CABS bird protection camp spring 2008
The first CABS bird protection with international participation took place on Cyprus from 16 to 27.04.2008.The aim of the operation was to document the scale of illegal bird trapping with lime sticks and nets in the southern part of the island and, in cooperation with the authorities, to act against poachers wherever they were active. A further aim of the operation, in addition to the search for illegal electronic bird lures and documentation of illegal spring hunting, was the detection of restaurants illegally offering song birds for sale.
A total of 10 bird conservationists, from Germany, Great Britain, Israel and Italy were involved in the operations.
1. Bird trapping with lime sticks
The use of lime sticks to trap birds has a long tradition on Cyprus. Sticky glue is made by boiling a particular type of plum and is spread on the 50 - 80 cm long sticks. The banned traps are set out in both bushes and shrubs of the Garrigue near the coast as well as in fruit orchards and olive groves.
The size of the trapping sites varies from 10 lime sticks to a complete hillside prepared for bird trapping with hundreds of sticks. Lime sticks are principally used to trap warblers, flycatchers and other small song birds; but the collateral catch often includes Cuckoo, Bee-eater and small owls. The main areas of this type of poaching are the mountains near the coast east of Pafos, between Limassol and Larnaca, as well as in the extreme southeast of the island in the Paralimni district. Rough estimates arrive at a total of at least 30,000 to 50,000 lime sticks on the south coast of Cyprus. It appears that there has been an increased use of lime sticks for bird trapping since the accession of Cyprus to the EU in 2004.
During the course of the bird protection camp 61 trapping sites prepared for some 900 lime sticks were located and the GPS data recorded. Due to amongst other factors the unusually dry winter 2007/2008 the song bird numbers in the spring migration were exceptionally low so that no active trapping sites were detected during CABS’ operations. All 61 sites located and monitored had however been freshly prepared and could have been activated at short notice. Only five evidently forgotten lime sticks were found and removed with feathers from Blackcaps and Golden Oriole still stuck to them. At a trapping site east of Larnaca some 300 song bird wings and several skulls were found, mostly of thrushes and Blackcaps.
2. Trapping with mist nets
Bird trapping using mist nets has also increased considerably in the past decades. The number of birds trapped in this way has in the meantime undoubtedly greatly exceeded those caught with lime sticks.
Nets are employed in the areas close to the coast between Paralimni and Larnaca, whereby there is a distinct concentration east of Larnaca in the British administered Sovereign Base Area (SBA) and near Paralimni. Whereas the nets in the area west of Larnaca are mainly set up singly in gardens and orchards, the poachers in the SBA (East) around Cape Pyla have transformed large areas of the countryside into a huge trapping facility. Almost all areas not used for crops are planted with the Australian Golden Wattle Acacia, (Acacia pycnantha), exclusively for bird trapping purposes. Within the SBA at least 500 hectares of acacia shrubs have been planted, which can only thrive on this rocky coastal plateau when watered by a large scale irrigation system. Within the rows of bushes and shrubs there are literally countless trapping sites capable of taking several thousand metres of nets.
Bird trapping in the SBA (East) and around Paralimni is a highly professional business. All over the countryside trappers have installed hundreds of electronic bird lures, which play the calls of the Blackcap mostly at night. The acacia coppices and the gardens in the southeast of the island are criss-crossed with electric cables and the car batteries found from time to time serve to provide power for the bird-callers. The birds lured into the trapping gardens during the night are driven directly into the nets at dawn by the trappers, who throw handfuls of gravel into the bushes from pre-prepared piles. The demand for gravel is so great, that it is transported into the area by lorry. During the main trapping season, when all the nets are erected, well organised warning outposts are positioned on all the roads and tracks into the area so that the poachers have advance warning of police patrols.
During the CABS’ operation alone some 137 sites were located with poles prepared to take 800 mist nets. The total number of illegally erected nets for bird trapping in the south of Cyprus is probably over 10,000, with an average single net length of 30 m. Because of the sluggish migration this year most trapping sites were well prepared but the nets had not been erected. Some 12 active nets were found at seven sites and dismantled in cooperation with the responsible authorities (see Para 6). Charges have been preferred against two identified trappers. The active nets contained a total of 6 Blackcaps and 1 Chiffchaff. Three of the Blackcaps were still alive and could be released. At other trapping sites the remains of a Common Kestrel, a Common Buzzard, a Long-eared Owl, two Little Egrets and a Squacco Heron were found, as well as feathers from warblers, Golden Orioles, Hoopoes and Little Owls.
