Cyprus has been named as Europe’s worst blackspot for illegal bird trapping in a report compiled by BirdLife Cyprus and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In a survey carried out during the Autumn of 2016 it was estimated that some 2.3 million birds were trapped illegally throughout the entire island with the worst affected area being a British army base where 800,000 birds are thought to have been captured and killed during the period. Bird trapping has been illegal on Cyprus since 1974 and the activity is now carried out by organised criminal gangs who sell the birds to local restaurants where they are served in a dish called ambelopoulia, an expensive local delicacy costing €40-€80 per plate. To lure the birds to their fate the trappers play birdsong from large speakers, attracting the birds to rest and feed on specially planted acacia trees. A fine wire net known as mist netting installed on the trees’ branches entangles the birds which are then collected by the trappers. Another method used to catch the birds is a limestick – a fake twig covered with adhesive to which the birds stick that when they land.
The black market for songbirds has an estimated value of around €15 million per year and many on the island regard the practice a long-standing national tradition. The majority of birds captured are Blackcaps, but 155 other species have been found in nets including 78 that are classified as species of conservation concern such as pallid harriers, red-footed falcons and turtle doves. BirdLife Cyprus has criticised the Cypriot government for failing to abide by EU conservation directives and passing legislation which while ostensibly intended to clamp down on the illegal trade contains loopholes that allow it to continue unabated.
As so much of the trapping activity is taking place on an army base owned by the British government, and therefore on British territory, the RSPB has called on the base’s authorities to do more to reign in the poachers. The Ministry of Defence had begun to combat the problem by cutting down the acacia trees on its land, but was forced to all but abandon its efforts in the face of protests and an attempted blockade organised by the trappers in response.
Despite the pushback from the trappers, more than 850 mist nets and 3,500 limesticks were confiscated by both British and local authorities during the period of the survey, the highest number for six years. The report notes that in 2014 only one restaurant was prosecuted for serving the banned delicacy and concludes by urging the Cypriot authorities to enforce the prohibition in place, advance the acacia removal programme and fully implement the Strategic Plan for tackling bird trapping which has been pending since May 2015.