By Constantinos Psillides
DESPITE the trapping of 2.5 million birds last year as part of a €15m a year industry, only 140 poaching cases involving around 500 people are currently before the courts, the game service has told the Sunday Mail.
Even though 500 people will probably be fined, and that is an improvement on past decades, according to game fund official Petros Anagiotos, they have little to fear.
“In our experience, the average fine imposed by the court is around €500-€800. There were in the past some cases where a fine of around €10,000 was imposed but this is extremely rare,” he said.
The penalty for illegal bird trapping is up to €17,000 and three years in jail, a sentence that has never been imposed up to now.
The highest fine ever imposed was €10,000, in the case of an 83-year-old woman from Khirokitia village. In 2011 authorities found freezers in the woman’s home packed with 2,500 ambelopoulia, the ‘traditional delicacy’ consisting of the migratory black cap.
Despite it being illegal, ambelopoulia is still available at restaurants, especially in the Famagusta district where the bulk of all poaching is carried out.
Anagiotos says that out of the 140 cases reported last year, around 10 per cent were restaurateurs. “When we find patrons eating ambelopoulia we report the owner to the police. We don’t punish the patrons but we take the owner to court,” he said.
But if the government has its way, no restaurant serving ambelopoulia will ever be fined again.
Conservationists and bird protection groups were left gobsmacked last week when the cabinet approved a much-awaited strategic action plan to combat illegal bird trapping, which they say was amended behind their backs to allow for ‘selective hunting’ of black caps, under the guise that this would cut down on poaching.
‘Selective hunting’ would mean being allowed to shoot the birds down but not – as is the current practice – to trap them with limesticks and mist nets, the theory being it would be logistically impossible to shoot down the number of birds that are trapped in this way every year. Cyprus proposes taking this ‘bird protection plan’ to the EU and asking for a derogation from environmental directives on the grounds that shooting ambelopoulia is a tradition.
There was no information from the cabinet on how shooting down the birds would actually stop the trapping by the organised gangs, since figures show the practice continues unabated with little by way of a deterrent as it is.
“This is a dramatic and out of control situation. 152 different species are affected, of which 78 are threatened. To give an idea, all five species of owl recorded in Cyprus are affected by this illegal activity (including the endemic subspecies of the Cyprus scops owl), as well as the endemic Cyprus warbler. As it is an illegal activity it is difficult to have an estimated number of ambelopoulia that are killed, but we would like to point out that the category ‘ambelopoulia’ (the dish) includes approximately 30 different species. The remaining affected species are by-catch and are thrown away says Natalie Stylianou, a media officer for BirdLife.
Therefore without offering a plan to combat an already-out-of-control situation, all the cabinet’s proposal will do is add to the problem by letting restaurants off the hook.
Former Environment Commissioner Charalambos Theopemptou said that even the fine, low as it is now, would be abolished if ‘selective hunting’ was allowed.
In a Facebook post, the former commissioner said the only thing the new plan would accomplish would be to allow restaurateurs a free rein.
“When they were caught serving ambelopoulia they were fined because obviously the birds were obtained illegally. But now they can easily claim that they shot the birds themselves and get out of the fine,” he said.
BirdLife Cyprus agreed. “If such a derogation were to go through, in practice it would be extremely difficult to know the method by which the birds served in restaurants were killed, if it were with selective (i.e. flobert) or non-selective methods (mist nets and limesticks),” said a representative of the group.
“We could imagine a situation whereby enforcement authorities go to a restaurant to do a check and find some birds in the freezer. If the restaurant owner, claims that these are his personal birds and that for example, he just kept them in the freezer because his freezer at home is not working and he has a ‘legal’ licence for personal use, it will be impossible to prove that these were held there for trading. That could mean the end of enforcement at restaurants, which is the basis of the ‘demand’ side of the problem.”
So why is the state doing so little to tackle the problem?
Political pressure is a main factor. Bird trapping is rampant in the Famagusta district, providing income for many locals. A small indication of just how strong the bird trapping lobby really is was an incident that took place on October 22, 2010 at the Ayios Theodoros village, Larnaca district. Police had raided the homes of suspected poachers and a search yielded more than 3,300 birds along with trapping equipment. The villagers attacked the police officers by throwing rocks at them and yelling insults which lead to a brawl with the Rapid Response Unit (MMAD). Two teenagers were slightly injured as a result. MPs from the Famagusta and Larnaca district took to the media the next day slamming the police and likening their raid with one at a Taliban village in Afghanistan.
In 2013 governing DISY, the party with the strongest presence in the district, was holding party elections which were almost cancelled, after angry protesters in Paralimni took the ballot box and threw it on the street. The protesters wanted police to cease a clamp down on bird trapping, which was launched earlier that week with the help of environmentalists. Current party leader Averof Neophytou and current MEP Lefteris Christoforou managed to defuse the situation after promising that environmentalists would no longer be allowed to take part in taking down the illegal bird trapping network.
Currently, the only party that has come out against the new plan are the Greens, calling it “the government’s ultra populism.”
The remainder, bar a single Famgusta DISY MP, have, with parliamentary elections looming in 2016, not come out on either side of the debate, perhaps because the whole proposal is likely to come to nothing in any case.
BirdLife believes that this notion of an EU derogation is doomed to fail.
“No derogations have ever been given in the EU to hunt a non-huntable species, like the black cap,” said the organisation’s executive director, Dr Clairie Papazoglou pointing out that besides running against a wall Cyprus will also be faced with a fine if steps aren’t taken to tackle the bird trapping.
It is estimated that for the whole process of applying for derogation or abandoning the plan altogether to form a new one would take around a year.
Or, to put it in another way, the length of time it takes to kill another 2.5 million birds.