Nature conservation in Cyprus can be a dangerous business. Take the night of 30 January this year in Ayios Nikolaos, part of a British Overseas Territory known as a Sovereign Base Area (SBA) in the south east of the island.
A group of activists had driven to the area, accompanied by the British SBA police, to report an illegal bird trapping site found earlier that night. Little could they imagine what happened next.
Out of the darkness came this other vehicle, which started ramming into the activists’ car. It was like a Hollywood car chase, with the police unable to stop the assault. Constantinos Charalambous, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Cyprus
The incident goes to show what the campaigners are up against. In this case the group was unharmed. But, says UK-based naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, who has made films about bird trapping on the island, there are stories of people being beaten up with scaffold poles and shot at. “This kind of campaigning is not like tying yourself to a tree in a local park.”
For more years than he cares to remember, Constantinos has been working to stop the illegal killing of migrating birds as they pass over Cyprus. Such is the extent of the slaughter that it has reached the European, if not the global stage. Friends of the Earth Cyprus, together with the German-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) and Foundation Pro Biodiversity (SPA) are working in the field to stop the trapping.
The group is also part of a network of local and international organisations pressing the Cypriot, UK and EU authorities to do more about the issue. Also involved are the RSPB and Birdlife Cyprus.
Cyprus is one of the main routes that birds use for their annual migration towards Europe and Asia (in spring) and Africa (in the winter). It’s estimated that around 100 million birds migrate over the island in spring. But a lot of them do not make it however. According to Birdlife Cyprus, more than 2.5 million of them are illegally killed on the island each year.
Killed to make millions on the black market
The birds are killed for a dish illegally served in restaurants under the local name “ampelopoulia”. The black market for this activity is worth some 16 million euros per year, according to the Cyprus government’s Game and Fauna Services.
Although trappers mostly target song thrushes and blackcaps, their indiscriminate methods catch and kill more than 150 bird species, including robins, harriers, owls, nightjars and nightingales.
The trappers’ tactics include mist nets, some of which are sited in acacia plantations favoured by the birds and illegally planted by the poachers.
Limesticks are another method of trapping. These are bits of wood smeared with a sticky substance that snares any birds touching or landing on them. Attempts to rescue the live birds from these grisly traps will often result in broken wings or limbs, or the removal of the tail feathers the birds need to survive.
Meanwhile, electronic decoys emitting bird song help to lure the birds into the traps. Chris Packham describes the volume of some of these devices as like being at a “rock gig” and “ruthlessly effective”.
A disproportionate amount of the killing takes place on SBAs, especially in the eastern base of Dhekelia. SBAs cover large areas which include military bases, farmland and some residential land. The lack of settlements and street lights attracts the birds – and the criminals that prey on them.
Autumn and spring, when the birds are on the move, is the best time of year for the poachers. A report from CABS last year described the scale of the killing as “staggering” and that “the authorities of Republic of Cyprus and UK Sovereign Base Areas [had] once again proved their inadequacy to stop it.”
The biggest trapping area in Europe
Constantinos describes targeting bird trapping in the eastern SBA at the beginning of this year. In just 2 days they located more than 500 mist nets at 114 different sites.
“Although a relatively small area, the amount of trapping sites and mist nets was astonishing,” he says. “The combined length of those nets is more than 10 km, which gives you an idea of the scale of the problem.”
The extent of what they found, he calculates, makes this UK-administered area “the biggest illegal bird-trapping hotspot in all of Europe”.
Local opinion on the issue is mixed, however. There are those that say bird trapping is a traditional practice and it’s a source of income for poor families. Others want the trapping stamped out as it’s not only harming birdlife, but gives the island a bad name and is damaging the tourist industry too.
Some politicians, meanwhile, have gone as far to condemn the conservationists as “agents of the Turks”, which is guaranteed to get emotions running high on an island divided into Greek and Turkish parts.
One thing everyone can agree on is the practice has been illegal since 1974. We contacted the British Ministry of Defence, the government department responsible for the administration of the SBA bases, for a comment.
A spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling illegal bird trapping. Since November 2014, we have removed 54 acres of acacia used for trapping, seized 3,490 items of netting equipment in the last migration period, and in the last five years over 200 poachers have been arrested.”
“But the bottom line is things are getting worse,” says Constantinos. The authorities are dragging their feet and not getting on top of the problem.
Action is needed, not just words
The January incident in Ayios Nikolaos was witnessed by local police, for example, who were unable to stop the car chase and could only escort the battered activists’ vehicle back to their headquarters. “After so many years working on this I am convinced the SBA is doing its best to sweep this issue under the carpet,” he says.
Chris Packham, who returns to do more filming on the island this autumn, is similarly exasperated:
I’ve said to the police that if this was drug or human trafficking you’d be all over it like a rash. Chris Packham
Numerous plans to tackle bird trapping have been agreed by the SBAs over the years, but Contantinos says they need action, not words.
“So far it’s only on paper and we’ve seen very little in the field, if anything at all. I’m convinced that if we don’t pile pressure on the British government to enforce this plan on their own land, then nothing will happen."
Remember, a massive amount of the killing is taking place on British-administered territory, some of it now with special conservation status. Would you stand for that in one of your national parks in the UK? Constantinos Charalambous
“It’s time for the government to do more to tackle this massive environmental problem, and stop hoping it will go away.”
Update on this story: the number of songbirds illegally killed in the Sovereign Base Area fell by 70% in 2017, thanks to local wildlife campaigners working with police in the SBA.
This is good news, but it still means that more than 260,000 birds were trapped and killed in autumn 2017.
Friends of the Earth Cyprus will therefore continue working with the local authorities, as part of a network of organisations, to make sure this practice is stamped out for good.
Friends of the Earth Cyprus is part of Friends of the Earth International — the world’s largest environmental network, with 75 national groups. Together we’re working to push the UK and Cyprus governments to stamp out illegal bird trapping on the island.