It was midnight on Cape Pyla. Under a full moon and starlit sky the insects chirred in the darkness. From the top of the old watchtower, the city lights of Larnaca and Ayia Napa flickered in the distance.
This watchtower lies within Eastern Sovereign Base Area (ESBA), one of two British military bases on the island. During the Second World War it was used by the British to watch for enemy ships and planes. In more recent years the raiders in this area were of a very different nature – bird trappers.
Blackcaps are the trappers' main target for the speciality food item ‘ambelopoulia’. Guy Shorrock (RSPB)
In the 1990s trappers came onto the open base area every autumn to set up industrial scale bird trapping, designed to catch small birds for the local dish 'ambelopoulia' - a plate of pickled songbirds. Large areas were planted with a fast-growing non-native acacia, irrigated through tens of kilometres of pipework, and nets were set between the trees to catch hundreds of thousands of tired migrants. Trappers would use electronic bird calling devices playing blackcap song throughout the night, luring birds towards the nets to be taken out and killed the next morning.
In 2016, I started a surveillance project with the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) Police to tackle the bird trapping problem here, with support from BirdLife Cyprus. Back then, the air resonated with the sound of this fake birdsong, and it wasn't safe to be out and about, by myself, at night. Now, in 2019, sitting on top of the watchtower, with the exception of the gentle chirp of the the cicadas and the occasional eerie call of a stone curlew, all was quiet.
What a change...
In 2019 the nights on Cape Pyla were quiet, without the cacophony of bird calling devices. Guy Shorrock (RSPB)
Night-time visits by the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) and BirdLife Cyprus during the past three years were recording at least 30-40 calling devices in routine use on the ESBA. As documented in previous blogs, an enforcement crackdown by the SBA authorities since 2016, supported by partnership working from BirdLife Cyprus, CABS and RSPB Investigations, has had dramatic and positive results. The annual BirdLife Cyprus autumn trapping survey has shown a remarkable fall in bird trapping activity in the ESBA. This has dropped to around a quarter of the 2002 baseline level, and perhaps less than tenth of the peak levels recorded in 2016. This has allowed hundreds of thousands of migrant birds to continue their journeys safely south.
Now nearly all the areas of acacia on Cape Pyla appear free of illegal trapping activity. In many places the dead white acacia branches showed the stark impact of removal of the irrigation network by the SBA authorities: the final removal of the acacia is an important project that still needs completing. Most of the trapping that remains in the ESBA is in small farmed areas and orchards. There is a still a hard core of trappers who are prepared to take the risks in the hope of a quick profit, so there is still work to do.
This year was my fourth autumn working with colleagues in Cyprus to help the SBA Police tackle bird trapping. This video summarises it!
Previous covert surveillance work had helped convict some 27 trappers, with a significant increase in fines and three-year suspended jail sentences for many of them. This year we did many night patrols with the SBA Police looking for trapping sites and enforcement opportunities. At one location we found two mist nets with around 50 caught birds dangling surreally in the moonlight. Unfortunately, we suspect the trappers must have been close by and scared off. We installed a covert camera and made preparations for a police ambush, but they didn’t return. At daybreak we assisted the police to carefully remove and free all the birds - mainly blackcaps - before seizing the equipment.
RSPB Investigations and SBA Police freeing birds, including this red-backed shrike, from illegal mist nets. Andrew Stronach (RSPB)
An SBA Police Officer carefully cutting free a Cetti’s warbler from an illegal mist net. Guy Shorrock (RSPB)
At another location during a night patrol the SBA Police encountered two trappers with nets and a basket of 39 freshly killed birds - 36 blackcaps, two lesser whitethroats and an orphean warbler - ironically the first time I had seen this species on Cyprus. The trappers were later fined 4900 Euros.
The grim reality of bird trapping in Cyprus - dead blackcaps, lesser whitethroat and an orphean warbler seized by the SBA Police. Guy Shorrock (RSPB)
My most recent blog and video footage covered bird trapping events we witnessed this autumn in the Republic of Cyprus where the reaction and commitment of the enforcement authorities seems very different. There seems to be very little political appetite to tackle this problem - even in the most blatant cases. No make matters even worse, we have just been informed that the Cyprus Police Anti-Poaching Unit has now been closed down. This unit was doing good proactive work against the bird trappers only a few years ago - so this is a clear sign of the lack of current political commitment to tackling this issue. Hopefully, ongoing political developments in Europe may bring more meaningful pressure on the Cypriot authorities to take action.
In May this year, a meeting in Rome put together a new strategy to define objectives and actions at the national and international level to eradicate bird crime in Europe and the Mediterranean. From 2020 until 2030, the Rome Strategic Plan will coordinate efforts to fight bird crime. The involvement of governments, legal authorities, police, conservationists, and hunters in the plan will be key to its success. The plan calls for zero tolerance of bird trapping and killing. This is a huge problem and all countries need to embrace this philosophy and collectively promote good practice and raise the standard of enforcement to create a meaningful deterrent. The contrast between the current standards of enforcement work being undertaken on the ESBA and within the Republic of Cyprus is a graphic example of what can be achieved and also of what remains to be done.
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