As bad news on the bird trapping front made the headlines again recently, angry calls for nature lovers to “Boycott Cyprus!” flooded social media. Speaking as a veteran of the anti-trapping campaign, I want to say that this might just be the worst thing birdwatchers and other visitors could do, if they want to help end the Cyprus songbird slaughter.

The cry for a boycott is more than understandable as a first reaction to images of doomed birds struggling in nets and on limesticks, along with news of a backward step in the long, long campaign to end the killing. But staying away from Cyprus and encouraging others to do the same won’t help at all.

Shout about the ugly crime against nature that bird trapping is, yes. Send letters of protest to President Christodoulides in Nicosia and Prime Minister Sunak in London (for the British bases also have a major part to play here). A boycott, however, does nothing to ‘assign value’ to protecting birds. And this is what I am convinced we must do.

Trapping is about making money. It is about big, illegal gains. Gains counted in the millions – for a plate of a dozen ambelopoulia now sells for upwards of €80 in law-breaking restaurants. This is why Mafia gangs get involved in the slaughter of the migrants. Forget the ‘tradition’ argument pedaled by the pro-trapping brigade. It is money-making that drives so many in the island’s more eastern constituencies to demand the authorities turn a blind eye to trapping and the supply and eating of the ambelopoulia songbird delicacy. It drives them to demand their representatives in parliament push through relaxations to the hunting law, which they have done.

picture2These relaxations make a complete mockery of fines for trapping with glue-smeared limesticks, effectively decriminalising this form of trapping. Compare and contrast the following. A trapper caught with a single song thrush in a mist net faces a fine of at least €2,000. If caught using limesticks to snare a Blackcap – or any of the 14 favourite ambelopoulia species assigned to a ‘less protected’ category as part of the same package of law relaxations, the fine starts at just €200, for up to 50 birds! A complete non-deterrent for limestick use, when you factor in the price that 50 songbirds fetch. This is why limestick use is not going away – far from it.

We need these dangerous relaxations reversed, and to get back on track in the battle to end trapping. To achieve this, we need to convince hard-nosed politicians and decision-makers – the people who can effect change on the trapping front – that money (and taxable income at that, unlike the ambelopoulia gains) can in fact be made from protecting birds and nature.

As BirdLife Cyprus – and as part of a multi-pronged campaign against bird trapping – we have been doing our best to promote birdwatching tourism specifically, and nature tourism in general. We explain to decision-makers that this is a global growth area and that Cyprus is perfectly placed – both geographically and in terms of the birds we have to offer – for the European birdwatching market. And yes, we of course tell them that they need to end the trapping if Cyprus is to have any realistic hope of building a reputation as a great nature tourism destination. That plus far more effective protection and management for key wildlife sites. We tell the decision-makers that investing in nature tourism is the sustainable choice.

But an honest assessment of where we are today is that while this eco-tourism argument is gaining ground, it is still not an easy ‘sell’. We need more ‘boots on the ground’ (or should that be ‘binoculars on the ground’?), to convince the ‘money-first’ brigade of the merit of our argument. We need there to be a significant nature tourism market established and running in Cyprus, generating significant income. A tourism product for the powers-that-be to value and fear losing. We are not there yet, so a boycott just does not hold any real threat.

The message our decision-makers would take from a boycott right now – if indeed they took any heed at all – would be that birdwatching tourism is “all-too-fragile”. That it is not worth the expense or political cost of clamping down on bird trapping and investing in protection of wildlife sites like Akamas, Akrotiri and Cape Greco. It is also true to say a boycott would hit the wrong people – hoteliers and others in the tourism industry, rather than trappers.

So if you are a birder, come to Cyprus. Enjoy our wonderful birds. Of course, do not pretend you can ignore trapping. Let BirdLife Cyprus know if you come across a trapping site and we will alert and push the authorities to take action. Do tell people you meet that you have come to our island to see birds in their natural habitats.

Overall, we have come a very long way in the battle against the slaughter, and our outreach and education work is even beginning to effect a cultural shift towards bird protection (though this still needs time to take hold). Compared to 20 years ago, trapping levels with mist nets are more than 90 per cent reduced. That said, this autumn past saw signs of a backslide, which is why we at BirdLife Cyprus – along with the RSPB (BirdLife UK) and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) – kicked up a media storm, to great effect.

Well over 400,000 birds were killed over autumn 2023, based on results from our systematic field monitoring. It makes little difference that the slaughter was in the millions not so many years ago. This reduced total is still shocking and too big a toll on our increasingly threatened migrant birds. The British bases took their eye off the ball and reduced anti-trapping policing in Dhekelia, at least early in the autumn, leading to a 40 per cent spike in trapping. The authorities in the Republic are still failing quite spectacularly to tackle the big, well-known, Mafia-operated trapping sites. Plus there is that dangerous relaxation in limestick penalties still in play.

Coverage of this bad news was widespread, reaching the UK and even far-away Canada. This media spotlight and reaction will be hard for Nicosia and London to ignore, which is nothing but good news for the birds. A boycott, on the other hand, sends all the wrong messages.

Martin Hellicar is director of local nature conservation NGO BirdLife Cyprus