A NEW REPORT FROM THE RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus has revealed that an estimated 345,000 songbirds were illegally trapped and killed last autumn on the island of Cyprus, including at a British military base. The figures show that an international partnership of authorities and conservation organisations has successfully reduced trapping from an estimated 604,000 songbirds trapped in autumn 2021.

Every autumn hundreds of thousands of songbirds are illegally trapped and killed, before being sold via the black market to restaurants in the Republic of Cyprus for the local and expensive delicacy of ‘ambelopoulia’, or for home consumption. Before the international partnership began to assist authorities in tackling this issue 20 years ago over two million birds would be caught every year, with an estimated figure of over ten million birds being trapped in the 1990s.

This illegal activity has been driven by organised crime where gangs can earn tens of thousands of Euros every year selling the birds to restaurants or for home consumption. This huge operation involves the gangs targeting birds migrating between Europe and Africa, using electronic calls to lure them into mist nets placed between acacia bushes and within orchards, or using adhesive covered limesticks to trap birds as they move around the vegetation.

In autumn local law enforcement authorities from the Republic of Cyprus and Sovereign Base Area worked with the partnership of BirdLife Cyprus, the Committee Against Birds Slaughter (CABS) and the RSPB to tackle this illegal activity.

Compared to autumn 2021, levels of mist net use were down by up to 49 per cent with an estimated 3.5km of mist net rides. Overall, a 91 per cent decrease from when the partnership began in 2002 has been recorded. The survey team reported finding evidence of or removing 27 active mist nets in the survey areas on the Republic of Cyprus and the Sovereign Base Area. The report notes that the reduction in the use of mist netting in the Republic of Cyprus could be linked to the high fines, which start at €2,000, for the illegal use of this non-selective method.

While this reduction was welcome, within the Republic of Cyprus large scale organised crime continues to trap birds almost unhindered in some areas. BirdLife Cyprus believes that far more coordinated effort is needed and the Cyprus Police Anti-Poaching Unit, abolished in November 2019, needs to be re-instated to tackle this serious crime.

Although declining (down 30 per cent compared to 2021) the partnership continues to find high levels of limesticks being used in the survey area. So there remains concern about the fines for using this type of trap, which have been reduced from €2,000 to €200 if up to 50 birds are caught, and the partnership is asking the Cyprus Parliament to reinstate the previous fine levels to deter trappers.

The continued support of both local authorities of the Republic of Cyprus and the Sovereign Base Area administration remains critical to the ongoing success of the operation and the work to eradicate this illegal activity.

Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer at the RSPB said: “The arrival of songbirds is always a welcome sign that warmer weather and longer evenings are arriving. Making truly epic journeys between Europe and Africa, stopping in places like Cyprus are vital as they cross the Mediterranean. However, this also means these wonderful birds are targeted by organised criminal gangs prepared to break the law so they can capture, kill and sell the birds to restaurants and for home consumption.

“Working as part of an international partnership of authorities and conservation organisations, we have made great strides in cutting down this illegal activity in the last two decades when over two million birds would be caught every year. But there is still more to do before this becomes a thing of the past and songbirds can continue their migration safe from trappers. And this means not just taking action to remove traps and bring the gangs to justice but ensuring the penalties are a sufficiently [sic] deterrent.”

Martin Hellicar, director of BirdLife Cyprus, said: “We have been campaigning against illegal bird trapping in Cyprus for more than two decades and during this period we have recorded a drop, followed by high levels of trapping for a number of years. In recent years we have successfully achieved to decrease mist netting to the lowest levels recorded, via a joint and coordinated effort between environmental NGOs and enforcement agencies. Conversely to this significant progress on the ground, we have unfortunately witnessed a setback in the national legislation, with fines for bird trapping with limesticks or for shooting up to 50 songbirds being set at 200 euros only. Such low fines are certainly non-deterrent and we call on the Cyprus Parliament to make all fines deterrent and punitive against this wildlife crime.’’

* More information on how the RSPB is working with BirdLife Cyprus and both the British and Cypriot governments to protect songbirds here.

* Source: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds