NICOSIA: Volunteers and police in Cyprus are struggling to tackle illegal songbird trapping operations that kill millions of birds a year and net huge profits for poaching gangs.
Migrating birds, snared with nets or limesticks -- glue-covered wooden perches -- are served secretly at restaurants on the island as a traditional dish called ambelopoulia.
Volunteer Keziah Conroy of the Bonn-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter scours scrubland near the resort of Paralimni, using a mobile phone app to locate poaching hotspots.
She climbs a tree to free a blackcap, a small grey warbler, stuck to a limestick. After it flies off she removes another 23 of the traps from nearby vegetation.
"We're saving thousands and thousands of birds this way just by removing these traps," she says.
Trappers can catch thousands of birds a season, selling a dozen for up to $45 (40 euros) to restaurants which serve the dish for nearly twice the price.
It's a tempting prospect on an island still suffering 13 percent unemployment after a 2012-13 debt crisis.
But campaign group BirdLife Cyprus calls poaching, banned under Cypriot and European Union law, an "ecological disaster".
In a study with Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), it said trappers killed 2.3 million birds in autumn 2016, up from 1.4 million in 2010.
Size for size, that makes Cyprus the second-most deadly bird destination in the Mediterranean, after Malta.
"Ambelopoulia" refers to the blackcap, but the dish of the same name can include several species of songbirds that are grilled, pickled or boiled.
Nets also catch dozens of inedible species as big as owls, which trappers usually throw away, says BirdLife Cyprus campaigns coordinator Tassos Shialis.
"The biggest problem is that illegal bird-trapping now has become a large-scale, illegal business," he says.
"An organised trapper is making tens of thousands of euros every year, tax free."
Stopping off point
Of the 280 bird species regularly seen in Cyprus, some 200 are migrants, including everything from songbirds to waterfowl and raptors.
Millions use the island as a stopping-off point on their spring migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
In autumn they return, fatter and accompanied by their offspring -- a trapper's dream.
One poaching hotspot is Cape Pyla, a once-barren group of hills on the island's southeastern coast, a popular resting place for migrating birds.
Trappers have introduced acacia trees to attract birds seeking a safe perch for the night.
The cape lies within the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area (SBA) where former colonial power Britain retains sovereignty, a military base and responsibility for policing.
The RSPB in March labelled the base area the "worst bird killing hotspot" in Cyprus.
Sergeant Andy Adamou of the SBA police says that during peak trapping seasons his force uses more resources to combat wildlife crime than any other British police force.
He shows AFP a confiscated 12-metre (40-foot) mist net strung between poles stuck in concrete-filled tyres.
Trappers play recorded birdsong to entice birds into bushes overnight, then throw gravel at them around dawn, startling them into nearby nets.
They have even gone high-tech to evade police, swapping CD players running on car batteries for hard-to-find, remotely triggered MP3 players.
A trapper with four nets can catch 75 birds a night in peak season, Adamou says.
Police have a two-hour window to catch the trappers. It is dangerous work.
"Over the last few years I've had officers assaulted, had shotguns pointed at them and shots fired just before their feet to scare them off," he says.
Trappers have rammed police cars and set pit bull terriers loose on officers.
On June 13, a police officer was injured when a grenade was reportedly thrown at the entrance of a police station on the Dhekelia base, with local sources saying the incident may have been connected with bird poaching.
"We've received numerous threats," says Adamou. "We don't take them too seriously, but when someone tells you where exactly you live, that does get you thinking."
He says much of the problem lies with demand at restaurants serving the birds -- all of them within the Republic of Cyprus and out of the SBA police's jurisdiction.
'Stopping it is difficult'
Cyprus BirdLife says the government has not implemented a 2015 plan to tackle poaching.
That year a Cypriot lawmaker even posted a picture of himself at a table with a dish of the songbirds.
Evgenios Hamboullas, a member of parliament's environment committee at the time, posted the image on Facebook with the catchline: "Soon in our restaurants! Happy Holidays!"
On top of the lack of political will, local police are under-resourced, Shialis says.
Sergeant Michalis Pavlides of the Cypriot police's anti-poaching unit says he and six other officers are charged with tackling trappers and restaurants across the island.
"Stopping it is difficult," he says. "It's a tradition. What can stop Cypriots eating ambelopoulia?"
He says bird trapping could be legalised and regulated -- something many ordinary Cypriots support.
Primary school teacher Natasa Kleanthous, from the village of Farmakas, says Cypriots are aware that wild bird populations need protection, but more education is needed.
"Hunting and eating ambelopoulia is part of Cypriot tradition, but I have a problem with people who disregard sustainable principles and overhunt," she says.
Birdlife Cyprus says the argument of tradition cannot be applied to "an industrialised, large scale and profitable business".
"Ultimately, birds don't belong to Cypriots, especially ones that cross multiple borders to get to different countries," she says.
"They don't belong to anyone." - AFP