It was 1969, and I was driving our open-topped Mercedes Unimog to Asmara to get some building supplies and other gear not available in Gondar, the nearest town to the Simien Mountain National Park in Ethiopia where I was then a game warden.
With me was the new assistant warden, Mesfin, who had recently graduated from the Mweka Wildlife College in Tanzania. Mesfin was an extremely handsome, intelligent, courageous and gifted young man, who knew his wildlife really well and who read all kinds of books as avidly as I did. His English was perfect, but back at the HQ he was considered a bit of a rebel, which was why he had been assigned to the northern mountains. In the back of the truck were two park rangers — Zeleka, a much-decorated veteran of the Korean War, and former Imperial Guard, and Tedla, a mountain man who had fought the Italians as a guerrilla in World War II.
We stopped for the night at a small hotel along the road. After breakfast, when Mesfin and I went out to the Unimog, I saw a white boy, about 13 years old, shooting with an air rifle at the nests of swallows under the eaves of the hotel. He was not only aiming for the parent swallows as they came to feed their young, but also shooting right into the fragile nests, where lay baby birds.
I shouted at him to stop and he gave me the middle finger. Having once been an obnoxious teenager myself, I was not prepared to tolerate this insolence.
Mesfin reprimanded him in Italian, and the boy responded with another rude gesture and even ruder words. We were in Eritrea, arguably not my bailiwick, but Eritrea was at the time still under Ethiopian control, and we were Ethiopian wildlife officers. Swallows, like all migratory birds, were supposed to be protected.
I used to own an air rifle when I was that boy’s age, and I shot quite a few sparrows, starlings and rats, but never would I have dreamt of shooting swallows, or any other kind of fledgling in a nest. It’s just wrong.
Really cross now, I took the air rifle off the boy and with my trusty Swiss Army knife, I unscrewed bits here and there and extracted the spring. Meanwhile, the boy had gone running into the hotel screaming for his father, who soon came out, waving his fist and shouting and ranting at Mesfin and me. I pointed to the dead birds and ruined nests, but the man just went on shouting. One doesn’t shout at a game warden in Africa. I explained that this was a crime, and I told him it was his responsibility to educate his son properly if he was allowing him to use any kind of gun.
The father was a rich Italian businessman, based in Addis Ababa. Finally his shouting and gesticulating got me very angry indeed, and I told him that if he went on any further, I’d arrest him and take him to Asmara.
He went on yelling and threatening, so I took out my Walther — never pointed it at him, mind you — and told him it would be fine with me if I shot him right there and then as a poacher.
Rangers Zeleka and Tedla arrived, rifles over their shoulders, while Zeleka — in his rather rough but very clear army English — suggested that it would be a waste of a bullet, and that it would be much better if we hanged him. Tedla was reminded of some good old days, and in enthusiastic agreement made this idea clear to the irate businessman in gestures and even rougher Italian.
Anyway, I confiscated not only the air rifle spring, but also the sights, and gave both son and father a very strong warning. Swallows would not be shot. Young birds in nests would not be shot. Otherwise, I had 20 very tough mountain rangers and some very high cliffs to throw unwanted offenders off. Hyenas could take care of the funeral arrangements. We were Haile Selassie’s lads — so bugger you and your embassy, mate!
Rangers Zeleka and Tedla leered, while Mesfin tried to suppress a grin and then just shook his head as the shouting brought out nearly every guest and all the staff of the hotel eager to enjoy the performance.
The Italian businessman eventually complained to Wildlife Headquarters in Addis Ababa, who were generally quite amused, and gave me a mild scolding. They said that I shouldn’t have spoken of our famous escarpment like that, because it might discourage tourists.
Swallows are very special birds. They fly enormous distances to be with us, and have adapted to humans so well that they even nest in the heart of cities. They have come to trust humans, even more than sparrows, and you can watch them feeding their young just a couple of meters away. Especially when they are rearing their broods, swallows feast on huge numbers of flying insects.
When I first came to Japan, and later, when I visited or lived in villages and small towns, folk would welcome the swallows, and put out small trays under their nests if the mess bothered them. Some even hung upside-down umbrellas under the nests for this reason. Swallows not only nested under eaves, but even inside buildings.
It was still like that 25 years ago when I first came to Kurohime, here in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture where I live. At that time, swallows nested inside the station and it was a delight to watch them. Then the station was redecorated, and they were discouraged from nesting inside. Lately though, to discourage these lovely little harbingers of summer, the squeamish locals have been spreading ugly plastic sheets all over the place and hanging fake crows outside as well.
Some years ago, I heard from a friend that the manager of a golf club house in Karuizawa had 30 or so swallow nests, with young inside, destroyed because a lady complained about a speck of bird dropping on her blouse. I’ve heard similar stories about a supermarket here where I live.
In Canada, where I used to live, disturbing the nests, eggs or young of a migratory bird is a very serious offense. You could get arrested for it, and certainly heavily fined.
To me this is all a sign of the increasing selfishness and mean-spiritedness of so many contemporary Japanese who seem to either not know of or not care about the beauty of the birds themselves, or the long journeys they have made from distant Southeast Asian countries or faraway India — let alone their wonderful soaring flight or all the harmful insects they consume.
They also miss a chance to educate children about wildlife in harmony with humans, or of the exemplary diligence and courage these little birds display in rearing their young, perhaps — if they are lucky and survive their improbable odysseys unscathed — three or four times before their short lives end.
Here, in our woods in Kurohime, we try to help children who have had short shrift in life. We try to teach them about the meaning and wonder of being alive on this planet with so many other creatures, and thus to help them believe in themselves and the future. It’s hard to do that in the face of hypocrisy, when on one hand Japan pretends to welcome visitors to an environmental event such as the current Aichi Expo — while at the same time it denies a welcome to other less demanding and more traditional guests.