"The police identified every single person, and every single person was prosecuted"
Hidden cameras targeted at criminals trapping songbirds on Cyprus have succeeded in reducing bird killings on a British military base by more than 70 percent in a single season, according to bird conservation charities the RSPB and Birdlife International.
The birds - predominantly blackcaps and robins - are sold through the black market to restaurants in Cyprus, who use them in an expensive local delicacy called ambelopoulia - a plate of cooked songbirds. Most of the trappers are local people, but criminal gangs - including the local mafia - also earn millions from the illegal activity elsewhere on the island.
The birds fly over the island during their migration in the autumn and are particularly common over the south east of the island, where the military base is located.
Killing of the birds was outlawed on the island in 1974, but the RSPB was alerted to the blackmarket by an expat in 2000. A visit to the island by the investigations team revealed that the trapping was happening on an “industrial scale”, according to Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer at the charity.
Trappers had started using “mist nets”, which are long lines of nearly invisible netting, he said. The nets kill more birds than the traditional practice of coating branches with sticky lime.
They are placed between acacia bushes, and speakers playing bird calls are used to attract birds down as they fly over. The trees were grown by the trappers specifically for this purpose, and they even placed irrigation pipes to encourage the trees to flourish, Shorrock said.
Both the police from the military base and the Cypriot government supported enforcement of the law, which initially resulted in a reduction in bird killing. However, there has been a huge escalation in recent years, with deaths reaching a record level of around 880,000 in 2016, Shorrock said.
The RSPB investigations team and the military police from the base then launched a new crackdown, using hidden cameras to film trappers. “It was like shelling peas, none of the trappers were expecting it so we were catching them all over the place,” Shorrock said.
“We filmed 19 trappers at seven different sites. The police identified every single person, and every single person was prosecuted,” he said. The criminals were fined up to €6,600, compared with previous levels of around €500, and some received suspended jail sentences, meaning they will be automatically imprisoned if caught again over the next three years.
Last year, trappers started using metal detectors to find the cameras, but still more were caught and cases are ongoing, Shorrock said. The police on the base have introduced other penalties such as banning people from the land and seizing vehicles to keep the pressure on the trappers, he added.
They had also removed irrigation pipes in an effort to kill the acacia trees. Seven restaurants were prosecuted for selling ambelopoulia, which was probably more than in the previous ten years combined, he said.
Numbers of illegally killed birds fell to around 260,000 last year, a reduction of around 70%, according to the bird charities.
However, in order for the birds to be protected in the long term, the illegally planted acacia trees need to be removed, Shorrock said. This is expensive – the Ministry of Defence (MoD) claims that clearing an area of around 25 hectares cost around €400,000 - but a further 36 ha remains.
The charities have appealed for help to the MoD, and are currently waiting for a response. The area around the base has been designated a Special Area of Conservation, which is increasing the pressure on the government to fund the removal of the trees, Shorrock said.
Cyprus is a hotspot for illegal bird killing, which is rife in parts of the Mediterranean. Birdlife International estimates that around 25 million birds are being slaughtered for food, sport or pest control in the region every year, with Italy and Egypt the worst offenders, according to Birdlife International.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.