected by Mr Sciberras in an attempt to increase numbers and kick-start breeding but he abandoned the project in 2006 and returned the lizards to Mepa. Mr Sciberras could not speculate whether three male lizards released by Mepa in June 2007 included some of the ones he previously had in his possession. A female should also have been released at the time but it had died. Mepa said studies were ongoing, adding that more time had to pass before officially declaring whether the Selmunett lizard is extinct or not.

SCIBERRAS, A (2013) Libyans`s Garden- The Lung of Paola Under Threat.

The Malta Independent, May 19th : 34.