In 2012 I was invited by Cerry Levy to visit Malta with a group of artists seeking to offer new thinking on the campaign to stop springtime hunting on Matla. Below is my contribution – an imaginary article in published in online newspaper in 2025. It offers a vision of a future Europe where opti-hunting is comming to replace hunting with a shotgun and hunters and birdwatchers and uniting around thier common interests in a bird-rich world.
Culture/Gaming & Nature: 28 April 2025
Shooting for the Earth: Malta opti-hunt 2025
Paul Jepson reports from Malta on the phenomena of opti-hunting due to debut on our screens this weekend.
Below us, Clayton Fenech, the new legend of Maltese bird hunting stalks the steep rocky fields of Datilet Qorrot.
A bird explodes into the air. Clayton reacts. A blurred quail image overlain with scoring grids and circles appears on my iPhone screen – hit accuracy ‘2.2’, hit difficulty category ‘1’ – a level 1.6. hit under today’s weather conditions.
‘Hardly a wining hit but the feeds are working perfectly” calls top reality gaming producer Orsa Johnson from the Eurosport landcrusier.
I’m in Malta to report on the first live and interactive broadcast of a competitive optical bird hunt. Since the launch of the opti-Gun in 2018, ‘Obbying’ has become the world’s fastest growing real-game with an estimated 25 million participants in Europe alone.
Eurosport’s broadcast vision is elegant and compelling. “We integrate four visuals: HD landscape, hunter head-mounted video, the opti-Gun shot image and our new GIS data visualisation, explains Johnson.
Sat alongside Osa is Will Beebe of Digital Asset Management. “live optical bird hunts are a compelling blend of old-style wildlife programming, on-line gaming, and competitive field sports. Market research suggests major viewer interest, though we expect the real returns to come from the in-game spot betting industry”.
Clayton, accompanied by his pointer dogs, join us for a debrief. He looks pleased – three subsequent quail hits were all low level ‘1s’. It’s an opportunity for me to take a look at the prototype Leica-GO10b opti-Gun cradled casually in his arms. Clayton is enthusiastic “The focus-zoom-fire trigger is superfast, the app-phone dock beautifully positioned and the weight and balance is superb. This gun is a work of art”
Back in the Maltese capital, I meet Alex Salavin, President of FNKN – The Maltese Hunter Federation and organisers of Saturday’s first competitive international migratory bird hunt. He talked of the confrontation which historically characterised the migration season. ‘They were dark times. Every migration northern birdwatchers came with their drones and binoculars, invading our privacy and publicising every minor illegality to pressure Brussels to force our government to ban our traditional sport”.
In the 1990s BirdLife International estimated that Mediterranean hunters were killing a staggering 500 million migratory birds a year. In the teen20s FNKN and Birdlife were locked in legal battles. For Alex the invention of opti-hunting was a ‘massive relief’. His hope is that tomorrow’s hunt will “mark a point when hunters and birdwatchers can put the past behind then and unite around the shared goal of restoring Europe’s bird populations.”
The origins if opti-hunting are easily traced to the great Eurozone crisis of 2008-2019. The hunter’s slogan ‘better a hobby than a [drug] habit” chimed with the EU life quality agenda that arose to curtail the excesses of market capitalism. Inspired by the ‘Smart, inclusive, sustainable’ mantra of the teen20’s, a collaboration involving Leica Camera, Samsung Electronics, the game developer Electronic Arts, and Oxford University formed to create the opti-Gun and the socially networked reality games and competitions it now supports.
At the newly opened Valletta i-huntscape, created in cavernous warehouse on Quarry Warfe, I run into game designer Charles Bridgeman. It’s strangely deserted. A day before the competition all the teams are practising in the field.
“This is the future of gaming” enthuses Charles as we enter a digitally rendered Maltese landscape projected onto a vast dome. “A fusion of real and virtual life”. Real opti-hunting hit data is streamed into this huntscape from the IOHA databases. The quality of these gaming environments and opt ihunting is expected to mature together. “novice hunters can practice and veterans will be able to re-hunt famous past days. In these facilities opti-hunters will be able to go back in time!”
The IOHA is opti-hunting’s international governing board. It sets the hit scores, rules where and when opti-Guns will function, curates the hit data, and provides a range of services including opti-hunting interfaces and leagues.
I ask Charles to explain the opti-hunting craze. “Easy” he replies. “men are men… we’re hard-wired to acquire skills and compete… but we also seek purpose, escape and camaraderie. And engage in endless debate! You should see the forums… What constitutes a hit? The validity of species difficulty categories and who decides?” Charles predicts that participation will accelerate further with the introduction latter this year of low cost opti–Guns that run on Dad’s old smartphone.
Next morning, as dawn rises over scruffy terraced hillside of Mizieb, I find Clayton, his dad George, and hunt referee Gilmor Ellol preparing for their final practice. I invite George to compare hunting of old with today. “There’s no denying it felt more macho, the gun recoil, shot, smell of gun powder, but the beauty of opti-hunting is that a bird can be shot by multiple hunters so there are more shots to be had.”
The conversation turns to quailing – the chances of a big passage, the organisation of Saturday’s hunt and the quality of the international competition. The home advantage is considerable explains Gilmor “Local hunters have their focus-zoom-shoot skills honed to Malta’s local light conditions and their dogs know the terrain. However, while the Maltese may rack-up more higher scoring flushed hits, other competitors can pick up points on the easier fly by hits and Malta’s blue sky back drop definitely aids fast focusing”. Ellol’s message is that the Maltese must not be complacent. The English and French partridge opti-hunters are superb and quailing carries a big element of luck.
My last port of call is with Carl Buhagiar, Head of BirdLife Malta and veteran of the campaigns to ban migratory bird hunting on Malta. “Opti-hunting is definitely a win-win solution. The seamless shot location and data upload is revolutionising our ability to accurately map migration routes and model trends in bird populations. Carl is referring to Oxford’s ‘oBioscore’ APP that adds a ‘conservation information value’ (CIV) to each hit score. The eagerly awaited ‘oSafari’ APP, which will feed to the opti-Gun information on high conservation value target species in an area, as slated to reinvent hunting expeditions of old. It’s an open secret that the elite Przhevalsky & Zimov Club of Moscow is planning an invitee only opti-hunting expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan.
Opti-hunting seems set to become the first truly modern hobby – a compelling blend of the real and virtual, entertainment and exercise, new technology and old practices – that is simultaneously enriching lives and creating political pressure to restore ecosystems. Maybe opt i-hunting will show us a way to live well with our planet.
The 2025 Malta international bird hunt is live and interactive, SKY 1 Saturday, 29 April, 05.30 – 9. 30am, highlights Saturday 22.00.
Thanks for reading to the end. I hope you enjoyed the ideas. I have been using opti-hunting as thought experiment in my teaching on biodiversity technologies to discuss the extent to which conservation is embracing technology to do what its always done, but with greater reach and lower cost (supersizing) or whether conservationists should engage with technology to reimagine solutions to old problems.
Friends, colleagues and students keep encourgeing me to take the opti-hunting idea forward and find the money to develop the idea. I am planning to up-date my concept note this summer and would be glad to hear from anyone with constructive ideas and suggestions .