Illegal bird hunting is big business in Cyprus

Screengrab from the video, published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) on the 15 March 2017.
Screengrab from the video, published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) on the 15 March 2017.


A video posted online last week shows the illegal capture and killing of thousands of birds in Cyprus. But this was not an isolated incident. Each year, hundreds of thousands of birds are killed on this Mediterranean island, often in the two British-controlled regions. Hunters then sell the birds to restaurants in a widespread, black market, trade.

The footage was shot near Larnaca, a city in the south of the island. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided between the Greek Republic of Cyprus, located on the southern half of the island, and the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, in the north. But there are also two sovereign military bases on the island (Akrotiri and Dhekelia), run by the British. Many farmers work in these areas controlled by the island’s former colonial power.

The video was filmed by a member of the British animal rights charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The video shows birds caught up in nets hung between trees. Most of the trapped birds in the video are a species called the Eurasian blackcap, but some are common redstarts, which is a species on conservation watchlists as its numbers are in decline.

The footage captures several men coming to collect the birds. One of them bites the tiny animal’s necks to kill them  before tossing them on the ground. They are later gathered and thrown into buckets.

RSPB shared this video on March 15, 2017.

Local NGO BirdLife Cyprus runs a surveillance programme that monitors bird trapping in specific zones on the island. The NGO estimates that last summer alone more than 1.7 million birds were illegally trapped in the zones it monitors. The NGO reported that about 21 kilometres of nets – the primary method for catching birds – were being used in this same region. NGO workers also discovered branches that had been smeared with a sticky substance to trap birds. Some bird catchers also lure in their prey with electronic devices that imitate birdsong. These methods are illegal because they make no distinction between which birds are captured.

Nets used to capture birds. Video: BirdLife Cyprus.

Sticky branches used to capture birds. Video: BirdLife Cyprus.

Recorded birdsong to try and lure the birds. Video: BirdLife Cyprus.

Between August and October 2016, Cypriot and British authorities removed 855 nets and 3501 branches covered with sticky material. During the same period, authorites arrested 100 people for involvement in illegal bird trapping, according to the same report.

"The sale of these birds brings in several million euros per year"

Natalie Stylianou is a member of BirdLife Cyprus.

It’s quite difficult to take photos and videos of these illegal activities because the hunters can be very aggressive. We think that some of them have links to organised crime, because the sale of these birds brings in several million euros per year.

The great majority of the birds are captured in the territory around the Dhekelia sovereign military base [run by the British]. Outside of the military camps, this zone is not fenced off and people can move around the territory freely. In the early 2000s, bird hunters succeeded in planting a large number of acacia trees on that land [Editor’s note: Acacia leaves attract birds and hunters use the plant to mount their nets]. Gradually, the zone where the soldiers complete shootings and target practice has become a no-go zone. [Editor’s note: Dhekelia is also popular amongst bird hunters because several migratory species traditionally pass through the zone.]

Nets strung up between acacias. Photo: BirdLife Cyprus.

Hung nets. Photo: BirdLife Cyprus.

Once caught and killed, the birds are then sold to restaurants in the Republic of Cyprus, which serve ambelopoulia, a traditional Cypriot dish [containing bird meat] that has been banned for some time.

However, we have counted more than 155 different species of birds amongst those captured by hunters [Editor’s note: Of which roughly half are endangered species] and not all of these work for this traditional dish. The birds that can’t be sold by the hunters are simply thrown away.

There is no political desire to eradicate this problem. No one enforces the ban on restaurants serving ambelopoulia [Editor’s note: at least since 2014, according to BirdLife Cyprus]. In 2015, the Council of Ministers agreed to set up certain exemptions as part of a strategic plan to fight against illegal bird hunting. Last year, officials proposed an amendment to the law protecting wild animals that would make it considerably more flexible. Finally, most Cypriots simply don’t care about this problem.

According to the NGO BirdLife Cyprus, the British have failed to adequately address this problem. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with Sean Tully, the spokesperson of the sovereign military bases in Cyprus, who emphasised that bird hunting is not taking place near the military installations but in the areas where Cypriots can move about freely.

"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," he explained by email. "We have removed 61 acres over the past two years on Pyla range. This is about 1/3 of the acacia on the area, we will remove the rest in the future. We stopped the acacia removal programme last year at the request of the local residents as they asked us to be involved in the removal decisions."

Pantelis Hajiyerou, the head of the Game and Fauna Service, told FRANCE 24 that "the law is vigorously enforced; in only the last two months we have prosecuted five restaurants". He also explained that the Game Wardens and Cypriot police have no jurisdiction in the UK military bases, in the United Nations-run Buffer Zone, or in Turkish-owned Cyprus.