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The battle to stop Cyprus's songbird massacre

  • September 26, 2015
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  • Joe Shute (The Telegraph)

Christakis, an officer from the British Sovereign Base Police at Dhekelia, disentangles a blackcap from a mist net in an olive grove. Photo: David Tipling

A blackcap trapped on a limestick. Photo: David Tipling

The songbirds are killed to be served as a local delicacy, called ambelopoulia. Photo: David Tipling

'Trapping on Cyprus has ancient roots but this is its modern interpretation' Photo: David Tipling

Members of the Cypriot government's Game and Fauna Service with seized equipment. Photo: David Tipling

A songbird being cut free. Photo: David Tipling

On the British Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus, a war is raging between locals wanting to capture and eat songbirds, and the forces trying to stop them.

Only one road runs through the Cypriot village of Xylophagou, and the traffic rarely stops. There is a florist selling dusty ferns in pots, a hardware shop protected by a gaggle of surly-looking youths on mopeds, and a deserted fast-food outlet.

The main parade ends at a cafe overlooking a roundabout that leads the way once more out of town. A few middle-aged men sip soft drinks inside, sheltering from the afternoon heat and a sandstorm that has blown in across the sea from Syria. Each lorry trundling past makes the smeared windows rattle in their frames.

This arid south-eastern corner of Cyprus is where the vestiges of empire come to an end. The village sits just outside the British military base of Dhekelia, which, along with RAF Akrotiri on the opposite end of the island, is the last remnant of the colonial administration that ruled here for close to a century.

Both were established when Cyprus became an independent republic in 1960, following years of violent uprising. They have remained sovereign territory within the Republic of Cyprus ever since, governed by British laws and policed from within.

But trouble is stirring in the borderlands. ‘The British remember 1955 [the year the revolution began] because they lost,’ says the 57-year-old cafeowner, Tonys Georgiou, his moustache twitching as he toys with a packet of cigarettes. ‘And now they are starting another war. They are attacking our way of life.’

A journey's end

The location of Cyprus as Europe’s last staging post before the Mediterranean reaches the shores of the Levant has forged a turbulent history. It also makes the island a haven for migratory birds. Each autumn millions that have spent the summer rearing their young in northern countries touch down en route to warmer climes.

The same finches, warblers, pipits and wagtails that have been fattening themselves up in British gardens in recent weeks now flit around the olive groves here. For many this is journey’s end.

report published by the charity BirdLife International in August revealed that an estimated 2.3 million birds are now killed in Cyprus every year (and 25 million across the Mediterranean as a whole). They are caught in mist nets or on branches covered in glue, their throats slit and their bodies boiled, grilled or pickled to be eaten whole a dozen at a time. Here they call the dish ambelopoulia.

The slaughter is particularly concentrated on British soil. Last autumn, on the Dhekelia base and its Cape Pyla firing range, trappers killed an estimated 900,000 birds – the highest number recorded for 12 years. Trapping has been illegal in Cyprus since 1974 (under local law and, latterly, the EU Birds Directive), but many accuse the UK authorities of long turning a blind eye in order to keep the peace, allowing the industry to escalate.

Chief among the critics is the Prince of Wales, who last year sent a private letter (which was subsequently leaked) to the commander of British Forces in Cyprus, Maj Gen Richard Cripwell, demanding urgent action against the ‘industrial-scale killing of songbirds’ on Dhekelia and, in particular, the removal of swaths of invasive acacia scrub planted on Cape Pyla concealing a labyrinth of mist nets.

The British 'war' on Cypriot trappings

The ‘war’, as they are calling it in Xylophagou, had begun. In November an area equivalent to 11 football pitches’ worth of acacia was cleared. The new commander here, Air Vice-Marshal Michael Wigston, who succeeded Cripwell in January, has continued the mission with zeal. In total over this summer some 40 acres have been removed and vast amounts of hunting paraphernalia seized.

A few weeks ago, in response to the raids, 23 signs dotted around the military base were bent with heavy machinery or sprayed with shotgun pellets and anti-British graffiti. Police officers employed by the base have been attacked and threatened. Recently crowds 30-40 strong have started congregating on Cape Pyla at night, vowing to stop the anti-trapping operations. The fear now is that locals will start disrupting live military fire exercises and old tensions will be further inflamed.

Back in the roundabout cafe, mention of the Prince’s intervention is met with a sneer. ‘It is exactly the same for fox hunting in England, so why doesn’t he stop that?’ says one customer, Christopher Christophorou, a 63-year-old taxi driver who admits to having trapped birds in the past. ‘People go out and trap ambelopoulia for a living, and the money gets shared between families. This is our tradition.’

The dawn chorus around Dhekelia begins early during the autumn, fired up by car batteries embedded in the earth. These are connected to MP3 players with speakers hidden in the trees, which blare out recorded birdsong in the darkness. This is the method trappers use to lure birds into orchards before stringing up mist nets at first light and slinging handfuls of gravel to drive them out.

