By Jean Christou
THE BRITISH bases and BirdLife Cyprus were at odds on Monday after a report was released suggesting a record 900,000 songbirds had been killed by poachers in the British base area of Dhekelia last autumn, three times the number since monitoring began in 2002.
The report was released in the UK by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in cooperation with BirdLife Cyprus, its international partner on the island.
“The figures for last autumn reveal that 2014 was the worst year on record, by far, with an estimated 900,000 birds being killed. This is equivalent to almost 15,000 songbirds a day during the September-October period,” the RSPB said in a report that was widely publicised in the British media. The birds end up on restaurant plates as the local delicacy known as ‘ambelopoulia’.
The figure of 900,000 presented does not cover the entire year, nor the number of migratory birds killed in the Republic. In 2013 the total islandwide was 1.5 million, and figures yesterday suggested the 2014 tally was around the two-million mark. The RSPB said the number of birds being killed in the Republic had declined.
But the figures have raised hackles at the bases. “We are not happy with the BirdLife figures. We do not believe they are robust,” spokesman Sean Tully told the Cyprus Mail.
He said the organisation had based their 900,000 figure “on a snapshot” of the situation in September and October and not across the whole migratory season from August to December, though the bases themselves did not have a contradictory figure to offer.
Tully did say that during the last reporting period, bases police had arrested 48 people, which was 20 per cent more than the previous season, and had confiscated 350 mist nets and 289 limesticks. They had also carried out four major clearances including poaching paraphernalia and had cut down a huge swathe of acacia trees.
Poachers plant the invasive tree and set up irrigation systems, using the acacia’s cover to attract the birds and hide bird-song audio equipment, nets and limesticks.
“We are removing as much as we can,” said Tully, adding that the bases had chopped the equivalent of 11 football pitches of acacia during the last poaching season. But the RSPB report said the bases only started removing the acacia in December, when the season was coming to an end, and had only removed it from the periphery of the Pyla range, the centre of the illegal activity.
“We do accept the [firing] range at Pyla is a hot spot for poaching,” said Tully. “But this is not a reflection of a lack of enforcement. It’s a remote and unpopulated area that attracts birds, and the poachers recognise this. That is why there is so much poaching on our patch.”
Tully said the bases wanted to work with BirdLife and with the Republic “to eradicate this barbaric activity”. “The bases do not take this issue lightly at all.”
He said the bases had offered assist to BirdLife during the reporting period “and they decided not to take us up on it. Hopefully this year they will.”
Tully said what they hoped to do was to declare the area a Specialised Area of Conservation and secure EU funding to take down all of the acacia trees, which he said was “not cheap” to do. The application for the funding would have to be done with the cooperation of the Republic, he said.
BirdLife says the number sampling was done in the same way as it has always been done. “So even if we were using absolute numbers, the comparison is indisputable,” a representative there told the Cyprus Mail.
“The picture does not look good for the bases,” said the group’s campaigns officer Tassos Shialis. “I think they are doing as much as they can with limited resources,” he added, which was especially evident during the main migratory period. “Four or five officers to cover a large number of sites is not enough. If they really want to tackle it they should make more resources available in order to make a significant impact.”
Sources close to BirdLife who did not wish to be named suggested that the record numbers of birds killed might be due to the fact that more people were turning to the illegal but lucrative activity because of the financial crisis. To compound this, the bases were not receiving the political support they needed from the UK government to step up their own game in the wake of increased poaching activity. “They made a start with the acacia and that was welcomed,” the source said. “But they need more political support.”
Dr Tim Stowe the RSPB’s International Director urged the UK ministry of defence and the base area authorities to resolve the problem before this autumn’s migration.
“We were pleased that the Base Area authorities have started to remove acacia scrub last December. We believe the scale of illegal trapping requires continuing and sustained action, and we’ll continue to offer our support.” But it said the bases needed to develop a plan to remove all of the acacia “as rapidly as possible”.
The sources close to BirdLife said the reason the organisation had declined the offer of assistance from the bases during the most recent reporting period was due to the group’s own security concerns as the bulk of poaching activity has fallen under organised crime. BirdLife sends out a two-man team into what can be a potentially dangerous situation. “If they are [constantly] seen with [bases] police, they could be marked out so BirdLife needs to maintain the independence and safety of the team,” said the source.