Cyprus: time to crack down on Mediterranean's biggest songbird massacre

| 16th March 2017
Robin caught in a mist net on the British military base in Cyprus. Photo: RSPB / Birdlife Cyprus.
Robin caught in a mist net on the British military base in Cyprus. Photo: RSPB / Birdlife Cyprus.
The illegal trapping of birds on Cyprus is taking place on an industrial scale, writes Jamie Wyver, and the biggest hotspot is on a British army base where over 800,000 birds were killed last year. It's time for the British and Cyprus governments to confront the criminals, clear the acacia bushes in which the birds are trapped, and close the illegal restaurants serving them as 'delicacies'.
Organised criminal gangs are driving this illegal activity on a huge scale and it is estimated they earn millions of Euros every year from the songbirds they kill on British territory.

A new report highlights research by BirdLife Cyprus and the RSPB, showing that illegal trapping activity on the island remains around its highest ever level.

The use of mist nets, lines of almost invisible netting, to trap birds has risen by 183% since 2002, and 21km of mist nets were in use in the survey area.

And almost half of the trapping is taking place in British territory on the island, in the two 'Sovereign Base Areas' (SBAs) used by British armed forces.

Almost half the total length of active net rides, about ten kilometres, are in the Dhekelia SBA on the east of the island, with more than 800,000 birds trapped a year. The principal trapping hotspot is base's firing range at Cape Pyla.

The birds are killed to provide restaurants with the main ingredient for the local and expensive dish of ambelopoulia, cooked songbirds served as part of a mezze. A plate of 12 fried or grilled songbirds sells for between €40-80.

The Cyprus trappers have become increasingly bold, blatantly and extensively using electronic calling devices on the firing range at night in order to lure in birds to their deaths. These play calls at deafeningly-high volumes, falsely advertising the presence of blackcaps, robins and other songbirds, but also effectively proclaiming the territories of the illegal trappers.

There are now concerns that parts of the British firing range are effectively becoming a no-go area for the committed, but significantly outnumbered, local police force.

One of the worst bird killing grounds in the Mediterranean

Invasive non native acacia trees from Australia were planted on the British base by the trappers, and, as the only cover around, are a great draw for migrating birds to stop off, rest and feed. With the addition of around 20 to 40 tape luring devices in some areas, these leafy corners of the island become irresistible to birds, who arrive in great numbers.

The report estimates that over 1.7 million birds could have been killed within the survey area, which covers both the British base and Cyprus Republic areas, and nearly 2.3 million across the whole of Cyprus due to this extensive bird trapping activity.

The scale of this activity has also been confirmed in a Birdlife report, 'The Killing', published in 2016, in which Cyprus was identified as one of the worst places for illegal bird killing in the entire Mediterranean.

Survey records (in the new report) show that while blackcaps are the main target, 155 bird species have been found trapped in mist nets or on limesticks. Of these, 78 were species of conservation concern including cinereous bunting, pallid harrier, red-footed falcon and turtle dove

The sheer numbers of birds involved here, and the importance of the area for migration, make this a significant conservation issue. Millions of birds migrate south through eastern Europe each autumn, and Cyprus is a natural route for them to take, allowing them to break up their journey over the Mediterranean.

The British military firing range at Cape Pyla is a bottleneck for birds at the southern tip of Cyprus, where they gather before crossing the sea.

Blockade prevents MoD clearing trees planted as lures - on their own land

Removing the acacia trees planted on Ministry of Defence land by the trappers is one of the most effective ways to stop this criminal activity. However the SBA administration were largely forced to abandon this in 2016 as the trappers organised large protests and a dramatic blockade (see photo).

Whereas the Base authorities had successfully removed 54 acres of acacia in the preceding two years, this autumn they were only able to remove a further 7 acres, leaving around 90 acres of this illegal-killing infrastructure still standing on the British firing range.

Organised criminal gangs are driving this illegal activity on a huge scale and it is estimated they earn millions of Euros every year from the songbirds they kill on British territory.

As there is a great deal of money to be made in trapping songbirds, many people on the island have strong vested interests in keeping it going. Many in Cypriot communities feel that this is an important tradition, even though today it is done on an industrial scale.

Understandably these local attitudes place the British Army authorities in a difficult position. The Dhekelia and Akrotiri SBAs comprise a UK Overseas Territory, so the UK has a responsibility for the protection of the wildlife on these sites. While almost all the trapping takes place at Dhekelia, the Akrotiri SBA is also vital for birds: it has a massive salt lake, recognised as a RAMSAR wetland site, which is home to major flamingo flocks.

Cyprus government and British authorities must get tough together!

Between August and October 2016 the small British Sovereign Base Area (SBA) police force, supported by specialist help from RSPB Investigations staff, opened more cases and confiscated more mist net than ever before.

However, the army must also take care to avoid stirring up opposition to British presence in Cyprus. Nevertheless, we do need to see more enforcement support from the Ministry of Defence to ensure the invasive tree removal operation continues.

In addition, the Republic of Cyprus must crack down on black-market restaurants which serve songbirds. Small-scale trapping of birds for human consumption in Cyprus was practiced for many centuries, but it has been illegal on the island for over 40 years, after being outlawed in 1974.

Enforcement against restaurants serving ambelopoulia has been almost non-existent in the last few years, yet as the key driver of this illegal activity it is crucial that urgent action is taken by the Cyprus Government.



Jamie Wyver works for the RSPB, the UK's BirdLife partner.

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