No let-up in Cyprus bird poaching

By Claire Marshall
BBC Environment Correspondent

Image source, BirdLife Cyprus
Image caption,
Acacia bushes provide an ideal roosting spot for migrating birds

British authorities in Cyprus have been criticised for failing to effectively tackle the poaching of songbirds on a military base.

Some 1.7 million birds were illegally killed across the Republic of Cyprus in 2016 according to a new report.

More than 800,000 were killed on the British military territory that extends for around 100 sq km (100 sq miles).

The UK authorities in Cyprus said that their efforts had helped to halt what had been a rising trend.

Hot spot identified

The study was carried out by the RSPB and Birdlife Cyprus, during the autumn migration season between September and October in 2016.

Within the territory is a spot where nearly half of migratory bird species from Europe, Africa and the Middle East are thought to stop to rest - Cape Pyla.

According to today's report, Cape Pyla is the worst spot in the country for trapping.

The songbirds are sold on the black market to be pickled, roasted or fried and eaten in secret as a local delicacy. Criminal gangs are thought to earn huge sums from the trade.

Image source, BirdLife Cyprus
Image caption,
The mist nets can hold up to 400 birds and are almost invisible when strung between poles in the bushes.

Along with the British bases, the survey covered the popular holiday destination areas of Famagusta and Larnaca along with Ayios Theodorus - Maroni.

The poachers have found that the most efficient way of trapping birds is to use a "mist net" strung between acacia bushes.

Acacia is an invasive species that spreads like a weed and is the right height and density to make an inviting roosting spot.

Fake birdsong is played from MP3 players hidden in the branches which deceives the birds into thinking it's a safe place. They then fly straight in to the near-invisible net. One net can trap 400 birds. Getting rid of the bushes would make it very difficult to set effective traps.

But today's report criticises the British military authorities for not pressing ahead with plans to clear acacia bushes from the territory. An operation to remove the bushes was stopped after a protest last year when trucks were used to blockade the main road in and out of the base.

Image source, BirdLife Cyprus
Image caption,
Around 800,000 birds were killed on British territory in Cyprus in 2016 according to most recent figures.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director said: "This report sadly highlights that the British base is the number one bird killing hotspot on the whole island of Cyprus. Many much loved garden bird species are being trapped and killed for huge profit by criminal gangs. The trappers' brazen prevention of the removal of their criminal infrastructure from MoD land could never be tolerated here in the UK."

According to a spokesman for the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs): "The UK is committed to tackling illegal bird crime and is pleased that the RSPB has recognised a significant increase in enforcement activity that has led to a record number of arrests, equipment seizures, prosecutions and fines. For the second year running we have halted the rising trend in numbers of birds killed."

The spokesman also pointed out that from a force of 142 officers, 11 are dedicated to anti-poaching.

However while some poachers have been hit with fines of up to 17,000 euros, only two or three have ever ended up in prison.

The SBA is limited in what it can do to reduce demand for the songbirds. The songbird dish is called "ambelopoulia" and almost all of the restaurants serving it are found in the Republic. A meal of 12 birds can cost up to £60. A poacher can demand £1 a bird. It is a lucrative, tax-free income.

Martin Hellicar, Director of BirdLife Cyprus said: "While our latest findings clearly show that the worst bird killing hotspot in Cyprus remains on MoD land, we cannot ignore the distasteful fact that the restaurants serving trapped birds operate within the Cyprus Republic. Enforcement against these law-breaking restaurants has been limited - at best - in recent years, and the Cypriot authorities must change this."

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