Trapping on Cyprus has ancient roots but this is its modern interpretation. So, too, with the lime sticks. Where once the sticky sap of the Syrian plum was squeezed on to a tree branch to catch a bird, now this is mixed with industrial-strength glue.

The industry is currently worth an estimated €15 million a year, and the traditional trapping families have been joined by criminal gangs involved in drugs, prostitution and illegal casinos at the nearby party resort of Ayia Napa. Often they will lease land from farmers to use during the migration season.

The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), a group of international activists who run volunteer camps across the Mediterranean each spring and autumn, have witnessed this rise in organised crime all too closely. The group have been active in Cyprus since 2001, and five years ago, while filming a documentary with the author Jonathan Franzen called Emptying the Skies, were attacked by trappers.

Andrea Rutigliano, a 37-year-old from Milan with a serious, studied demeanour and a mane of wiry hair, was part of Franzen’s group. That was the third time he has been beaten up in Cyprus; he has also been shot at. ‘I don’t come here for a holiday,’ he says without smiling.

This autumn the 30 or so CABS volunteers will be active for 40 nights. Since 2013 their tactics have changed from disrupting trapping operations to gathering evidence to pass on to the British and Cypriot police. I joined one such night-time reconnaissance mission, to a farm over the border in the Republic of Cyprus, just north of Xylophagou.

Gathering evidence

We meet at midnight and park a little over a mile away before three of us (Rutigliano, his 28-year-old brother Carlo and me) walk across open fields guided by an iPad with a satellite map of the area.

Almost immediately the sound of artificial birdsong floats through the pitch-black night, a 20-second burst on repeat that becomes almost unbearable the closer we come. The recording is of blackcaps, the most common bird in ambelopoulia, although 30 species can be used in the dish: song thrushes, lesser whitethroats and chiffchaffs are also prized.

The rest of the 120 or so species that have been recorded as caught in nets – 78 of which are threatened, including rare red-backed shrikes, as well as barn and scops owls – are simply left to die. There is a local saying that it is bad luck to release a bird, as each is a gift from god.’

The farm we are heading towards is a large-scale operation, and the trappers have a car on patrol doing slow, steady laps of the area while dogs bark in nearby pens. I follow in Andrea’s footsteps, and each time the headlights turn in our direction, we drop low to the ground, breathing in the dust of stubble wheat. After half an hour we make it into the orchard; the tape is deafening and the shadows of at least a dozen birds flutter between the trees.

We retreat, and the police raid the site the next morning. Two decoy players, four loudspeakers and five mist nets are recovered and one man charged, but there is little celebration among Andrea and his CABS colleagues; the seven-strong Cyprus Police Anti-Poaching squad can achieve only so much.

The British police

The British also have seven designated officers, although this is extended on major operations such as with the acacia clearance, which involved 30 police as well as 100 soldiers from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment stationed at the base. Despite the renewed enthusiasm, Rutigliano still seems unconvinced. ‘The British made a big mistake in letting the problem get out of hand in the first place,’ he says.

I put this to Mick Matthews, the chief constable of the Sovereign Base Areas, at police head­quarters in RAF Akrotiri. There are no fences separating British territory from the Republic, and some 10,000 Cypriots live on an area encompassing 98 square miles. Farmers still plough their potato fields with rusting Massey Ferguson tractors, once the main manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the British Empire.

As if to emphasise the difficulty of policing occupied territory, the week we meet, Greek and Turkish Cypriot workers across the British bases are striking against an impending pay cut – part of €5.2 million worth of cost-cutting measures. All anti-trapping operations have been suspended in order to police the strike. Although the strike is largely peaceful, protests have turned violent here before.

Matthews, formerly the chief constable of Gloucestershire Police, who has been in post since 2013, insists they have always been focused on the problem of trapping. While he disputes the BirdLife figures for Dhekelia, he accepts it is now spreading from traditional areas to all over the island.

He puts this down to the Cypriot economic crash and subsequent bailout in 2013, which cut the price of ambelopoulia from €100 for a dozen birds to about €40. He is also increasingly convinced (although he says he has no evidence) of an international trade in the birds. Rumour has it that the dish is starting to become popular with the thousands of Russians who have settled on the island in recent years.

‘I’m satisfied there is a major problem here threatening species and we shouldn’t allow that to happen,’ he says. ‘While I’m acutely conscious not to offend, the reality is we have to enforce that law, and we are becoming more robust.’

Confrontations and assault

Some 130 trappers have been arrested by the British over the past four years, with 49 arrests made in 2014/15, compared with 34 in 2013/14. According to Matthews, there have been ‘many violent confrontations’ with officers on the British base, including two serious assaults in the past year.

