UK police tackle Cyprus bird poachers

By Claire Marshall
BBC Environment Correspondent

media captionThe British police targeting bird poachers in Cyprus

The UK authorities in Cyprus are doubling the number of officers targeting illegal songbird trapping on British military territory.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of birds are killed on the bases, mostly sold for food in what has become a multi-million pound black-market trade.

The crime team is being increased from a squad of six to 11.

Conservationists welcomed the move but point out that they must patrol a base that sprawls over 100 square miles.

They warn the problem is getting "worse and worse".

image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image caption900,000 birds were killed on British territory in Cyprus in one year according to most recent figures.

It's before dawn on Cape Pyla, not far from the party resort of Ayia Napa. A British police unit is scouting for signs of illegal bird poaching.

This is part of "Operation Freedom," a fresh effort by the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) authorities here to stop the trapping and killing of songbirds on British territory.

Despite the expansion in personnel, the area they must cover is massive - a key resting place for millions of migratory birds crossing the Mediterranean.

Vehicles rammed

The three-car convoy suddenly stops when one of the officers hears the sound of a bird - a blackcap.

But these birds don't sing at night. A short distance from the road the officers find what they expect to find: an MP3 player powered by a car battery, with a speaker balanced in the branches.

This fake birdsong signals to other birds that it is safe to rest here: it lures them into the bushes.

image captionOfficer Adamou finds an imitating bird device playing the call of a blackcap
image captionMost nights, dozens of lures can be heard across the base areas each competing to attract victims

This means that the poachers are operating nearby. The police unit will not be welcome. Sergeant Andy Adamou warns: "I've had officers assaulted, shotguns pointed at us, vehicles rammed."

As dawn breaks all of a sudden the convoy picks up speed. It is during this brief period of first light that the poachers put up "mist" nets. They then throw stones at the roosting birds to get them to fly into the trap.

Sgt Adamou points through the open window: "Can you see it? The pole?"

Just visible above the acacia bushes is the top of the mist net. The officers jump from the vehicles.

Just a few metres from the track, they find almost 70 birds struggling in the fine mesh. There is no sign of the poachers although there is an MP3 player nearby.

It is silent, having done its job of luring birds to these bushes. The team works to free them, gently untangling and cutting the fibres from around their throats, wings and legs.

image caption"Softly softly": the officers work to free the trapped birds

Officer Andreas Eleftheriou has a trembling songbird cupped in his hands. "It's like seeing a person in captivity," he said. The bird is in captivity too. He lifts his hands and opens them and the bird flutters up in to the sky.

"Back in the nature where it belongs," Mr Eleftheriou commented.

Sgt Adamou is using scissors to carefully cut netting away from around the belly of a blackcap. "It's an experience, when you hold one of these birds, you can literally feel the heartbeat in your hand."

A net can hold 400 birds - and this is just one site. Every night during the spring and autumn seasons, well over a hundred traps are set all over the territory.

Officer Eleftheriou says he finds it difficult to deal with the extent of the poaching. "I cannot be in a million places at once. You are in one place you know in one place else still some place else and you can't do anything about it," he said.

Death toll

Each autumn, hundreds of millions of songbirds fly south from Britain and Europe to winter in Africa. They concentrate along "migration highways" - but around the Mediterranean, an estimated 25 million are killed by hunters.

Nearly half of the migratory bird species from Europe, Africa and the Middle East are thought to stop to rest on Cape Pyla.

The most recent figures from the conservation group BirdLife Cyprus estimate that almost 900,000 were killed on this British land over the course of one year.

image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image captionA bee-eater struggles in a mist net set by poachers on the British base

Most of the birds are eaten. The local dish "ambelopoulia" is a delicacy. The songbirds are pickled or roasted or fried and eaten illegally in secret.

The Cypriot owner of an olive grove in the British base area near Ayios Nikolaos tells us that the meal is "delicious". He says that people eat it in private in their homes rather than in restaurants.

"Now it's difficult to find so it makes it better when you get it!"

He added: "When people who are against it try it, then they change their minds."

image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image captionA plate of 'Amebelopoulia'. It is illegal under Cyprus and the EU Birds Directive.

A meal of twelve birds can cost up to £60. A poacher can demand £1 a bird: it is a lucrative tax-free income.

If caught, a first-time trapper could be imprisoned for up to three years, or fined up to 17,000 euros. In reality, the average fine is 400 euros and only a handful of people have gone to prison.

James Guy is Divisional Commander of the SBA Police. He said: "The greatest challenges are cultural and political, because for some section of society here it's an accepted practice.

"The argument is that this goes back to their roots when a few birds were taken for the family table - when people were poor and when it was used to subsidise families in a purely eating sense. Now it has become commercial, there's no doubt about it."

Kicking off

It is a multi-million pound black-market trade and investigating it can be risky.

When three anti-poaching activists from the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) approach the house of a known poacher, there are two men on the front porch and one of them yells and expletive at them and tells them: "I'm going to go and get my shotgun. Right now!"

Even as he continues to shout, the plucky group continues and ensure that the area is free from traps before leaving.

This is the second year running that Andrew Rose has come from England to volunteer. When undertaking surveillance operations at night furious trappers regularly chase after him through the undergrowth.

One of his colleagues was beaten with an iron bar. He says his time in the army infantry was "perfect training".

He has a lot of respect for the police officers patrolling out on the ground but says: "I don't think that they are resourced properly. We talk about trapping, but it's organised crime. It's a dangerous job they do and I don't think they get the support they deserve."

image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image captionThe trade in songbirds is thought to be worth around 15 million euros a year
image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image captionAmebelopoulia being served in a restaurant. It is illegal both under Cypriot law and the EU Birds Directive and Bern Convention

BirdLife Cyprus welcomes the beefing up of the police patrol teams. Clairie Papazoglou is Chief Executive of the organisation that has been monitoring illegal trapping for 14 years.

She said that support for tackling the poachers was now finally coming from the "highest level." She says: "We've seen that the bases want to make a difference and want to make this stop. They have been putting a lot of effort in."

But she points to evidence showing that the problem is getting worse and worse. "Having more people on the ground is an important element," she says, "but it's not enough. If you just take a mist net away then they probably have ten at home."

There are no fences ringing the territory and farmers cultivate some of the land so it can be difficult to spot where the trappers harvest the birds.

Ms Papazoglou says removing the bushes that the poachers use to hide their mist nets is the best way forward. Acacia is an invasive species that spreads like a weed.

It is the right height and density to make an inviting roosting spot. Getting rid of the bushes would make it very difficult to set effective traps.

image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image captionAcacia bushes provide an ideal roosting spot for migrating birds
image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image captionThe mist nets can hold up to 400 birds and are almost invisible when strung between poles in the bushes.
image captionThis traditional trapping method is still used: "limesticks" are twigs coated in a type of glue. It's almost impossible for birds to escape

Divisional Commander James Guy says that they are trying. He estimates that they have spent half a million euros in removing 50 acres of the 200 that exist.

However, they have been hampered by local protests. In July, contractors arrived to remove some of the acacia and they found the road blocked by several excavators and around eighty 4x4s. Some two hundred locals and six MPs successfully disrupted the operation - so far the SBA authorities haven't tried again.

Andrea Rutigliano, from CABS, says: "We were always disappointed by the performance of the SBA authorities and by the lack of political will. Basically we've seen an attitude of tolerance and them trying to turn their eyes away from the problem."

image copyrightBirdLife Cyprus
image captionTrapping dates back to a time when bird were needed to supplement the family table - to provide protein