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Slaughter of the song birds

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Songbirds are a culinary delicacy in Cyprus — but catching and eating them is illegal. Even so, the practice is on the rise and could be threatening rare species.

It wasn't until I saw the blade glinting in the sunlight that I realized how grave the situation was. Broad and belligerent in army fatigues, the man strode along the track, ranting in Greek. Behind his back, his hands flexed a knife blade in and out of its wooden handle. This man was a trapper, a poacher of birds — and he clearly didn't want company. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“If this is your property, then I apologize — we didn't know, we are going,” Savvas said. We acted casual as the man escorted us back to the battered four-by-four in which we had come. “I shouldn't really be letting you go,” he muttered. Moments later, we were driving away.My companions and I had come to this dry scrubland on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to look for evidence of songbird trapping. The birds are caught illegally and eaten in a traditional dish called ambelopoulia — and I was joining a September trip to monitor the extent of trapping. With me was Roger Little, a British conservation volunteer, and Savvas, a field officer with the conservation group BirdLife Cyprus whose name has been changed to protect his identity. We didn't expect to encounter trappers at this spot in the southeastern region of Cape Pyla; they usually work at night, when the birds are active. But now it seemed that they had started patrolling the site during the day. “You are on my land,” the trapper said to us in Greek.

Bird trapping in Cyprus has grown into a controversy that encompasses crime, culture, politics and science. The practice was made illegal more than 40 years ago — but that simply forced it underground. Today, trappers routinely cut wide corridors through vegetation and string fine 'mist nets' from poles to catch the birds, which are sent to local restaurants and quietly served. A platter of a dozen birds sells for €40–80 (US$44–87), and the trade in songbirds is responsible for an estimated annual market of €15 million. The delicacy is so prized and lucrative that it is suspected to be linked to organized crime, and those trying to stop it have been subject to intimidation and violence.

Conservation organizations say that the trapping is increasing and that it is threatening rare bird species that stop in Cyprus during their migration. Last March, a report by BirdLife Cyprus suggested that some 2 million birds had been killed in the previous autumn, including 78 threatened species. The group claims that trapping — on top of threats from climate change, habitat loss andinvasive species — could cause irreparable damage to some bird populations. “Illegal bird killing just cannot be justified, it's like the last kick off the cliff for some species,” says Clairie Papazoglou, executive director of BirdLife Cyprus near Nicosia.

But the picture is not black and white, in part because the extent of bird killing is disputed and its effects on bird populations are unclear. Critics have questioned the methods used by BirdLife Cyprus to estimate the numbers being captured on the island. The debate led to a workshop last July to discuss the science, with representatives from all agencies involved. Attendee Alison Johnston, an ecological statistician at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), a charitable research institute in Thetford, says that so little is known about the population sizes and routes of migratory birds in the Mediterranean that it is difficult to assess the full impacts of trapping. “If we knew more about the numbers,” she says, “we could say whether this is a critical number being killed.”

The debate over Cyprus's songbirds could have wider repercussions, because bird killing is rife in other parts of the world. A 2015 report from BirdLife International estimates that hunters are killing about 25 million birds a year over the whole Mediterranean region; Cyprus stands out because so many are killed in such a small country. Globally, more than half of the world's migratory bird populations are thought to be in decline. “This isn't just an issue for Cyprus, or Africa, or Europe,” says Claire Runge, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who led a study published last December showing that only 9% of migratory birds worldwide are adequately protected across their range1. “Countries will need to work together to find a solution to what is essentially a human–wildlife conflict,” she says.

Papazoglou worries that what is happening in Cyprus sets a dangerous precedent. “This level of rampant illegality in an EU country sends a terrible message to the rest of the world. If rich, stable and well-run countries cannot enforce wildlife law, what hope is there to get fragile countries in the Middle East and Africa to act?”

 

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