3. Number of song birds killed
In 2000, BirdLife Cyprus published an estimate, according to which some 12.6 million song birds are illegally trapped with lime sticks and mist nets annually. The observations by CABS in spring 2008 on the extent of bird trapping raise fears that this estimate is possibly still too low.
4. Illegal spring hunting
Although spring hunting is banned on Cyprus, CABS teams counted 36 shots in the countryside during their 10 day stay on the island in April. In the SBA (East) 108 freshly fired cartridges, scarcely older than 24 hours, were found on a single day. An SBA police patrol reacted after a CABS team, observed a man carrying a shotgun. The man had his identity checked but he had concealed the weapon before the arrival of the police.
5. Sale of protected song birds
The song birds trapped with lime sticks and mist nets are sold to restaurants on a large scale. A poacher can sell a warbler for about four euros and a dish consisting of some four small birds (Ambelopoulia) is rarely offered for less than 35 euros.
The sale of the birds is equally as unlawful as the trapping. There are exceptions only for huntable species (e.g. thrushes), which may be sold during the open season only when in possession of a special permit. According to a BirdLife survey some 88 percent of Cypriots are opposed to bird trapping, although half of those interviewed admitted to having eaten song birds at some time. In numerous confidential conversations during our operations, team members formed the impression that the number of persons who now and again eat song birds is much higher than previously suspected. We estimate that at least a quarter of the population regularly prepare Ambelopoulia at home or order them in a restaurant.
All teams were tasked with asking in small towns and villages if the traditional song bird dish could be ordered. One team, with Greek-speaking members was particularly predestined for this task. In 10 of 26 restaurants we checked song birds were offered to us and in two cases teams were forced to order the dishes (in one case warblers, in the other thrushes). One restaurant had an adjacent shop selling homemade preserved food and also offered thrushes marinated in vinegar for sale. One glass was bought (see Fig. 6) for 85 euros. An X-ray of the thrushes served and taken to a vet showed no traces of shot remains, so that the birds were clearly not shot during the hunting season. Six of the restaurants visited confirmed that Ambelopoulia could be ordered but that due to the poor season it would be better if we came back in autumn. A butcher also assured that he would have no shortage of trapped birds in autumn.
In most cases it was possible for us as foreigners to order the forbidden song bird dishes in English. A long conversation in Greek in order to win the trust of the owner was only necessary in a few restaurants. In many restaurants, as well as in conversation with villagers, it was confirmed that the demand for the delicacy was increasingly in demand by East European tourists and that therefore the sale was conducted more openly.
All restaurants involved or suspected of illegal sale of song birds were reported to the police who will follow up the allegations. The birds served in or bought by the teams from restaurants were handed over to the Game Fund.
6. Cooperation with the authorities
Officers of the Republic of Cyprus and of the British SBA Police, as well as members of the Game Fund, were very friendly and professional on all occasions, whether in discussions or on operations. The special Cyprus Police Anti-Poaching Unit in Lefkosia, founded only in 2007, consists of a good dozen officers and has the back up of a larger special police unit. They reacted to net finds by our teams on three occasions. Direct contact with the operations room of the anti-poaching unit enabled the local police to arrive timely at the scene - the longest wait did not exceed 30 minutes. The SBA police are also well prepared to tackle the trapping problem. A permanent unit of 4 officers is on duty daily and they know their area of operations like the back of their hand, as well as the poachers who operate there. More officers can be called on in support as required and all are well versed in the problem. We called out the SBA police on three occasions to dismantle mist nets, and on a further occasion when the illegal carriage of firearms was observed (see Para. 4). The reaction time was always rapid and the officers very friendly and helpful.
We had several meetings with the Game Fund and an exchange of information. Because of their other tasks and a shortage of personnel they do not appear to be able to adequately concentrate their efforts on combating poaching. No contact was made with the Game Fund on operations due to very much reduced activities by illegal trappers in spring 2008.
