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BirdLife activist feels the call of the wild

(Photo: Zoltan Tolgyes)

In an un-angry activist THEO PANAYIDES finds a woman teased by her ambelopoulia-eating relatives, even as she works every day to protect birds of all kinds

There are many different kinds of activists, and Antaia Christou knows them all. “I have met many angry activists,” she admits when I bring up the most common stereotype, “who couldn’t even have a conversation, let’s say, with someone who eats meat.” Not a conversation about eating meat, just a conversation in general; animal flesh is a moral barrier in the eyes of such activists, making you a bad person with whom any interaction is inherently painful. What does Antaia herself think of such types? “I mean – if you’re angry all the time, it’s really bad,” she replies with a nervous little chuckle. “Of course there are many things to be angry about, especially with Nature… But, if you’re angry all the time, then you’re not really – useful.”

Then you have the obsessives, the geeks of the activist world. “Like a guy I met during Cabs,” she recalls, Cabs being the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, a German NGO where she worked for a while. This particular man had been a birdwatcher since childhood, “he knew all the birds, like, the wingspan of each one”. Someone was building nearby – this was out in the countryside – “and he felt so angry that [the other guy] was going to take land from the animals, that he was going there every night and taking away the tools, stuff like that”. That was never her, she admits, that kind of frenzied fascination dating back to her earliest years.

Then you have – for want of a better word – the hippies, the spiritual types for whom eco-activism is part of a larger worldview. “I used to live with an Italian guy in Malta,” she tells me (they were flatmates, not in a relationship), “he was Buddhist and very religious… He really loved the earth, he went everywhere barefoot just to feel the energy of the earth. We’d be chatting and he’d say how it’s so different if you went to this beach and you felt this kind of sand, than to the other beach…” She shakes her head in wonder: “He was very lovely”.

Photo: by BirdLife Malta

He may have been lovely – but Antaia (pronounced ‘Andea’) isn’t quite like that either, looking dubious when I ask about spiritual matters. Then again, it may be more accurate to say that she’s not like that yet, since she’s still very young (only 26) and could easily blossom (or curdle) into a different kind of activist. She’s just joined BirdLife Cyprus as a Conservation Project Officer – having worked at Cabs, where she still volunteers, plus two years in Malta with BirdLife Malta and a stint at local marine-environmental NGO Enalia Physis – and in fact only made the move into protecting Nature (as opposed to researching it) in her early 20s. We meet at Apomero café in Nicosia on a very chilly Saturday afternoon, the interview punctuated by a big dog snuffling and barking at the table behind us. She’s reading a book with a bird on the cover when I arrive, which seems typical – but it’s not some dry activist tome (the bird is a penguin, the book Gerald Durrell’s 50s travelogue The Whispering Land), which also seems typical. She has humorous brown eyes, rather sharp features, and a pleasant demeanour which doesn’t falter once in the course of our two hours together.

Being a woman – specifically a young, pretty woman – is relevant in her work too; maybe not the (largely office-based) job she’s now taking on at BirdLife, but certainly the front-line patrols she’s been conducting in the past few years, often clashing violently (without ever trying to provoke confrontation, she adds) with hunters and trappers. In Malta it was mostly the former, the Maltese being serious about their hunting (it’s the only EU country that allows hunting even in the spring, during the animals’ reproductive period) and illegally shooting even rare birds like flamingos, which they sell to taxidermists. In Cyprus it’s mostly the latter, most of our slaughtered birds being the famous black-caps (ambelopoulia) which are trapped with nets and lime-sticks, mostly in the east and south of the island. Cabs have often clashed with the locals, and often been attacked by them. And Antaia personally? “No, but I think it’s only because I’m a woman. It’s like this weird thing these people have – they might beat the hell out of a man, but they wouldn’t hit a woman. Like, you feel it’s their mentality.”

It may indeed be slightly puzzling for these rural trappers – mostly older men, confirms Antaia, many of them with “huge bellies” – to find themselves being harangued by an attractive, clearly educated girl who might be their daughter. She recalls one guy, “we came across him in the fields”, not a trapper per se – or at least they didn’t catch him trapping – “he was just going up and down on his moped, shouting ‘Shame on you!’ and going away”. After about the fifth time, Antaia engaged him in conversation, “and we actually chatted for about an hour – which was very interesting, because he was saying things like ‘God brought the black-caps for us to eat, why are you opposing this?’ and ‘People are hungry, that’s why they trap them’, and ‘People send their kids to university because of black-caps’.”

Some of the arguments are easier to deflect than others. ‘People are starving’ is obviously absurd, and eating a 14g bird – “14g with the feathers,” she adds – wouldn’t be much help anyway. The importance of tradition is a stronger defence, and it’s true that using lime sticks (though not nets) is something that’s been done for generations, even though it’s been illegal since 1974; Antaia’s own grandparents caught birds that way, near the village of Pervolia. Still, she notes, there are many things our grandparents did that we don’t do today. The guy on the moped also cited fox hunting in the UK, presumably claiming hypocrisy – but then, countered Antaia, if you want to compare other countries why not cite India, where the cow is sacred and not even eaten, let alone killed so sadistically? (And nets don’t just kill black-caps; lots of other birds, as well as snakes, owls and lizards, die alongside them.) Besides, it shouldn’t be about other countries: “We’re talking Cyprus now”.

