Under the cover of night, activists patrol key poaching sites in southeast Cyprus, described as an ecological disaster zone for endangered migratory birds on their Mediterranean stopover.
"Cyprus is the worst country in Europe for the number of birds killed," said Andrea Rutigliano of the Bonn-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS).
Blackcaps, thrushes and other songbirds face a high-risk passage through the island despite tough prison terms and fines for poachers.
Cooked up in restaurants as a prized if illegal delicacy known as ambelopoulia, they are served "under the table", and a typical plate of a dozen birds costs between 40 and 80 euros ($55 and $110).
How are they trapped?
The poachers traditionally use nets and limesticks -- twigs covered in a sticky substance that instantly trap birds that alight on them, leaving them to dangle helplessly -- and speakers that emit the call of blackcaps to attract their prey.
During the peak season in autumn, 3,000 to 4,000 poachers take to the woods and hills of Cyprus, according to CABS. The spring migration season draws lower numbers because the birds are less plump.
"The situation is very worrying -- it's actually getting worse," said Martin Hellicar of the association BirdLife Cyprus.
But Hellicar said the activity has made a strong comeback over the past seven years, with some 150 species affected indiscriminately, including a number already threatened with extinction.
Ecologists say the situation is worst on the British sovereign bases, a hangover from the colonial era that ended with Cyprus's independence in 1960.
Prince Charles, himself a keen conservationist, wrote to President Nicos Anastasiades and the commander of the British military on the island to condemn the "industrial-scale killing" of birds.
"We prosecute about 200 cases a year, more than that, and each case can be more than one person. We have vigorous campaigns," said Game and Fauna Service head Pantelis Hajiyerou.
"There is a major decrease" in trapping in government-controlled Cyprus "but an increase in the (British) bases," he said.
Hajiyerou said plans are being drawn up for a "holistic approach on the poaching problem", including education on the island where tradition is all-important and 90 percent of people "don't think it's wrong to eat ambelopoulia".
BirdLife Cyprus said that the law -- "on paper" -- provides for hefty penalties of up to three years behind bars and fines as high as 17,000 euros.
But the sentences passed so far have been a few hundred euros in fines, serving as "no deterrent at all", Hellicar said.AFP
- Ambelopoulia is a controversial dish of grilled, pickled or boiled songbirds. It is illegal in Cyprus as it involves trapping wild birds such as Blackcaps and European Robins.
- The trappers defend their activity by citing the practice as traditional Cypriot food gathering and historically this has been an important source of protein for the natives
- Birdlife Cyprus has identified restaurants as the main culprits as they provide the financial incentives