By Peter Stevenson
AROUND 1.5 million birds will have been killed in Cyprus this year according to preliminary results from BirdLife Cyprus’ surveillance programme.
BirdLife Cyprus and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have been monitoring songbirds – or as they are locally know ambelopoulia – trapping operations on the island since 2002.
BirdLife Cyprus told the Cyprus Mail, in that time, the scale of bird-trapping had increased by 54 per cent. Although it is widespread, the organisation said that some of the largest trapping operations were within the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA).
These take place on the two British SBAs in Cyprus, at Akrotiri and Dhekelia, sites covering about 100 sq miles that are British sovereign territory.
Martin Hellicar from BirdLife Cyprus told the BBC that in Dhekelia, organised criminal gangs created “labyrinths” of acacia trees, irrigating the plantations and cutting corridors through them in order to set up long mist nets.
These operations often also use loudspeakers with recordings of bird calls in order to lure migrating birds into the almost invisible nets.
BirdLife Cyprus says that massive profits are being made by often organised and ruthless trappers thanks to the largely uncontrolled sale of expensive ambelopoulia in law-breaking restaurants.
“A dozen birds can fetch up to €80,” a spokesperson from BirdLife Cyprus told BBC.
Because Cyprus is a key stopover on the migration route of many birds, including blackcaps and warblers, the trapping mainly takes place during the autumn.
BirdLife’s estimate that 1.5 million birds will have been killed will be published in early 2014, as part of a report on bird-trapping in the country. It is based on a decade of survey data, where researchers measured the scale of the trapping and estimated how many birds would be caught in those traps.
BirdLife Cyprus said it was calling on the UK defence ministry to do more to tackle illegal bird trapping on its land.
A spokesperson from the ministry told the BBC it already took the issue “extremely seriously”. It added that the SBA police, administered by the defence ministry, were conducting a continuing operation to combat trappers.
“We have worked closely with BirdLife Cyprus and on numerous occasions have invited them to observe our efforts to tackle this abhorrent illegal activity,” the ministry told the BBC.
“Unfortunately, as long as there is still demand for these dishes then the activity is likely to continue, [but] the SBA authorities will continue to do all they can to try and stop it.”
Andreas Pitsillides, who is chief inspector of the SBA police in Dhekelia, told the BBC that when his team carried out raids on these operations, they would often find between five and ten 20m-long mist nets in one location.
“[The trappers] have become professionals,” Pitsillides told the BBC.
“They have spotters, so when they see our police cars, and even our unmarked cars, they contact each other with mobile phones and leave the area. So it’s very difficult to arrest them.”
BirdLife also hopes that its latest findings will persuade the Cypriot government to “take action against the restaurants that are selling this illegal dish”.