Bird trappers feeling the heat in Cyprus (video)

Today four more bird trappers in Cyprus have received stiff sentences following further covert surveillance work by the Sovereign Base Area Police (SBA), supported by BirdLife Cyprus, RSPB Investigations, and CABS.

Three of the men received 18 months jail sentences, suspended for three years, fines of 600 Euros plus hunting bans within the SBAs for ten years and an exclusion order preventing them entering the trapping orchard until July 2026. The fourth trapper received the same fine, plus a slightly reduced hunting ban and exclusion order.

Covert footage of three of the four convicted trappers can be seen here.

I have blogged a number of times about the large scale problems of illegal bird trapping in Cyprus. This is set against a wider backdrop of problems around the Mediterranean and a 2015 report The Killing by BirdLife International estimated some 25 million birds a year were being killed. In September 2018, a 3.5 year ‘LIFE Against Bird Crime’ [LIFE17 GIE/NL/000599’] project started to help tackle bird crime within flyway countries. This is incorporated into the Flight for Survival campaign, which focuses on seven flagship species to help tell the tale of the problems migrant birds continue to face. This list includes the blackcap – the trappers’ favourite bird in Cyprus. In June this year, I attended a workshop in Madrid along with NGO delegates from as far afield as Lebanon and Egypt. It is clear there are huge problems to address, though it was encouraging to hear about the wide variety of work being undertaken to try to monitor and tackle illegal bird killing.

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In relation to the issues on Cyprus, following worrying increases in levels of trapping, in 2016 RSPB Investigations started working with BirdLife Cyprus and the SBA Police, who cover the two British Military bases on Cyprus, on a covert surveillance operation against the bird trappers. The Eastern Sovereign Base Area (ESBA) in the south east of the island had become a key trapping hot-spot, with large areas of non-native acacia planted to allow trappers to use their mist nets. Following the success of that first year, I have also been out with colleagues continuing this work in the last two autumns. These latest court cases bring the total to some 26 bird trappers caught by the surveillance project – see the ‘Scores on the doors’ at the end of this blog for more details.

In 2018, RSPB Investigations were out in Cyprus working with the SBA Police for the third autumn.

Thanks to its systematic monitoring programme, BirdLife Cyprus has been keeping a close eye to the bird-trapping problem for almost two decades. In March this year, BirdLife Cyprus published the autumn 2018 trapping survey, which estimated 3.5 km of active mist net rides killed 250,000 birds within the Republic of Cyprus and the ESBA survey areas. Whilst still shocking, encouragingly this is now 90% below than the 2002 baseline, and the lowest since the survey started. The partnership between the SBA authorities, BirdLife Cyprus, RSPB and CABS is having a really positive impact with hundreds of thousands fewer birds being trapped.

The intensity of illegal trapping in the ESBA has dropped dramatically since 2016, and well below the 2002 baseline.

The survey results have confirmed a huge reduction in trapping levels on the ESBA since 2016 and the surveillance work appears to have been a real catalyst for the SBA authorities. The enforcement work has been stepped up, making better use of the huge trapping database developed by CABS, and purchase of a high specification surveillance drone. Additionally, Chief Constable Chris Eyre and others have taken a series of progressive measures, using a wide range of criminal and civil sanctions to ratchet up the pressure on the trappers. This has included exclusion orders to keep convicted trappers away from their acacia plots, removal of hunting licences, vehicle seizures, and revoking leases and EU subsidies from convicted farmers. Whilst acacia clearance is on hold, the military have been removing the irrigation infrastructure and large patches of acacia are dying back, reducing their attractiveness for trapping.

In relation to these recent court results, T/Deputy Chief Constable Jon Ward QPM, has stated “Today’s judgement follows fantastic ongoing partnership work between the Sovereign Base Area Police and the RSPB. It sends a message to anyone thinking about carrying out this barbaric act that the Sovereign Base Area Administration remains committed to bringing these offenders to justice and protecting our environment.” 

Two of the convicted trappers leaving the orchard, one with a huge bag of illegally killed birds.

Within the Republic of Cyprus, during the last few years the authorities have been issuing some very high deterrent ‘on the-spot’ fines. This appears to have helped the overall reduction, though worryingly there has been a slight increase in trapping since 2017. Pressure from pro-trapping lobbying groups appears to have resulted in reduced enforcement effort and a relaxation of legislation, with reduced fines for limesticks, and loopholes for the restaurant trade. Whilst overall trapping levels have fallen, there is clearly no room for complacency, as the demand for ambelopoulia remains. Without sustained enforcement, trapping levels are likely to rise again as has happened in the past. BirdLife Cyprus are calling for the following action: –

1. The Cyprus authorities to adopting a similar approach to SBA Police and work in partnership with environmental NGOs to improve enforcement.

2. The Cyprus Government to strengthen the enforcement agencies, encourage the use of on-the-spot fines, and tackle the illegal restaurant trade.

3. The Cyprus Parliament to amend legislative loopholes and implement the 2015 Strategic Plan for tackling illegal bird trapping

4. The SBA authorities to continue the partnership-based enforcement work.

5. The SBA Administration to draw up a habitat management plan for the long-term eradication of invasive acacia, in line with the responsibilities to manage the SAC (Special Area of Conservation).

BirdLife Cyprus will continue its efforts to build support for an end to trapping, with a growing focus on awareness-raising and education. The RSPB will continue to support enforcement work on Cyprus and push for permanent removal of the remaining acacia on the ESBA.

It goes without saying that making life uncomfortably hot for the bird trappers will remain a priority.

Scores on the doors

Sentencing results of the 26 bird trappers caught during the covert surveillance project.