3 May 2017

Cyprus songbird slaughter: UK Government responds to petition

Over 800,000 migratory songbirds were killed on the UK-owned military bases in Cyprus last Autumn – to fuel criminal trade for a local delicacy. With local efforts to stem the slaughter floundering, the UK Government has delivered an official response to an online petition

Robin snared in trappers' nets. © BirdLife Cyprus
By Alex Dale

Officially, the dish is banned throughout the island of Cyprus, and has been since 1974. But the reality is that ambelopoulia – boiled or grilled songbird to me and you  – remains on the menus of the black-market restaurants that are happy to take advantage of slack law enforcement of the issue.

The expensive delicacy is big business for the restaurants, and supplying the demand is even bigger business still – one that has attracted the attention of organised crime gangs, who illegally trap and kill migratory birds that visit the island on an industrial scale. The latest research by the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK) and BirdLife Cyprus estimates that in 2016, the number of birds slaughtered by these gangs on the island was around 2.3 million.

The problem is particularly acute in Akrotiri and Dhekelia - areas of the island which were retained by the United Kingdom when Cyprus won its independence, for use as strategic military bases. In these areas, illegal bird killing is at its highest level since our Partners began monitoring the problem in 2002, with the use of mist nets - long lines of near-invisible netting that trap birds indiscriminately – up an eye-watering 183% in that time.

Although the Akrotiri and Dhekelia are military bases, this gives a misleading picture of their make-up: much of these regions are comprised of publicly-accessible land, and there are even a few Cypriot settlements within the boundaries. It is these areas that have become trapping hotspots, and many of the tactics used by the criminals are astonishingly brazen; for instance, trappers are deliberately planting non-native acacia trees on MoD land to entice songbirds to their cruel traps.

While the bases' police forces have worked with RSPB staff to clear these trees, in recent months protests and blockades by trappers has greatly impeded this work. Today, around 90 acres of acacia trees remain standing on the British firing range in Dhekelia.

Outnumbered and with limited resources, it is clear that the bases' police need outside help in order to effectively tackle this intractable issue. Indeed, the current situation has escalated to the point where some parts of the firing range have effectively become a no-go zone.

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To this end an online petition - heavily supported and promoted by BirdLife - was set up in order to push the UK Government to do more to stop the slaughter. The petition gained over 24,000 signatures, and prompted a response from the UK Ministry of Defence, which is published in full below:

“The UK Government is confident the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) Administration is making considerable efforts to prevent bird trapping in the SBAs.

We recognise the elimination of bird trapping and change of cultural practices in Cyprus will take some years.

The practice of trapping birds in the SBA is an issue the SBA Administration and the UK Ministry of Defence takes very seriously. The SBAs comprise of both Crown and private land, only a small proportion of which is enclosed military sites. Trapping birds in SBA occurs mainly in the Cape Pyla area near Dhekelia, where the public have full access to the 13000 acre area that is not contained within the perimeter of a military camp. The area is 12 km to the east of Dhekelia Station in the Eastern Sovereign Base Area of Cyprus. Illegal trapping of birds is a widespread issue across the whole of Cyprus and is not confined to the SBAs. The practice of trapping and eating ambelopoulia (a dish made from songbirds), has been a traditional way of life in the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) and substantial profits are made by those who organise and control this activity. There are no restaurants in the SBA selling ambelopoulia, however, there are restaurants that serve this in the RoC, and this is not something the SBA Administration can control.

The SBA Administration is pursuing over 80 convictions associated with bird trapping and poaching offences in the SBA. The SBA Police have conducted 39 major mist netting clearance operations, resulting in the seizure of 1030 mist-nets and over 450 limesticks as well as other trapping paraphernalia. We believe this enforcement has impacted on bird trapping activity and this kind of intervention will continue as part of our ongoing activities. Of the 150 acres of invasive acacia bushes used by trappers to attract birds towards their mist-nets in the special areas of conservation on the Pyla Range, the SBA Administration has removed over 60 acres in the last three years. Removals will continue in spite of the aggressive stance by the local community and individuals who favour bird trapping.

In addition to these measures, significant time is invested on wider educational programmes in the areas. These are designed to change attitudes and to educate communities about the effects of illegal bird trapping and wildlife trapping in general. One specific measure is the recent opening of an Environment and Education Centre at Akrotiri in the Western Sovereign Base Area. This provides a dedicated outreach facility from the SBAs into the community with the intent to provide and promote environmental education to school groups and interested parties from all over Cyprus. Around 10,000 school pupils visited the centre in its first year of operation.

The SBA Administration is working closely with BirdLife, the RSPB and other non-government organisations in all aspects of countering bird trapping. Non-Government Organisations are working hard to encourage the RoC to do the same.

The SBA Administration is continually reviewing a variety of methods to combat this illegal activity. The UK Government recognise there is little prospect of a swift resolution to the wider problem of bird trapping across Cyprus and any permanent solution will require a significant change in traditional views and activities held by some Cypriot communities."

Congratulations to everyone who signed the petition and helped bring this issue to the attention of the UK Government. This success is just further proof of one of BirdLife's favourite sayings - The Power Of Many.

Read more about the work BirdLife and its Partners do to combat the illegal killing of birds here.