Recent events recorded by RSPB Investigations, BirdLife partners and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) suggest the authorities in the Republic of Cyprus are wilfully turning a blind eye to large scale illegal bird trapping. 

Cyprus may seem like an idyllic holiday destination to some, but for birds like blackcaps, redstarts and garden warblers, it’s far from paradise. Here, a culture of illegal bird trapping is seeing hundreds of thousands of small migrating birds caught in mist nets, killed and then sold to restaurants for the speciality food item ‘ambelopoulia’ – a plate of pickled songbirds.

In August 2015, the BirdLife Partnership produced the shocking report ‘The Killing revealing the brutal extent of the bird crime around the Mediterranean, with an estimated 25 million birds being illegally killed each year. In 2017 an update, ‘The Killing 2.0 – A View to a Kill’ adding the results compiled from Northern Europe, Central Europe and the Caucasus. In September 2018, a 3.5 year ‘LIFE Against Bird Crime’ [LIFE17 GIE/NL/000599’]  project started to help tackle bird crime within flyway countries. This is incorporated into the Flight for Survival campaign, which focuses on seven flagship species to help tell the tale of the problems migrant birds continue to face. This list includes the blackcap – the trappers' favourite bird in Cyprus - illegally trapped, killed and then sold as the speciality food item ‘ambelopoulia’.

Ten of thousands of blackcaps are trapped and killed in Cyprus for the food trade (Guy Shorrock, RSPB) 

In 2016, RSPB Investigations started undertaking covert surveillance work with the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) Police, to target bird trappers operating within the Eastern SBA, a British military base in the south-east of the island. This has been highly successful in catching bird trappers. It has also been a great example of real partnership work, with long term support for the SBA Police being provided by BirdLife Cyprus and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS). Since 2016, the annual BirdLife Cyprus trapping survey shows there has been a welcome and dramatic reduction in the levels of bird trapping in the Eastern SBA. This has allowed hundreds of thousands of birds to continue their autumn migration south to Africa. 

In autumn 2019, I returned with colleagues to Cyprus to assist with the fight against bird trapping in the Eastern SBA, in the south-east corner of the island. Cyprus has remained one of the key blackspots within the Mediterranean for the illegal trapping of migratory birds. Encouragingly, this autumn it appeared once again that trapping levels were again comparatively low compared with the levels we encountered in 2016. The annual BirdLife Cyprus autumn trapping survey will provide an accurate assessment of how things are going when published next year.

With a little more time on our hands than usual, we decided to pay more attention to some of the problems in the Republic of Cyprus. We made a few visits to a site where bee-eaters have been regularly reported as shot, but despite our best efforts were unable to get offenders on camera. My colleagues recovered one of these beautiful birds with shot injuries which was taken away for treatment, but sadly had to be euthanised.

This bee-eater sadly had to be euthanised after being shot (A Stronach, RSPB)

However, our main focus was on a notorious bird trapping site in the Republic of Cyprus. This was in the hills overlooking Larnaca, near Maroni. This site has a very long history of large-scale trapping recorded by BirdLife Cyprus, and more recently, by CABS. Myself and a colleague filmed two trappers in this area back in 2016. Illegal trapping activity has been reported to the Cypriot authorities on many occasions, and whilst there is believed to have been some enforcement action, this appears to have been small scale and acted as no meaningful deterrent.

With a colleague and a volunteer, I visited the area on 11 September. A honey buzzard, black kite and Montagu’s harrier wheeled overhead in some beautiful late afternoon light. Far less alluring was the large fenced compound, over a kilometre long and about 250 metres wide, around a vegetated valley below us. Whilst there was nobody around, within the vegetation, we could see at least half a dozen mist net rides, with poles and several mist nets in place. It was clear a closer look was needed.

Mist net rides highlighted at a notorious bird trapping site near Maroni, Cyprus (Ben Porter)

In the very early hours of 17 September myself and a colleague were in position on a hillside overlooking the area. We could hear the familiar warble of an electronic calling device playing a blackcap call. In the darkness below us we could also see the light from several head torches working their way in conga-like fashion through the bushes. The trappers were clearly on site and actively visiting their net rides.

As the sun came up, we started to get an accurate picture of what was taking place. Within the compound were at least eight huge mists nets – invisible walls of death ready to hoover up tired migrants. We counted seven bird trappers operating within the compound for several hours, and filmed them throwing stones and shouting to flush birds into the waiting nets. Birds were extracted and taken in buckets to a collection point at a small building on the edge of the compound where numerous trappers vehicles were parked. Though distant, the numerous full buckets must have contained hundreds of dead birds.

You can watch what we filmed here:

Or use this link:

With the reduction in trapping in some areas of Cyprus, we have been told this has made it more lucrative for those still involved. Apparently, trappers can now get over five Euros per bird. If true, it was clear that illegal trapping during a single morning at this one location was bringing in thousands of Euros. How could a site where trapping was so utterly blatant not have been properly closed down by the authorities long ago?

RSPB Investigations officers covertly filming bird trappers near Maroni, Cyprus

Whilst we watched, we had the information about events below us passed back to the Cypriot authorities. They were apparently unable to attend that morning but would go the following day. We slipped quietly away and waited for some news. However, it seems that when the Cypriot authorities went the following day, strangely, there was nothing to be found. BirdLife Cyprus informed the authorities about what we had recorded and tried to arrange a meeting. However, after a month there still appears to be a distinct lack of interest in either a meeting or seeing any of our highly incriminating video footage. CABS went back on the 19 September for another look and, strangely, the trapping operation was in full swing. BirdLife Cyprus and CABS continued to press the authorities to take some action. We then heard that on the 23 September the authorities had been to the site and apparently issued a fine for, strangely, just one mist net and just one bird. A stark contrast to events ourselves and CABS had witnessed.

CABS diligently went back on two more mornings, and yes, strangely, the trapping operation was still in full swing on each occasion. By this time, I was back in the UK, so after some discussion my colleagues went back and installed a surveillance camera focussed on the collection point where all the trappers returned with their spoils. A later review of the footage showed that, strangely, on four consecutive mornings that trappers were casually continuing to return with full buckets.

If defies logic that ourselves and CABS could so easily witness and record large scale trapping involving multiple offenders, multiple vehicles at this site and yet the authorities apparently encountered little or nothing. With the history of extensive trapping at this site, rumours of a Mafia connection, one has to seriously question the resolve of the authorities and how this situation can possibly have been allowed to continue. The small-scale enforcement action smacks of tokenism at best.

We understand BirdLife Cyprus are going to raise the profile of this issue and it will be interesting to see if any response or explanation is forthcoming from the Cypriot Authorities. One would hope the EU would take a very dim view of these events. The Environmental Crime Directive 2009 clearly spells out crimes involving large scale illegal killing and trade in protected species should be punishable by Member States using ‘effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties’. When you consider that tens of thousands of migrant birds will have fallen victim to this one trapping site, it seems depressingly clear we are seeing absolutely no evidence of that happening.

More widely across Cyprus, and other black-spot locations, unless there is real political will from the relevant authorities to undertake effective enforcement then millions of birds from all over the EU using the Africa-Eurasia flyway will continue to be at grave risk.