Just sleep with one eye always open …

The need for civil society organisations to act as environmental watchdogs remains urgent. The last few weeks have been a rough time on the nature protection front, and the main ‘take home’ message has been the need to ‘sleep with one eye open’.

The first case in point concerns recent, further revelations around the Akamas ‘roadgate’ scandal.

When this scandal erupted late last year, there were those who actually tried to turn some of the heat back onto the environmental NGOs that had sounded the alarm. We heard protestations along the lines of: ‘Why did the environmentalists not shout about this earlier?’ As if the government departments whose job it was to watch over the implementation of road ‘improvements’ in the protected Akamas area had no responsibility to bear. Civil society should have done the government’s job better, the detractors’ logic seemed to be, and the damage would have been limited (!). It was a nonsensical stance, but I suppose it could be taken as a back-handed compliment for conservation NGOs like Terra Cypria and BirdLife Cyprus. A tacit acknowledgement of the key role we have come to play in protecting key sites. But it was not meant that way.

A reminder is necessary that the scandal involved roadworks that completely ignored the environmental ‘tread lightly’ conditions attached through the impact assessment process. The bulldozers rode roughshod through the peninsula, carving out roads twice as wide as permitted, while random and unnecessary roadside walls went up all over the place. The design and placement of new bridges across Akamas streams – some of these waterways crucial for the globally threatened European eel Anguilla anguilla – was disastrously slipshod.

It is also worth remembering that these works were being carried out under the “watchful eye” of the Forestry Department. The findings of a ‘what went wrong’ government investigation into the violation of environmental conditions have not been released yet. They must be, as soon as possible and with no editing; because if the powers that be do not get to the bottom of this mess, and do not do so in a public and open manner, then how can we know it will not happen again, on Akamas or in another protected area? Investigation aside, it is clear the overall blame must be borne by all relevant departments. They could, and should, have had an eye on things.

The above is certainly bad enough; but there is now worse. The press recently got hold of and published the contents of a letter sent by the Water Development Department (WDD) in October 2022, a full year before the environmental NGOs blew the whistle on ‘roadgate’. The WDD warned in this letter – seen by both the Forestry and Environment Departments – that environmental conditions set for bridges and culverts across precious Akamas streams were being violated. The obvious question is why were the works not halted, there and then. Why was it down to the NGOs, with their limited resources, to sound the alarm and force a halt of works?

A police car with the dead vulture and the killer power pole

The second piece of evidence concerns the plight of our most threatened bird, the Griffon vulture, Gyps fulvus, and the totally preventable loss, early this month, of two of our 29 remaining birds.

As you are probably already aware, there is a huge effort underway – generously funded by the EU LIFE programme and the Cyprus Environment Foundation (CEF) – to save our vultures from extinction. This is a big challenge and there have been many bumps in the road, but we are convinced we can get there, by working to tackle the scourge of poison baits and to reduce the risk of power line collisions and electrocutions.

The illegal use of poison baits – put out, for the most part, to kill foxes and stray dogs, remains threat number one for our last remaining vultures (and much other wildlife besides). But collisions with overhead electricity wires and electrocution on uninsulated power and telecommunications infrastructure is a close second. We know this because we now have satellite tags fitted on most all our vultures, which allows us to track their movements and gain a much more complete picture of what is killing them. We are making definite progress on tackling the poison baits, working closely with the Game & Fauna Service but also with the Cyprus police and State Lab. The same just cannot be said when it comes to reducing collision and electrocution risk.

What stings the most here is that the recent losses, so costly for our vulture population, were plainly avoidable.

We have mapped the high-risk power lines are within the vultures’ core range; we also know where the most dangerous power and communications towers are. The Electricity Authority (EAC) has this data. As an EU member state, Cyprus has a clear obligation to protect Griffon vultures – and other birds, such as Bonelli’s eagles Aquila fasciata, that are also threatened by power infrastructure. For almost three years, we have been working to persuade the EAC to play its part in this. We have put money on the table (thanks to LIFE funding) for marking and insulation to make this infrastructure safe, starting with known high-risk areas. Expanding the marking and insulation, as we must, will come at a significant cost. But the EAC is not cash-strapped. A quick search showed the EAC made a net profit of just under €42 million in 2021 (up almost 250 per cent on the previous year).

Over the last two years, we have lost five vultures to lines and masts. For the eagle, we have lost nine birds to power infrastructure since 2018. So the problem is well documented and the solutions are available, tried and tested. In Spain, for example, unmarked power lines and naked, bird-and-bat-frying, installations are no longer to be seen, certainly not in key wildlife areas.

In the remote Paphos hills – in the heart of ‘vulture country’ – there is one telecommunication mast we have been making particular pleas over, for long months. In 2018, we had a vulture collision with power lines supplying this mast. In April 2022, another vulture died of electrocution on this mast. It is a known ‘black spot’ the EAC have been alerted to, repeatedly. Yet this is the mast where we lost the two vultures on Easter Saturday.

I really do not know what more to say, except that we will be keeping a watchful eye on our precious vultures and eagles. Just as we will be keeping a close eye on Akamas and everywhere else our stretched resources will take us to… 

Martin Hellicar is director of local nature conservation NGO BirdLife Cyprus