Visit to Italy gives hope to end illegal bird killing in Cyprus

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With illegal bird trapping in Cyprus on a dramatic rise in the past decade one might wonder whether the persistent and chronic problem of bird trapping on our island will ever stop. A recent visit to Italy however, gave us hope and encouragement in our fight against this problem. 

Illegal bird killing in the Mediterranean region is a widespread problem, as documented in last year’s report of BirdLife International published in March 2016. The report estimates that 25 million individual birds may be killed / taken illegally per year in the region, many of them while on their migration journey. Cyprus ranked among the five worst countries in terms of the total number of wild birds killed illegally (the other four are Italy, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon).

In May, BirdLife Cyprus was invited by NABU, the BirdLife partner in Germany, to participate in a spring migration camp in Calabria, in the south of Italy, at the Messina Straits. The purpose of this camp was to record and observe the raptor migration across the Messina Straits, which is a migratory bottleneck for birds of prey, and also to monitor any poaching in the area, especially of honey buzzards.

The shooting of raptors, especially honey buzzards, used to be very widespread and large-scale in the 1980s and 90s across the Messina Straits. In Calabria particularly, it was considered a tradition for a hunter to kill at least one honey buzzard during spring migration. If not, he would be ridiculed by the entire village! Additional drivers for this illegal shooting included taxidermy / trophy hunting and, to a lesser extent, subsistence (in times of need honey buzzards were eaten).

At the time of no enforcement in the 1980 – 90s, it was estimated that 5,000 – 10,000 poachers would be involved in this illegal activity and 5,000 raptors (a conservative estimate) would be shot during spring migration. Hundreds of cement hides were built along the slopes in the countryside between the straits, which poachers would use for their illegal activity. Depending on location, the rent for a cement hide could reach to 5,000 euros per week! And as one would expect, as is the case with Cyprus also, the organised crime network of the region was also involved in this activity.

Talking with NABU and Legambiente about the poaching problem across the Messina Straits, I could see many similarities with the Cyprus trapping problem: considered tradition and widely accepted by local society, lack of enforcement, involvement of organised crime etc. However, during my visit to Calabria last May, there was hardly any poaching taking place, and since 2005 the problem of large scale killing of raptors has been eliminated.

This change did not happen overnight of course, but involved the continuous effort of NGOs from the 1990s onwards, with hundreds of volunteers taking part in anti-poaching spring camps over the years. Clearly it was very difficult at the very start, with poachers threatening and shooting at volunteers and police forces not willing to cooperate with the NGOs to tackle the issue. Increased international attention to the problem and the perseverance of environmental NGOs is what pushed for this gradual change to take place and the problem to be finally stopped.

One of our observation points for monitoring the spring migration was overlooking the Messina Straits, while right below us one could see tens of old cement hides, holding testament to an illegal bird killing problem of the past that has now been solved. On two different occasions I was happily surprised to see that two middle aged men carrying binoculars had actually come to our location to observe honey buzzards (‘adorno’ in the local dialect), while at another location children, as part of a school visit, were following a trail that used to be a path which led poachers to positions in their cement hides.

During our three day visit in Calabria, we observed more than 800 honey buzzards, while during the whole spring migration around 40,000 honey buzzards are recorded. Αmazing experience aside, the most important thing was the encouraging message that I brought back from Calabria: with continuous effort and collaboration between NGOs and the authorities we can hope to put an end to illegal bird trapping in Cyprus, as it happened at the Messina Straits. 

Written by Tassos Shialis, Campaigns Coordinator


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