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Today we remember and mourn dedicated environmentalist Martin Abbas Hellicar, Director of BirdLife Cyprus

Martin Abbas Hellicar, a highly respected and beloved advocate for the environment, and one of BirdLife International’s most committed conservation leaders as the Director of BirdLife Cyprus, tragically passed away on the 15th June 2024.

Martin Abbas Hellicar, a highly respected and beloved advocate for the environment, and one of BirdLife International’s most committed conservation leaders as the Director of BirdLife Cyprus, tragically passed away on the 15th June 2024.

Martin dedicated his life to protecting nature in Cyprus, from writing extensively for the Cyprus Mail as a journalist and editor to eventually becoming the director of BirdLife Cyprus. All who knew him expressed how his genuine care and dedication for nature inspired people to value Cyprus’s natural heritage. Mr Tasso Leventis, Honorary Vice President of BirdLife International said:

“Martin was a person of excellence, empathy and unwavering commitment to nature and humanity. Under his leadership, the team reached important milestones.  Among them are the restoration of Akrotiri Marsh, saving Akamas and Akrotiri Peninsulas from irreversible damage, the creation of a nature reserve in the heart of the illegal bird killing hotspot in Frenaros, the evolution of the Barn Owl project into a National Action Plan, saving the Griffon Vulture from extinction and the flourishment of BirdLife Cyprus’ educational programme.  His passing leaves a tremendous void, but he also leaves behind a legacy that will continue to inspire us all. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family during this difficult time.  Martin’s example will remain in our hearts and minds as we continue the flight to defend nature.”

Martin’s love for birds and the natural world grew from the moment his parents relocated to a village in the countryside. He said in an interview earlier this year with BirdLife International’s CEO, Martin Harper: ‘‘I have always loved nature. I think the key for me was when we moved out of town and into a village. I suddenly discovered there was countryside on my doorstep and that was just mind-blowing.” Nature hence became a passion throughout Martin’s life, with his particular interest in farmland birds and ecosystems leading him to studying Ecology at Lancaster University and then at the University of York. He then completed a PhD at the University of Cyprus, researching the interaction between grazing animals and biodiversity in the country.

It was this PhD that led Martin to BirdLife Cyprus, working in a variety of roles over 20 years with the organisation. During that time, Martin led the organization to achieve major conservation successes, notably reducing the practice of illegal bird trapping by an astonishing 95% and ensuring all the important bird and biodiversity areas in Cyprus were designated within the Natura 2000 network. Martin deeply cared for each and every team member at BirdLife Cyprus.

When asked what gave him hope for the future, Martin said ‘‘We have a wonderful team of young people, really determined to get things done in a challenging environment. Cyprus is not the easiest place to win the conservation argument, but we have a fantastic team…slowly but surely we are seeing a change in how important [the environment] is to the culture in Cyprus.’’

Martin’s work was not only recognised across his home country, but he made an indelible mark internationally, inspiring and contributing to the global efforts of the BirdLife International Partnership. Martin Harper, BirdLife International’s CEO, remembers him in this way:

He was such a humble but passionate and brilliant leader. He was generous with his time, knowledge and humour and he will be sorely missed by everyone that knew him. Tackling the nature and climate emergency feels tougher without him, but he has nurtured so many great conservationists who will continue his work. I am confident that they will realise his ambition to move beyond nature protection to nature restoration.”

He worked closely with European and Central Asia BirdLife team, championing farmland birds and agricultural biodiversity. Ariel Brunner, Regional Director of BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, said:

‘‘Martin was a pillar of BirdLife. He was the chair of our European & Central Asian Agriculture task force for many years.  A real gentleman, with a permanent slightly ironic smile that allowed him to be very serious while remaining lighthearted.  I do think he would have appreciated the symbolism of the European Union nature restoration law passing as he was passing away. I cannot think of a better tribute to him professionally, knowing how happy this would have made him.’’

The environmental movement has suffered a great loss, but it is a true testament to Martin’s love for birds and nature that his legacy will live on, remembered through the landscapes and wildlife he has protected. Likewise, the conservation work of BirdLife Cyprus and countless others will continue the fight to save nature in his memory.

“The birds will not sing tonight. All nature will hold still, in mourning of someone who only comes around once. Martin is everywhere. He is in the wind that flows in the valleys he loves so much. He is in the rustle of the trees. He is in the birdcalls he knows so well and fought a whole lifetime to save. You can’t speak of Martin as if he passed because he will always be everywhere. It is undeniable that our island would look different if he hadn’t graced it with his love, his patience, and his determination to protect its nature for decades. A person so humble, gentle, knowledgeable, with such charisma to share and lead, but also to listen, learn, and grow. The conservation community of Cyprus and of Europe has been made much poorer. Martin is irreplaceable in every possible way. For me, a piece of my soul is gone forever.”

Vasiliki Anastasi, one of Martin’s former colleagues at BirdLife Cyprus.