Cyprus has a critical bird poaching problem. According to a new report, between 1.7 and 2.3 million birds were trapped and killed on the Mediterranean island last year alone.

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Birds caught in illegal mist netting on Cyprus. Image: BirdLife Cyprus

Released jointly by the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife Cyprus, the report also reveals that one of two British military bases on the island has become a poaching hotspot, with over 800,000 birds killed within its boundaries. 

"[This] represents a 183% increase since our joint illegal-killing monitoring programme began in 2002," notes RSPB conservation director Martin Harper.

The "Dhekelia" military base spans around 131 square kilometres (about 51 square miles), and one area inside, known as Cape Pyla, is where most of the poaching incidents are taking place. 

According to Harper, this makes the poaching problem an issue of concern not just for Cypriots. "This report sadly highlights that the British base is the number one bird-killing hotspot on the whole island of Cyprus," he told the BBC. "Many much-loved garden bird species are being trapped and killed for huge profit by criminal gangs."

The traditional ambelopoulia dish involves cooking and eating birds whole, beaks and all. (George Groutas/Flickr)

The garden birds and songbirds are being targeted by poachers who hope to sell them for profit – up to one British pound per bird – to restaurants across the island, where they're used in a traditional dish known as "ambelopoulia".

Made up of small birds cooked and consumed whole, ambelopoulia has been eaten by locals for centuries. However, the sheer number of birds killed to meet modern-day demand has transformed what was once trapping on a small scale into a serious problem.

The situation is made worse by how easily poachers are able to trap the birds. "Geographically, Cyprus is a key stopover location for many migratory birds on their route across the sea. Unfortunately, birds tend to concentrate in particular parts of the island when leaving or arriving on migration – thus making things easier for those engaged in illegal killing," notes the report.

Large organised teams head out into the brush and set up bird-snaring "mist nets" – virtually invisible swaths of meshing strung between acacia bushes, an invasive species from Australia planted on the island by poachers. To the birds, the bushes look like ideal roosting spots, and poachers further entice them by playing recordings of bird calls from hidden speakers. Laws forbidding such hunting tactics have been in place since 1974, but they've done little to curb the practice: the number of traps in use has increased by 183% since monitoring began in 2002.

The birds most commonly targeted include blackcaps, song thrusheslesser whitethroats and chiffchaffs. "Species that are not wanted are caught in the same traps, and are incidentally injured, discarded or killed," the report adds.

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has taken steps to tackle the problem, but it's limited in what it can do to respond. Most of the illegally trapped birds are sold to restaurants outside of the boundaries of the base, where ambelopoulia is still a very popular dish. Within its own borders, the MoD has attempted on multiple occasions to remove the invasive acacia bushes, with 54 acres cleared over the course of two years.

Unfortunately, these efforts ground to a halt last year in the face of protests and blockades of the base organised by the hunters.

"We need the Ministry of Defence to provide enforcement support to help the military base authorities respond to the trappers and safely remove the remaining 90 acres of acacia so that they can no longer be used to kill hundreds of thousands more birds," Harper notes.

The MoD, for its part, points out that it does have 11 military police officers of a total force of 142 dedicated to anti-poaching activities. "We're committed to tackling illegal bird trapping and the RSPB has recognised our increased enforcement activity, which has led to a record number of arrests, equipment seizures, prosecutions and fines," said a spokesperson in a statement to the BBC.

BirdLife Cyprus, meanwhile, notes that while the largest poaching hotspot is undeniably within the boundaries of the British base, much of the responsibility for tackling the problem lies with the Cypriot government.

"[W]e cannot ignore the distasteful fact that the restaurants serving trapped birds operate within the Cyprus Republic," BirdLife Cyprus director Martin Hellicar told The Independent. "Enforcement against these law-breaking restaurants has been limited, at best, in recent years, and the Cypriot authorities must change this."

In the meantime, if you happen to visit the island, steer clear of the ambelopoulia. The birds will thank you.


Top header image: Umeshsrinivasan/Wikimedia Commons