By Jean Christou
BIRDLIFE Cyprus on Monday welcomed a letter sent by Britain’s Prince Charles to the bases authorities and the Cyprus government demanding urgent action to end the ‘barbaric slaughter’ of birds.
In a private letter excerpts of which were published by The Mail on Sunday, Charles, a well-known conservationist, wrote to the most senior army commander at the British bases as well as President Nicos Anastasiades, condemning the ‘industrial scale killing’. He called it ‘big business, run by serious organised criminals’.
Since the new government came to power last year, the zero-tolerance of the previous administration towards illegal trapping has been replaced with a lackadaisical approach to catching and prosecuting poachers, according to conservation groups.
BirdLife Cyprus which has been fighting a losing battle of late, said on Monday it welcomed the news that someone as high-profile as Prince Charles had taken an interest.
“We welcome any sort of pressure in terms of illegal trapping situation be it from the EU or Prince Charles… any support for our efforts,” the organisation’s campaign officer Tassos Shialis told the Cyprus Mail .
“We hope that coming from Prince Charles the situation will be taken more seriously. We as BirdLife are lower down on the list when we complain. We have been at it for ten years but we are not being heard as loudly.”
Shialis said BirdLife hoped to see a change in attitudes now that Charles had “stirred up the waters”.
In his letter, Prince Charles wrote: “Disturbingly, autumn mist-netting levels are now much higher on this British soil than in the Republic of Cyprus, with mist netting in the SBAs estimated to have increased 180 per cent since 2002.”
According to the Mail on Sunday reports that on land within the 50 square mile Dhekelia area farmers planted non-native acacia bushes to attract passing birds as they look for insects. As is well known, the birds are caught in mist nets and with limesticks and often lured by loudspeakers set up to emit birdsong. And, it’s not only songbirds – targeted to be sold as ambelopoulia – but all types of birds that are indiscriminately caught in the various traps. Some 1.5 million a year are slaughtered this way, around one third of them in the British bases.
In his letter to Major-General Richard Cripwell, Commander of the British Forces in Cyprus, Charles calls for the acacia groves to be removed from British ministry of defence land by the start of the autumn migration period in September.
“This would not only at a stroke save hundreds of thousands of birds being killed illegally on British soil, but would also prevent significant profits from flowing into the pockets of the serious organised criminals who control this barbaric practice.”
Sources within the bird conservation community told the Cyprus Mail that it was not only the Republic of Cyprus now turning a blind eye to poachers but the bases too had eased away from its zero-tolerance policy.
“The bases are still trying but not hard enough,” said the sources.
“They used to have a zero tolerance policy but it seems they don’t want to aggravate the locals or cause a stir.” Whether or not the stepping back by the Republic due to number of ruling DISY voters in the Famagusta district is connected with the almost simultaneous easing off by the bases is a coincidence, the sources couldn’t say.
“There might be different agendas at work,” they said.
Only last week the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) and the and the Foundation Pro Biodiversity (SPA) said there were “alarming signals” coming from both quarters.
“The lack of political will and the yielding to the demands of trappers was the common denominator both for the Republic of Cyprus and the British ESBA (Eastern Sovereign Base Area),” a statement said.
Deputy government spokesman Victoras Papadopoulos, told the Mail on Sunday: “The president told Prince Charles we do everything we can within the law to enforce the law on trapping. We have the same concerns. He is respected in Cyprus and this will have an effect.”
One Cypriot political figure made light of the controversy, telling the newspaper: “The birds are a delicacy. Catching them is traditional and you are hypocritical. It wasn’t long ago when English aristocrats used to hunt and kill foxes, and you can’t even eat them.”
According to the article, around 30 trappers, some of whom operate on Dhekelia, and many with underworld connections, are believed to dominate the trade, which is said to be worth some €15 million a year, while deterrents are minimal.
A Mail on Sunday reporter went on patrol with SBA police officers hunting trappers. It said none were caught, but a net with dead birds was found, along with dozens of metal support poles and a loudspeaker wired to a car battery.
SBA police Divisional Commander James Guy, said restaurants were rarely prosecuted for serving ambelopoulia. “There are politicians who appear to have a very sympathetic attitude towards trappers,” he said.