I have just spent 42 hours in Cyprus at the invitation of our BirdLife partner on the island. Given the spike in profile and public reaction to the recent report on the number of birds being illegally killed on the island (c.2.3 million in 2016), it was an opportunity to get a better understanding of the challenges and to meet some of the key people working together to deal with the problem.
However, my visit also coincided with a more positive story. Below, I shall offer my reflections on the ongoing efforts to tackle bird crime but, first, I want to put a spotlight on some good news.
Yesterday, I helped open a new bird hide (my first ever ribbon-cutting event) adjacent to the Akrotiri Marsh which has been the focus of a two-year project supported by the wonderful UK Government Darwin Initiative fund. The RSPB has been working with BirdLife Cyprus, the Sovereign Base Area Administration (as the site lies within the area controlled by the British) and the local community to restore 150 hectares of a wetland to benefit populations of threatened species such as black-winged stilt, spur-winged lapwing, ferruginous duck and lemon-yellow tree frog.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with our Darwin project partners (from left) the chair of BirdLife Cyrprus, local community leader and the Sovereign Base Commander
The site we’ve been working on is a remnant of a much larger marsh that was drained to prevent the spread of malaria over a hundred years ago and has since been subjected to a range of other pressures such as the construction of a dam and changing land use. But the re-establishment of grazing coupled with some wetland creation techniques which we shared from our experience in the UK, promises to realise its nature conservation potential. It’s a cracking site and is part of an area that has already been recognised as a Ramsar site, Special Protection Area and Special Area Conservation.
It was a pleasure to meet so many people involved in the project and to celebrate what we have achieved together over the past few years.
Clearly, the RSPB has had a long history of working with and supporting BirdLife Cyprus, but much of what is reported understandably focuses on illegal bird trapping. When a nature conservation problem has been around for so long and seems so intractable it inevitably shapes the perception that RSPB supporters will have of the island. Some of our supporters have suggested that we should call for a boycott to deter tourists from visiting the island. I understand the rationale for this but disagree with it. A boycott would undermine our abilities (and especially those of BirdLIfe Cyprus) to engage with anyone actively on the island and is unlikely to deter the criminals. What’s more, it’s not the only story of nature conservation on Cyprus as the Akrotiri marsh project shows we are improving the natural environment by working together.
Even on the issue of illegal bird killing there is some positive news to report.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to explore Cape Pyla which is where the illegal bird trapping is most intensive. This is also an area governed by the Sovereign Base Area authorities and we were accompanied by the SBA police team responsible for enforcement. While fully aware of the problem, I was shocked by the extent of trapping infrastructure that is used to catch the birds: acacia planted in large areas with rides cut and then carpeted to allow the installation of mist nets with technology used to blast out bird song to lure the birds into the nets. Not only does this result in the outrageous and indiscriminate killing of both common and threatened species, this is also environmental vandalism on a massive scale within a protected area designated for its unique coastal scrub habitat.
Cape Pyla, showing the gap in planted and irrigated non-native acacia (you can see the pipe) used to erect mist nets and lure in birds
As I previously wrote, the SBA has controversially but rightly targeted acacia removal as a key part of its strategy. However, it was clear that while progress had been made, we want it to go further and faster especially before the autumn season. This issue, of course, was brilliantly highlighted recently by Harriet Allen in her Number 10 petition which attracted nearly 25,000 signatures in just four weeks prior to the General Election being announced. The Ministry of Defence’s response to the petition [here], and the meetings I have had demonstrate that the SBA authorities and the police do take this issue incredibly seriously and have made a difference. It was genuinely heartening to hear unity over the need for a strategy that looks at all possible ways to tackle both the demand for (those wanted to eat the birds in a dish called ambelopoulia) and the supply of illegally trapped birds.
This is a longstanding, diplomatically delicate but not intractable environmental problem. It is tarnishing the reputation of Cyprus and undermining the nature tourism potential of the islands. Yet, I leave believing that there is a coalition of the willing prepared to do what it takes to reduce and hopefully, over time, eliminate illegal bird trapping. The RSPB, of course, remains committed to playing our part.
It was serendipitous that the manifestos of the political parties emerged this week. New commitments to environmental protection are always welcome, but when it comes to stamping out bird crime (be it in the UK or on UK overseas territories), the ultimate test of success will be the number of criminals caught and the reduction in the number of birds being illegally killed.
I look forward to reporting more good news on the campaign to end bird crime very soon.