One was dragged from his patrol car; others have been threatened with firearms or dogs. Last year the names of policemen were spray-painted on road signs, and indirect threats have been made to their families.

PC Sergios Sergiou, 29, is one whose family have been accosted. He comes from the nearby village of Ormideia. ‘They come up to my parents and my brothers and say, why is your son doing this to us? I live away from the village so I’m not worried about myself, but it is not nice to hear your father and mother have been pulled over.’

Sergiou, like every officer on the anti-trapping squad, was hand-picked from the 240-strong police force for his ability to deal with such threats. ‘When you go into a field at 3am with three officers, and there are 10-15 men around, it is definitely dangerous,’ he says. ‘But I feel sorry for the birds first of all, and I try to do my best to stop it.’

He proudly displays an evidence room stuffed full of trapping paraphernalia. One day of clearance alone at the end of August produced 164 metal poles, 390 yards of cable, five loudspeakers and two car batteries. There is barely room to move, and the hunting season has not even begun in earnest.

The government's involvement

Despite the Prince of Wales also reportedly having written to the President of the Republic of Cyprus, its government seems to require rather more persuading about the urgency of the situation. Parliamentary elections take place next May, and the Democratic Rally (DISY) party, which currently holds power, stands accused of posturing over trapping to attract votes in areas where it is intrinsically tied to a fierce nationalism.

In May an anti-poaching action plan agreed with conservation groups was changed by the government at the last minute to contain a provision that blackcaps could still be selectively hunted with air rifles. This could effectively allow restaurants to serve ambelopoulia with impunity (although it requires a special derogation under EU law that is unlikely to materialise).

The lack of political will extends to the courts, where despite the penalty for illegal bird trapping being a maximum of €17,000 and three years’ imprisonment, the average fine is €500-800. The largest ever imposed was €10,000, in 2011, when a raid on an 83-year-old woman’s house discovered freezers filled with 2,500 birds.

‘In the 21st century this should be unjustifiable,’ says Dr Clairie Papazoglou, the director of BirdLife Cyprus. ‘This is not 50 years ago, when people needed food and ambelopoulia was the only protein they had.’ She welcomes the renewed British commitment in the face of a worsening security situation that affects her field staff, too, but warns that without political will within the government, trapping will not be stamped out. ‘You need people that have the determination to make a difference. These people don’t exist, unfortunately.’

One of the most prominent bogeymen is the DISY politician Kyriakos Hadjiyiannis, who often speaks in support of trapping. Hadjiyiannis is the MP for the Famagusta region, split between the Greek Cypriots in the south and the Turkish Republic in the north.

The UN-patrolled buffer zone dividing the two is the single worst location in Europe for trapping, with between 405,000 and 974,000 birds killed every year. We meet in a cafe in the city of Larnaca late at night and sip grainy coffee as old men play backgammon.’

Even the likes of Hadjiyiannis now accept the problem is out of control, yet his solution would be to reduce the fines handed out to small-scale operations, while increasing penalties for criminal gangs. It is, his detractors say, an utterly unworkable measure. I wonder how much should the fines be, and he thinks for a moment. ‘Five euros a bird,’ he says.

'So blatant it needed to be seen to be believed'

The acacia removal by the British was ‘a big mistake’, he says. ‘People are very angry. Here there is a culture. For the past hundreds of years people have been killing birds. We have to respect that. The criminals are in the Sovereign Base Area. In the Republic we have control from the police. The UK is not able to control the areas and the criminals know that.’ Has he eaten ambelopoulia? ‘Of course,’ he grins.

In 2004 Richard Brunstrom, then the chief constable of North Wales Police and co-chair of the UK Partnership Against Wildlife Crime, visited Cyprus to report on illegal trapping on the sovereign bases, focusing on Cape Pyla, where he described the practice as so blatant it needed to be seen to be believed.

‘This issue has already caused the UK Government significant embarrassment at international level, and is very likely to do so again unless further steps are taken by the SBA Authorities,’ he concluded. ‘Further embarrassment would probably be unwelcome given the extraordinarily sensitive nature of the political situation on the island.’

A decade on, and finally progress is being made, yet a morning patrol of the Dhekelia boundaries with a BirdLife monitoring team shows how far there is to go. At one farm mist nets are brazenly strung up behind a growth of bamboo. The dust track to the farm is blocked by felled trees to deny access to prying eyes. In another compound, a major operation of loudspeakers and enough poles to support an estimated 200ft of mist nets have already taken the morning catch. Feathers litter the floor.

And then nearby we spot an array of seven or eight lime sticks laid carefully across an orchard of pomegranate and fig trees, Syrian plum and prickly pear. The more diverse the flora, the more birds are attracted. Stuck to one of the sticks is a plump female blackcap. Her feet and wings are glued fast, as is her beak from trying to break free. All she remains able to do is twist her neck from side to side, crying without a sound.

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