A heartfelt tribute from Agnieszka Rakoczy

Soft spoken and known for his great sense of humour, Martin Hellicar, the highly respected environmentalist who died last week at the age of 56, was one of Cyprus’ most powerful advocates for the protection and preservation of this island’s natural habitat from the depredations of bird poachers, tree fellers and an array of avaricious developers eager to get their claws into the last of the island’s undeveloped island.

Born in Durham, UK, Martin came to Cyprus when he was just a year old in 1969 and from then on embraced the Mediterranean island as his true and only home.

His parents, Eric and Margaret, who met as students at Edinburgh University, were members of the Baháʼí community, the religion founded in 19th century Iran.

According to its online profile, “the Baháʼí faith emphasises the essential equality of human beings, and the abolition of prejudice. Humanity is seen as essentially one, though highly varied; its diversity of race and culture are seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance.”

Although Martin was not himself a member of the community, those values and principles underpinned the life he led as a friend and mentor and as one of this island’s foremost environmental activists.

Martin, the second of the Hellicars’ six children, was first educated at a local primary school in Nicosia and later enrolled at the English School where his father was teaching. A graduate degree in the UK was followed by a doctorate in biological sciences from the University of Cyprus.

His academic accomplishments and intimate knowledge of the Cyprus landscape and environment placed him a unique position among those committed to the protection of this island’s flora and fauna. Fluent in Greek and English, Martin understood the local issues like no other foreigner.

Additionally, his first career choice – journalism – gave Martin a set of skills that served him well in generating social awareness of the environmental issues he so passionately cared about. Martin the writer was always able to explain in very simple words what Martin the scientist and environmental expert knew was vital so that the public at large could understand the pressing need to protect the island’s natural habitat and the benefits thereof.

I met Martin in the office of the Cyprus Mail all of 24 years ago, not long after my own arrival in Cyprus. At the time, he was the paper’s Chief Reporter and I was just about to become one of its sub-editors.

Though he excelled in his job, Martin made the decision to leave the paper so that he could devote himself full-time to ornithology, birds being his great love. We, his colleagues, thought he was completely mad but soon we knew better…

In one of the many Cyprus Mail articles he wrote years later as Director of BirdLife Cyprus, he explained how and why the birds were of such importance to him. He told how 40 years earlier a young Martin on a drizzly February day in a muddy field near Dali peered through his first ever binoculars and spotted a male stonechat – a striking black-and-white bird, with a splash of orange-red on the breast.

Still ecstatic at the memory, Martin wrote: “The stonechat is a common winter visitor to Cyprus. ‘Nothing special,’ one might say… Though common, this sparrow-sized bird will always be special for me, as the first species I ever managed to identify, with the aid of bird book, bins and brotherly encouragement. That stonechat was the start of something for me, not just bird watching but of a more focused interest in nature and its protection.”

In capturing this singular moment in such a simple way, Martin conveys the awe and enthusiasm he was to so generously share with nature lovers throughout his chosen career.

“I always look forward to the arrival of the first stonechats in autumn… Their simple call, a short ‘chack-chack’, is what usually gives them away. They are easy birds to spot, preferring to perch out in the open, on the ground or on a bush, ever on the lookout for passing insects. The return of the stonechats, much like the arrival of swallows and swifts in spring, somehow serves to reassure that the system is still ‘working’. That the amazing phenomenon of bird migration, and by extension nature in general, is still ticking over and hanging in there, despite all we throw at it.”

Loyal to his friends, courteous to his enemies (if he really had any), Martin, who wore his knowledge lightly, knew everything about Cyprus and its flora and fauna. He was the first to show me the beauty and wilderness of Akamas and introduced me to the island’s “anti-gravity hill” located near the village of Droushia where the landscape is such that it produces a logic-defying optical illusion. The effect is to make a gentle downhill slope appear to be tilted upwards in such a way that a car left out of gear seems to defy gravity and roll uphill.

When the first crossing opened in 2003, it was Martin who first took me to the north to swim in the sea near Famagusta and meet some of the leading Turkish Cypriot environmentalists – an introduction that resulted in the gift of many lasting friendships. (Most notable was that with another Martin Marancos who predeceased him last year.)

Martin loved walking and throughout the years we have known one another this was to be our favourite way of spending time together. It began with walking dogs in the fields next to his house in Pera (we always had rescue dogs in our care). Later, came walks in the Troodos mountains and in the Karpasia panhandle. All were made memorable by Martin’s gentle asides and observations about the natural habitat we were passing through.

As the years progressed our walks evolved and changed until finally these outings comprised a small group of friends that would meet, walk, and talk (in hushed tones when bird watching) every two to three months. Some were expert bird watchers, some not, but no walk was complete without signature binoculars, shared or otherwise. While some were small, Martin would always lug along a giant set so that the less experienced “twitchers” could be assured a close-up view of the feathered fascination of the day. And since he was such a good storyteller, no walk was complete without some wonderful stories about the birdlife we were so privileged to view in his company.

Always a modest and hardworking man, Martin was not one to boast about his achievements. Of course, we knew how much he and his organisation were doing for the local environment, but it is his sudden death that has brought into such sharp and tragic focus how much he will be missed and what we and the island have lost.

In our loss, we can find some consolation in Martin’s accomplishments as an outstanding environmentalist and a wonderful writer.

We have the legacy of his fantastic achievements: the restoration of Akrotiri Marsh, his efforts to save the Akamas and Akrotiri Peninsulas from irreversible damage, the creation of a nature reserve in the heart of the illegal bird killing hotspot in Frenaros, the evolution of the barn owl project into a National Action Plan, saving the Griffon Vulture from extinction and BirdLife Cyprus’ flourishing educational programme.

And if we need further reminders or guidance, there is a treasury of his articles explaining in that mellow, clear voice of his just what it is we need to do in order to continue his work.

And we will Dear Martin, we will….

Martin Hellicar’s environmental articles written for the Cyprus Mail in recent years can be found at https://cyprus-mail.com/authors/martin-hellicar