23 Dec 2014

Tackling illegal trapping in Cyprus

One of millions illegally caught in mistnets in Cyprus. Photo: BirdLife Cyprus
By Shaun Hurrell

“I wouldn’t want to be a bird because it is so difficult”, said a young girl in a school in Cyprus.

She had just been a migratory bird herself, whilst taking part in a board game created by BirdLife Cyprus, as part of their illegal bird trapping communications campaign.  The realisation of a little Blackcap’s plight clearly made a big impression on her.

In Cyprus, the illegal trapping of birds is a chronic and gut-wrenching problem. On this island every year millions of migrating birds stop for a rest on their arduous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea only to find they cannot take off 

Ambelopoulia despite being illegal</br>can still be bought in restaurants.</br> Photo: Guy Shorrock; rspb-images.com

again. Their feet are stuck in glue, which trappers have heedlessly pasted onto sticks. The birds suffer an agonising death from thirst and exhaustion, or at the greedy hands of the trappers. Or just as inhumane is the death in fine ‘mist’ nets where every attempt to escape causes further entanglement. Based on the last systematic sample, there were over 13km of mist nets estimated on Cyprus in the autumn in 2013 and an unknown number of limesticks, many accompanied by bird-calling devices that imply a safe resting spot for the weary migrants but actually lure birds to their death.

The reason: ambelopoulia. A local ‘delicacy’ consisting of trapped Blackcap and other tiny songbirds, eaten whole – legs, beak, entrails and all. A plate of a dozen ambelopoulia sells for between €40 and €80 in law-breaking restaurants.

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The majority of Cypriots do not consider bird trapping a serious issue, despite it being illegal by national legislation since 1974. But with 152 different bird species implicated, of which 78 being classified as threatened; and more than 2.5 million birds killed every year it becomes clear that an ecological disaster is taking place under the radar.

Presentation at a school in Cyprus.</br> Photo: BirdLife CyprusSo a major shift in public opinion is needed: with funding from the MAVA Foundation, BirdLife Cyprus embarked on a zero-tolerance communications campaign to shift public opinion against ambelopoulia and trapping. In Cyprus it is quite ground-breaking to be disseminating in-your-face environmental messages, and BirdLife Cyprus is taking their campaign right into the public eye. They have placed huge Make the Change: Say No to Ambelopoulia posters on billboards on major highways and in notorious trapping areas, and pushed further with national media coverage in the lead up to the spring hunting season.

The campaign is dispelling the myth that bird trapping is still the harmless, small-scale tradition it perhaps used to be: in fact it is a lucrative and industrialised business earning mafia-like criminal networks a total of around €15 million illegally each year, according to the state Game and Fauna Service. “This initiative funded by the MAVA Foundation gave us the platform we needed to jump to a new level in our communications campaigning”, said Martin Hellicar, Research Coordinator, BirdLife Cyprus. Martin and the team are focusing their messages on the huge scale of the organised slaughter and the reckless non-selectivity of the criminals’ trapping methods. When informed, the public are largely against it.

BirdLife Partners recognise that long-term commitments are needed to solve such a chronic problem as illegal killing, so it is important to cut the recruitment of the next generation. As well as pushing for political and consumer change, BirdLife Cyprus’ communications campaign is finding a way into the trapping communities through school visits. Sadly, many children there have seen nets and limesticks in use. “At one particular school”, said Natalie Stylianou, Media Officer for BirdLife Cyprus, “the first mention of the word ambelopoulia caused one young boy to immediately rub his belly and lick his lips.” It is a difficult arena, but one that the team are making a big difference in.

Ulysses the friendly Blackcap in the educational animationWith the initial MAVA foundation funding, the team first produced educational materials and the success of this catalysed further funding for an educational package including a cartoon animation in which a friendly blackcap clearly explains his plight, and the aforementioned board game.

BirdLife Cyprus have developed a Strategic Action Plan against illegal bird trapping that, for the first time, brings together all relevant stakeholders to agree a common framework.

“We have now managed to persuade them that we need a game-changer”, said Martin.

Political will to address this issue has been the major challenge in recent years, but encouragingly, the Strategy has the support of the European Commission (EC), whom BirdLife Cyprus have been keeping updated with reports, and the EC are keen to see the adoption of this Strategy by Cyprus.

“We are close to having everyone put their name to an agreed new start, and from every angle begin to make a real difference in the number of birds slaughtered,” said Martin.  

In May 2014  with funding from the MAVA Foundation, BirdLife organised a workshop involving a group of 26 representatives from conservation NGOs in the Mediterranean (including 13 BirdLife Partners- that’s over 10% of the whole Partnership) with one common thought  in mind: we will work together to protect migratory birds in the Mediterranean. “The strength of the BirdLife Partnership lies in the power of many,” said BirdLife’s Director of Conservation, Richard Grimmett. “Things can change. Give them a chance and the birds will come back.”

Referring to the regional support BirdLife has provided through the Capacity Development for Flyway Conservation in the Mediterranean project, Martin says:

“We are a little island besieged by illegal trappers, so to know you are not alone is really important.”


Generously funded by the MAVA Foundation, the project, 'Capacity Development for Flyway Conservation in the Mediterranean', aims to establish and strengthen a dynamic network of conservation NGOs working effectively with local people, national governments, and the international community to protect key migratory species, sites and habitats in the Mediterranean region.

The first phase of the project (October 2012-October 2014) supported the delivery of national conservation action in eight main countries: Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Tunisia, Lebanon, Macedonia, Montenegro and Morocco.  Each country faces very specific cultural, social and political challenges as part of their mission to protect migratory birds. However, the true strength of this international project is the formation of a Mediterranean network, where expertise and experience can be shared between NGOs. The creation of this NGO network and the national level conservation action implemented in 8 countries is already generating many wins for migratory birds in a number of countries across the Mediterranean region.