Under the cover of night, activists patrol key poaching sites in southeast Cyprus, which is described as an ecological disaster zone for endangered migratory birds.
“Cyprus is the worst country in Europe for the number of birds killed and the species,” Andrea Rutigliano of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) said.
Blackcaps, thrushes and other songbirds face a high-risk passage, despite tough prison terms and fines for poachers.
Cooked up in restaurants as a prized, if illegal, delicacy known as ambelopoulia, they are served “under the table” and a typical plate of a dozen birds costs between 40 and 80 euros (US$55 and US$110).
CABS activists armed with maps track down locations where poachers are active and pass the information to police.
The poachers traditionally use nets and limesticks — twigs covered in a sticky substance that instantly trap alighting birds, leaving them to dangle helplessly — and speakers that emit the call of blackcaps to attract their prey.
During the peak season in autumn, 3,000 to 4,000 poachers take to the woods and hills of Cyprus, according to CABS. The spring migration season draws lower numbers because the birds are less plump.
“The situation is... actually getting worse,” Martin Hellicar of BirdLife Cyprus said.
Cypriot authorities cracked down hard on illegal hunting in the years running up to the island’s accession to the EU in 2004, with up to an 80 percent decline in the numbers of birds killed.
Hellicar said the activity has made a comeback over the past seven years, with about 150 species affected, including a number already threatened with extinction.
“When they eat it at the restaurants, people have a picture in their mind of a grandfather catching a few birds with a few limesticks... The reality is a very organized activity, using extensive nets and technology... Huge amounts of money can be made,” Hellicar said.
The Game and Fauna Service of Cyprus, in charge of the fight against poaching, estimates that the illegal trade is worth about 15 million euros a year.
One poacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters he made thousands of euros from bird trapping, adding that “everybody does it.”
Hellicar said it was also attracting “organized criminals, mafia types... people whose portfolio includes gambling, prostitution.”
Sectors of southeast Cyprus in the autumn are controlled at night by shotgun-toting “professional organized gangs” wearing balaclavas, Rutigliano said.
Ecologists say the situation is worst on the sovereign British bases, a hangover from the colonial era that ended with Cyprus’ independence in 1960.
Prince Charles, a keen conservationist, wrote to Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and the commander of the British military on the island to condemn the “industrial-scale killing” of birds.
The Cypriot leader’s response was to order a “targeted and synchronized campaign” by Cyprus’ police and the British bases.
Non-governmental organizations say the Cypriot and British authorities are not deploying enough people.
“We prosecute about 200 cases a year, more than that, and each case can be more than one person. We have vigorous campaigns,” Game and Fauna Service head Pantelis Hajiyerou said.
“There is a major decrease [in trapping in government-controlled Cyprus], but an increase in the [British] bases,” he added.
Hajiyerou said plans are being drawn up for a “holistic approach on the poaching problem,” including education on Cyprus where tradition is all-important and 90 percent of people “don’t think it’s wrong to eat ambelopoulia.”
“The wider problem is the political attitude... There are people in positions of power who if not overtly, covertly support the practice of trapping,” said James Guy, the British bases police divisional commander for Dhekelia, on the south coast.
BirdLife Cyprus said that the law — “on paper” — provides for hefty penalties of up to three years behind bars and fines as high as 17,000 euros.
However, the sentences passed so far have been a few hundred euros in fines, serving as “no deterrent at all,” Hellicar said.
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