I know - awful news and a sign of the challenges facing the police. I have written to express our support for the work they are doing in very difficult circumstances.
Martin, George B,
Looks like some in Cyprus may feel that the SBA administration and SBA Police are sincere in their efforts to stop illegal bird trapping - news.sky.com/.../british-militarys-dhekelia-base-in-cyprus-hit-by-grenade-blast-10914028.
As I mentioned last month, below, the SBA police are often under intense pressure and intimidation from criminal elements within their community. I likened it then to the IRA/UDA intimidation of the RUC in N Ireland during the ‘Troubles’. Looks like the criminal elements have now taken a leaf out of the Irish paramilitaries book and moved from intimidation to attempted murder. (Perhaps they'll end up getting an invite to Westminster from some politico or other......)
To reiterate, the SBA police are attempting to do the right thing WRT bird trapping, despite their main task being in support of anti-Daesh and anti-Al Qaeda operations mounted from the bases.
Here's hoping this escalation doesn't represent a step change for the worse in the situation. And rather than spending a day with one of the CABS' team, great folk that they are, I recommend a night shift spent with the SBA police would also be in order....just to see the scope and range of their duties.
Martin, Following on from my previous comments on your blog - see below - the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) - who have active teams on the ground in Cyprus has posted on it's Facebook page the following comment: 'If the SBA administration and SBA Police were sincere in their efforts to stop illegal bird slaughter, the incidents of trapping would not be 16 times higher within the ESBA than compared to the rest of Cyprus this past winter. The regular approach the SBA police take to the active sites we report is often sluggish, highly conspicuous and certainly not covert!'
Good new?? if only!!! I just do not believe the MOD and SBA police are taking the slaughter of these migratory birds seriously. I first wrote to the MOD about this matter in 2011 and the reply I received was almost identical to that issued in response to the petition last month referred to in your blog. Martin, I believe that you along the many others before have been fobbed off by their hollow commitments.
For whatever reason, the protection of birds on this UK owned MOD base is just not a priority for them, they just don't care however they now have a prized photo of the 'MOD base team working together with the RSPB Conservation Director'.
I believe the proactive, boot on the ground approach by CABS and their teams has made a real impact on the illegal hunters however if they were not around, I doubt if SBA would take any proactive actions. Check out the CABS website and see the atrocious methods used by the hunters and the brave actions taken by CABS to bring these matters into the public domain. Martin, I challenge you to make an unannounced visit back to the MOD base in the coming weeks and see if any of the commitments made to you have been kept.
Also spend a day with one of the CABS team.
Great to hear some encouraging news from Cyprus and good to see that positive initiatives to improve the Akrotiri wetlands coming to fruition. I have spent many an hour tramping around the area in the past, so look forward to revisiting them at some stage in the future and seeing the positive changes made there.
And I enjoyed your update on the bird-trapping issue, not so much the tragic subject matter, but your balanced report giving the SBA police and authorities due credit for attempting to do the right thing despite community pressure and criminal intimidation. As you will be aware, the SBA police are mainly local cops who are often under intense pressure from family, friends and other locals to turn a blind eye and do nothing. It must be very hard for them, akin to IRA/UDA intimidation of the RUC in N Ireland during the ‘Troubles’. It is all too easy for the uninformed to do them down, without being fully aware that their main task is actually to provide security in the SBAs in support of the almost constant anti-Daesh and anti-Al Qaeda operations carried out from there.
The Cyprus SBAs are of critical strategic importance to UK and the west, not least because of their historic and continuing supporting role in UN, coalition and national operations over the years – both Gulf Wars, UN peacekeeping operations following the 1967 and subsequent Arab/Israeli conflicts, in Lebanon in the 1980s and during the recent Afghanistan and Libyan campaigns - as well as the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
Sadly, Realpolitik demands that anything likely to compromise our ability to continue using these bases for operations, such as alienating the local population, for whatever reason, will not be viewed favourably by government departments such as the FCO and MoD. A softly, softly, measured approach designed to win over the hearts and minds of the locals and Cypriot politicians will undoubtedly continue to be the national strategy.
My view, therefore is that continuous and intense pressure needs to be applied to the Cypriot government, both nationally and at European level, to force them to grip this, and take the lead, by tackling both the demand and supply sides through education and by closing down restaurants that serve up the poor birds. I expect the demand will always be there, but will diminish as the older generations wither away. It’s all about education in the end.
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