In a long-abandoned village in the UN buffer zone that divides Cyprus, an endangered curly horned wild sheep offers hope not only for wildlife, but that bitter ethnic divisions might slowly be healed.
The mouflon, a majestic breed endemic to the Mediterranean island, is one of many species flourishing in the no man’s land created when inter-communal strife sliced Cyprus in two in the 1960s.
“Without human influence, the wildlife and plant life have flourished,” said Salih Gucel, director of the Institute of Environmental Sciences at Near East University in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north.
“It is like stepping back in time to what our grandparents would have seen 100 years ago,” Gucel said, after spotting an orchid growing amid the tumbled ruins of a farmhouse in the village of Varisha, about 55km west of the capital, Nicosia.
Cyprus has been split since 1974 when Turkish forces occupied the northern part of the island in response to a Greek-sponsored military coup.
The buffer zone covers about 3 percent of the island, is 180km long and up to 8km wide.
Many call it the “dead zone,” a tragic reminder of a frozen conflict where bullet-riddled buildings crumble back into the dust.
Yet it is far from empty.
Farmers with permits can enter, while UN peacekeepers patrol the line, monitoring soldiers, watching for smugglers or for refugees hoping to cross.
However, it has also become a “haven” for rare plants and animals, a “wildlife corridor” linking otherwise fragmented environments right across the island, said ecologist Iris Charalambidou, from the University of Nicosia.
“It’s an area where species can escape intensive human activity,” Charalambidou said, adding that there were about 200 to 300 mouflon in the Variseia area alone, one-10th of the estimated 3,000 population.
“These are areas where biodiversity flourishes ... core populations of species that, when populations become larger, disperse to other areas,” she said.
Warily watching the rare human visitors, a pair of mouflon peer through an overgrown olive grove, turning tail long before wildlife experts — accompanied by Argentinian troops of the UN peacekeeping force — come close.
The mouflon, a national symbol once hunted to the brink of extinction, is not the only species thriving there.
Charalambidou said there were also threatened plants, including orchids, as well as rare reptiles and endangered mammals such as the Cyprus spiny mouse.
The experts said it shows how an embattled environment can recover if given a chance.
“When human activity is not so intense in a certain area, you see that nature recovers,” said Charalambidou, a Greek Cypriot from the government-controlled south of the island.
Gucel echoes her comments.
“Outside the buffer zone, herbicides have been used ... and orchids are picked or the bulbs dug up,” he said.
While the respective political leaders remain at loggerheads, the shared wildlife of the island has helped plant the seed of cooperation between the two sides.
“The political situation on the island remains really difficult,” said Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus. “But there is still a lot of peacebuilding work that can be done at the grassroots level.”
That has included a UN-backed project identifying “biodiversity hotspots” inside the buffer zone, bringing scientists from the two communities together.
“One of the aims of our project was to get people who are interested in the environment in both communities to collaborate with each other,” Gucel said.
“We have a common goal and a common interest,” Charalambidou said, peering at yellow flowers poking through coils of rusting barbed wire.
For many islanders, there is little contact with those from the other side, the two communities apparently increasingly set on different paths and separate futures.
“The more that we can get the two communities working together, the more that we can get them to meet on common issues of concern, and that will benefit not only the environment, but also the peace process,” Siddique said.
In Cyprus, the history of division is impossible to ignore. On the hilltops above Variseia, soldiers in fortified watchtowers eye each other across the valley.
Below, Gucel and Charalambidou trace a mouflon track through a tangled almond orchard.
“People who work in environmental issues are usually so passionate about it that when they meet, they talk about that, and don’t bother talking about other issues,” Charalambidou said. “It unites people.”
AWAITING EXTRADITION: Daniel Duggan has been classified as ‘extreme high risk,’ has not been allowed to use stationery and has been denied treatment, his lawyer said The lawyer for a former US military pilot arrested in Australia and facing possible extradition to the US said that his client was wrongly classified as an “extreme high-risk” prisoner, and he had asked the attorney-general to release him. Former US Marines pilot Daniel Edmund Duggan was arrested in New South Wales in October at the request of the US government, the same week the UK announced a crackdown on its former military pilots working to train Chinese military fliers. The US must lodge an extradition request for Duggan by Dec. 20 under a bilateral treaty, a Sydney court was told yesterday.
WARTIME DIPLOMACY: Zelenskiy met EU leaders and hosted the International Summit on Food Security, which included discussions on agricultural exports from Ukraine Fleeing shelling, civilians on Saturday streamed out of the southern Ukrainian city whose recapture they had celebrated just weeks earlier. The exodus from Kherson came as Ukraine solemnly remembered a Stalin-era famine and sought to ensure that Russia’s war in Ukraine does not deprive others worldwide of its vital food exports. A line of trucks, vans and cars, some towing trailers or ferrying out pets and other belongings, stretched 1km or more on the outskirts of the city of Kherson. Days of intensive shelling by Russian forces prompted a bittersweet exodus: Many civilians were happy that their city had been won back, but
Polish women have not been this angry for this long, and they are taking on the ruling conservatives. Incensed by remarks from the country’s most powerful politician, former Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who accused them of drinking excessively and keeping the birthrate low, many took the streets of Warsaw on Monday. It is a repeat of scenes from two years ago when hundreds of thousands of women marched against a near-total ban on legal abortions, in Poland’s largest public protests in decades. What is different this time is that the ruling party is facing the biggest challenge to its two-term rule before
LEADERSHIP PROBLEM: Hideji Suzuki said that as China becomes more affluent, its leadership is afraid that people will start seeking more freedom and might crack down The former head of a Japan-China friendship group who recently returned to Japan from six years in a Beijing prison for what he said were false spying charges said he still hopes to see China become a global leader, but with better treatment of human rights. Hideji Suzuki, former president of the Japan-China Youth Exchange Association, told a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday that he devoted himself to promoting friendship between the two countries and visited China more than 200 times since the 1980s. He said he was seized at an airport in Beijing as he was leaving the country in