They set the traps at night. Virtually invisible “mist” nets are strung between trees, with fake bird song warbling from hidden electronic calling devices.. For the exhausted songbirds, it is a seeming safe haven to eat and rest during their long migration.
As dawn breaks the poachers return, tearing the terrified birds from the illegal snares, often leaving their feet behind, then jabbing them in the throat with a toothpick or penknife.
An estimated 2.3 million songbirds were illegally killed last autumn in Cyprus, where they are served in restaurants as a local delicacy, according to“new research”:http://www.birdlifecyprus.org/news-details/in-the-press/Illegal-bird-trapping-levels-remain-high by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife Cyprus.
That number included more than 800,000 birds which perished on a British sovereign military base, the two conservation groups said. The facility at Dhekelia on the island’s south-eastern coast lies on a major bird migration route between Europe and Africa. The Cape Pyla firing range on the base is the worst spot in Cyprus for trapping with mist nets, according to the report.
Yet British military commanders cannot be accused of turning a blind eye to the problem. They deploy a special police unit, staffed mostly by Greek and Turkish-Cypriot officers, tasked solely with combating bird-trapping on the base. Conservationists praise the dedication and commitment of the 11-strong team, but they are outnumbered by poachers who are constantly shifting their trapping sites.
In late 2014, the Dhekelia authorities began tackling illegal bird-trapping literally by the roots, removing thousands of acacia trees planted and irrigated by poachers to lure passing songbirds. Fifty-four acres of acacia, a non-native Australian species, were cleared by January 2016 in what BirdLife Cyprus described as “very positive progress”.
Last autumn 150 British soldiers joined an operation to remove more acacia, but only managed to clear seven acres when Cypriot trappers organised a large protest and used trucks to block the main road in and out of Dhekelia base.
Martin Harper, RSPB’s conservation director, said: “The trappers’ brazen prevention of the removal of their criminal infrastructure from Ministry of Defence (MoD) land could never be tolerated here in the UK.”
He urged the British government to “provide enforcement support to help the base authorities respond to the trappers and safely remove the remaining 90 acres of acacia”.
While Britain is responsible for the protection of the wildlife on its sites, it must also take care to avoid stoking opposition to its military presence in Cyprus. The Dhekelia authorities are acutely aware of local sensitivities and keen to get the co-operation of community leaders before resuming the clearing of acacia this year.
“That’s why we stopped the acacia cutting and entered a dialogue to have a mutual agreement on the way forward,” a spokesman for the British military in Cyprus told Euronews. “We will ultimately” remove all the acacia, he said.
Britain’s MoD said: “We are committed to tackling this illegal bird-trapping and the RSPB has recognised our increased enforcement activity, which has led to a record number of arrests, equipment seizures, prosecutions and fines. For the second year running we’ve halted the rising trend in the numbers of birds being killed by poachers and we continue to work with the RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus to implement a long-term strategy to reduce this number.”
While all the land within the two bases is sovereign British territory, 60 per cent is privately owned by Cypriots and home to some 10,000 Cypriots. Good relations with local communities are needed for the smooth operation of the two sprawling bases, which are vital strategic assets on the edge of turbulent Middle East. RAF Akrotiri, some 60 miles west of Dhekelia, is the launchpad for Britain’s aerial campaign against ISIL.
There has been little active opposition to the colonial footprints over the years, with successive Cypriot administrations of every political hue keen to maintain good relations with London. “We enjoy a fantastic relationship with the RoC (Republic of Cyprus),” the bases’ spokesman said.
The poachers target blackcaps, a common European warbler, served illegally at Cypriot tavernas as a delicacy called ambelopoulia. Other birds caught in the haul, such as robins from British gardens, are devoured under the same generic name. Given the indiscriminate nature of the trappers’ tools, there is a huge by-catch of other species, many inedible and endangered, including shrikes, golden orioles, small owls and hawks.
“Many much-loved garden birds species are being trapped and killed for huge profit by criminal gangs,” said Harper.
For centuries trapping was a small-scale activity, with songbirds an important seasonal source of protein for poor families. Trapping enthusiasts insist it is a cherished, traditional activity dating back many centuries.
Over the past two decades, however, the birds have become an expensive delicacy in off-base Cypriot restaurants where a platter of a dozen — boiled, fried or pickled – costs 60 euros. Outlawed by Cyprus in 1974, it is an illegal business worth an estimated 15 million euros a year.
While Cypriot poachers in Dhekelia favour mist nets to trap birds, limesticks are more commonly used elsewhere on the island.
Bird-trapping is punishable by up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of 17,000 euros.
There have been scores of convictions by the court in Dhekelia in recent years but very few poachers end up behind bars. It set a first in May 2014 by jailing a Cypriot trapper for possession of 182 dead blackcaps.
Most arrested both on Dhekelia and on the territory of the Republic of Cyprus itself are fined, but conservationists say these are often not heavy enough to deter a professional trapper who can make thousands of euros a month.
Officials at the British bases argue that the demand side of the illegal trade needs to be better tackled by tougher action against restaurants which serve ambelopoulia. As there are none on the British bases, and British soldiers do not eat songbirds, this puts the onus on the Republic of Cyprus.
In its report, BirdLife Cyprus acknowledged efforts by the Cypriot authorities, who arrest many poachers, to tackle trapping. But it called for far more action against restaurants serving ambelopoulia, “which are exclusively found in the Republic”.
Cypriot officials say they are doing working to combat bird-trapping in the Republic, both through tough enforcement of the law and with education campaigns to change attitudes. Opinion polls show that a large majority of Cypriots oppose trapping but few see it as a serious issue and do not regard eating ambelopoulia is wrong.
For some, the songbirds have the cachet of forbidden fruit and their price tag makes eating them a status symbol. They are also a wistful treat: older Cypriots remember their mothers telling them to trap some family supper in the yard. Some half-jokingly say ambelopoulia are a natural Viagra.
The scale of bird-trapping on Dhekelia periodically makes headlines abroad. In early 2014 Prince Charles wrote to the then commander of the British bases, urging an end to the “barbaric” slaughter on sovereign territory, which he said was generating significant profits for “serious organised criminals”. Echoing local wildlife activists, he recommended eradicating swathes of acacia trees.
Prince Charles also wrote to President Nicos Anastasiades at the time, saying that he understood “the perspective of traditional values”. But he recommended the “possibility of finding some equilibrium between maintaining traditional activities and preserving biodiversity”, according to a leaked account of the letter.
In his reply, Mr Anastasiades said he shared the Prince’s concerns, assured him the Cypriot authorities do everything they can to enforce the law on bird-trapping, and would launch a “synchronised campaign” with Britain’s bases.
The bird-trapping has taken the spotlight off wildlife projects at the British bases that would make Prince Charles proud. At the Akrotiri-Episkopi, west of Limassol, there are schemes protecting endangered Griffon vultures and falcons that nest in magnificent cliffs looming over the Mediterranean Sea.
Rare sea turtles that nest on the base’s sandy beaches are monitored and protected, while Akrotiri village hosts an environmental visitor centre that attracts thousands of schoolchildren from across the island.
by Michael Theodoulou, Nicosia, Cyprus