European robin on fence 2015-03-09
Migrating European robins are one of the many species that are under threat from illegal bird trapping in Cyprus. Image: Luton Anderson

If you’ve ever read a tourist brochure about Cyprus, you’ll know about the country’s rich cultural heritage, its pristine beach resorts and its claim to fame as the birthplace of Aphrodite. What you probably won’t read about are the estimated 900,000 songbirds that were killed there last autumn, probably to wind up pickled and plated in a Cypriot restaurant.

New research from the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reveals that this is the highest recorded level of songbird slaughter in the past 12 years since the organisation began monitoring illegal bird-trapping activity on the UK-owned Dhekelia military base near Ayia Napa. Local poachers reportedly nabbed 15,000 birds every day during September and October last year, mostly to be served in a traditional dish called ambelopoulia.

“The report highlights that illegal trapping of songbirds on the British military base has escalated and we are urging the Ministry of Defence and the Base Area authorities to resolve it before this autumn’s migration,” said RSPB’s international director, Dr Tim Stowe.

Small-scale trapping of songbirds for human consumption has been practised by locals on the island for many centuries. Despite a 1974 ruling that outlaws the practice, illegal bird trapping continues to be a major problem and the RSPB believes that organised crime is now driving this lucrative industry.

Traditionally, trappers relied on limesticks (pomegranate stems coated in locally manufactured ‘lime’) to lure the songbirds; however, modern poachers have turned to a far more destructive tool: mist nets. After stringing the invisible netting up between trees, trappers use recorded birdsong to attract birds on an industrial scale. 

So is there a solution to the unabated songbird poaching? The first step is to clear planted acacia scrub. Trappers use the invasive plants as cover to conceal their illegal activities on the military base. And the bird-killing infrastructure serves a double purpose as it also attracts huge numbers of migrating songbirds travelling between Europe and Africa each autumn.

"We were pleased that the Base Area authorities started to remove acacia scrub last December,” says Stowe. “We believe the scale of illegal trapping requires continuing and sustained action, and we'll continue to offer our support."

The monitoring program has recorded over 150 different bird species trapped in nets and on limesticks since recording began in 2002. Cyprus is also home to two songbirds found nowhere else in the world: the Cyprus warbler and the Cyprus wheatear. Continued illegal trapping poses a serious threat to these unique species.

Cyprus warbler Sylvia melanothorax 2015-02-09
Cyprus warblers are endemic to the island nation and are one of the species threatened by illegal trapping. Image: Ensind

Top header image: Dirk Duckhorn, Flickr