We discussed the extent and course of our operations with the nature protection organisation BirdLife Cyprus and experienced friendly cooperation on a partnership basis.
7. Criminal prosecution
The maximum penalty for poaching or the sale of protected birds on Cyprus is 17,000 euros or 3 years imprisonment. In practice such penalties have not been imposed in previous years.
A bird trapper or restaurant owner caught breaking the law can expect a fine of a few hundred or thousand euros, a derisory amount in terms of the enormous profits to be made by illegally trading in the birds. The professional trappers in the Paralimni district or the SBA catch 1,000 or more birds on a good day and make a daily profit of a thousand euros. The expected fine if they are caught is therefore no deterrent. According to the SBA police, their officers catch and convict almost each and every poacher in their area of responsibility at least once a year. The most audacious trappers are caught two or three times; but put out their nets again the following day. Fines are paid out of ‘petty cash’ and the loss of nets or electronic lures is a normal business risk which is included in the sale price calculation
During a conservation with a ‘notorious’ restaurant owner in Agios Theodoros he declared quite openly that he could not sell Ambelopoulia at the moment as he had recently been caught and was waiting for his case to come to court. When it was over we were welcome to come back and song birds would again be available.
8. Proposed solutions
The dismantling alone of lime sticks and mist nets, which has led to visible success elsewhere in Europe, is not a long term practical solution for the problem on Cyprus. The expected profits have not only led to the trappers being prepared to use violence and being well organised; it also means that traps and nets are replaced rapidly, often within hours. This is above all very easy to achieve with lime sticks which can be easily produced in no time at all. There are however a whole series of possible ways to stem the escalating commercial bird trapping scene on Cyprus. Local strategies can be evolved which, with the support of the European and the British Ministry of Defence, could lead to success in the short term. These include:
Scale of sentencing
SBA police experience shows that prosecution of bird trappers does not necessarily lead to the required results as the penalties laid down by the law are too low, and the courts do not award the maximum possible sentences. A marked increase in the penalties for commercial, professional bird trapping is therefore a sensible approach to the problem, as well as a rigorous award of the maximum possible sentences for offenders. Restaurant owners or butchers who illegally offer protected birds for sale must expect severe penalties and, in the case of a repetition, the courts must have the option of banning them exercising their profession Property owners, who permit poaching on their land, either for monetary recompense or free of charge, must also be liable to prosecution. This should also apply to consumers of protected song birds, who at present can eat Ambelopoulia without fear of prosecution.
Police and Game Fund personnel situation
The responsible authorities, in particular the Republic of Cyprus Police, the SBA Police and officers of the Game Fund, do their best to master the poaching problem. Against the background of the low penalties imposed (see Para. 7 above), together with the in part shortage of personnel for the task, it can hardly be expected that the good work by the officers involved also leads to tangible success. An increase in police personnel, as well as a markedly improved provision of modern equipment, is indispensable for the further combating of bird trapping on Cyprus.
The Dhekelia SBA area (SBA East)
For the Cape Pyla area in the SBA, which is particularly affected by poaching, a 24-hours control of the roads and tracks leading into and out of the area during the main trapping season, as well as an increase in personnel, would appear to make good sense.
In the case of the wide scale acacia plantations in the SBA, consideration should be given to banning new planting, making progress with the removal of the irrigation system and, finally, efforts begun to uproot or fell the existing acacia groves. In addition parts of the SBA could be declared protective areas with restricted entry, or be declared a closed military area. Private property within this very barren trapping area near the coastal cliffs could, in a land parcelling process, be exchanged for more fertile plots inland.
The south coast of Cyprus, in particular the areas around Agios Theodoros, Cape Pyla and Cape Greco, are important passage routes for European migrating bird species. These areas, which for obvious reasons are also the main centres of poaching, should be no longer deprived of protective status. An improvement in natural protection would provide wildlife on the areas not used for trapping with more protection from agricultural, tourist and hunting activities, as well as the exploitation of natural resources. A designation of nature reserves could also be combined with restrictions on entry, and the building of new roads and tracks by trappers, an absolute necessity for their logistics in isolated areas, could be prevented.
Alexander Heyd, May 2008
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