“Actually,” she recounts with a laugh, “in the end he said, ‘Ah, you’re smart’ – like a ‘Didn’t expect that’ kind of thing. And he was like: ‘Are you married?’. Then he looked at my hands, before I could say anything, and he was like: ‘Even if you’re with someone it’s not serious, so it’s okay. My son…’” She trails off, to indicate the man singing the praises of his unmarried – and clearly desirable – offspring. “I’m like, what? This is so surreal!”

Photo: by Greta Santagata

The idea of ending up as the daughter-in-law of a bird-trapping enthusiast with an interest in matchmaking is obviously comedy – but a lot of Antaia’s stories have an element of the absurd, or perhaps she has a knack for seeing the absurd in what happens. Another story finds her parked outside a church in the village of Ayios Theodoros, surrounded by angry locals. She was the driver, she explains, dropped off her colleagues (this was in 2018, working for Cabs as a volunteer) then parked by the church; almost at once, six cars and a tractor appeared – she assumes they recognised the car – and completely surrounded her. An assortment of middle-aged men got out, yelling and being aggressive; they took her phone and car keys – though, again, her gender seems to have saved her from physical harm. “If you were a man, I’d let him tear you to pieces,” said a man with a big dog, pointedly restraining the animal.

Eventually the police arrived. “They came directly to me, and they said: ‘You shouldn’t be trespassing’. I was so confused,” she recalls, “I was so angry”. The cops, unsurprisingly, sided with the locals – but the little touch of absurdity came earlier, while she was waiting for them to arrive. “Did you go inside?” one man asked Antaia, indicating the church; “Did you go in to pray?”. “And I’m like ‘No’, and he’s like ‘Huh’” – with a little shake of the head, as if to say ‘What can you expect from these people?’. “And when the police came, I think he said something like ‘Oh, she didn’t even go in the church’,” she adds, laughing at the weird things human beings do in fraught situations.

An angry (or angrier) activist might’ve pointed out that the man was trying to ‘Other’ her, which of course is absolutely true – but Antaia isn’t so resentful, or judgmental. Maybe she’s still young enough to enjoy the adventure – or perhaps, given her background, she still feels attached, on some level, to the oblivious behaviour of ‘normal’ (i.e. non-bird-loving) people. Her family “didn’t really expect me to be interested in this,” she admits with a chuckle: her dad works for Cyta, her mum was an accountant at Cyprus Airways then re-trained as an interior designer. She still has relatives who enjoy ambelopoulia, and like to tease her about it. Her circle isn’t always very enlightened. “I get this question so many times,” she sighs, when she tells people that she works at an NGO protecting birds: “‘So you’re a volunteer? Ah, you get money? Very little money, right?’”. The implication is that only a few eccentrics would do this work, and presumably for free. She herself went the usual route, Geography at Queen Mary’s in London then a Master’s thesis on how school-age kids relate to Nature – but she also watched a documentary against bird slaughter, and was moved to volunteer. She recalls seeing her first black-cap trapped on a lime-stick, a female bird as it happened: “I just saw her there, so nervous, y’know she was trying to free herself and getting more stuck. It was just so – like, very heartbreaking to see”. Life-changing stuff.

The activist’s dilemma, she explains, is often whether to prevent the killing of a bird or alternatively film it as it happens, so the hunter can be caught – but perhaps the real dilemma is whether simply to oppose the other side, or try and engage with them. In Malta, for instance, some trappers capture birds to keep as pets, placing plovers or song thrushes in little cages which they carry around with them, to the coffee shop or wherever. “I really love this bird, I see it every day… It will live longer with me, no-one will eat it,” one man assured Antaia – a case of activist and trapper expressing similar feelings in diametrically opposite ways. “You could see that he genuinely thought he loved them,” she muses. “But for me, this is a very strange way of loving.”

Even more common are the people – not necessarily evil people – who just don’t see what the fuss is about. Take the new Paphos-Polis highway, for instance, which is slated to pass through the protected area of Ezousa Valley (a Natura 2000 site), ravaging a rich bird habitat; but why, some might say, can’t the birds simply move to the next valley? Antaia sighs deeply. “I mean, the birds – could, I guess, go to the next valley, but that’s not the right way to think about it,” she replies at last. The next valley might not be as rich; animals would die trying to get there; once you lose a valley, it’s usually gone for good. “But also, the mentality itself – like, ‘Oh, can’t you just go somewhere else?’. Like, ‘I’m here now’.” She shakes her head: “It doesn’t work that way”. There’s something else, something – she admits – that not everyone will feel: the value of Nature as an asset, a good in itself. “If I go around and only see buildings,” she explains, “I don’t feel okay.”

Maybe that’s the key, in the end. Antaia Christou seems a very un-angry kind of activist, almost like she happened to drift into militant action – and indeed she’s already gone slightly more mainstream. BirdLife (though every bit as committed) are more inclined to “engage the authorities” when it comes to trapping, and they’re also behind an ambitious new plan to create a safe haven – a kind of nature reserve – for birds in Frenaros, building a hope of winning over the locals instead of clashing with them.

All this on one side. But Antaia also mentions, apropos of Nature, that “for me, just knowing that there is a wild place makes me feel good” – and perhaps there’s a wild place in her too, a stark unyielding place behind the pleasant demeanour, somewhere that rejects human hubris and sticks up for the beauty of the pastoral idyll. The dream of a world without people, just black-caps and plovers, and monk seals and turtles. “I don’t know why people don’t – really care about them,” she admits, and chuckles sadly.

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