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Concerning increase in wildlife crime as 90,000 more songbirds trapped and killed in Cyprus compared to the previous year

Concerning increase in wildlife crime as 90,000 more songbirds trapped and killed in Cyprus compared to the previous year
  • An estimated 435,000 migrating songbirds, including Blackcaps, Lesser Whitethroats and Garden Warblers illegally caught and killed on the island of Cyprus in the autumn of 2023
  • Fuelled by organised crime, using hidden nets and limesticks songbirds are lured into traps and killed so they can be eaten as part of the traditional “ambelopoulia” dish
  • The international partnership of organisations from the UK and Cyprus continues to work with both Governments to tackle this problem, but warn that progress to reduce the number of birds killed each year could be at risk of being undone if efforts to target trappers are not maintained

A new report on illegal songbird trapping on the island of Cyprus, including within British base areas, has revealed that the number of songbirds trapped and killed continues to increase.

Published today, 6 March 2024, by BirdLife Cyprus and supported by the RSPB and the Committee Against Birds Slaughter (CABS), based on systematic field monitoring, the Autumn Trapping Report shows that the number of songbirds killed in the survey area on the island has increased by an estimated 90,000 to 435,000 in autumn 2023, from 345,000 in 2022.

The island of Cyprus is an important part of the autumn migration of many birds as they migrate between their breeding grounds in Europe to their over-wintering grounds in Africa. Songbirds familiar to the UK such as Blackcaps, Robins and Garden Warblers use the island as a stepping stone on their epic journeys. The presence of so many of these amazing birds also attracts criminal elements.

Every autumn songbirds are illegally trapped and killed, before being sold via the black market to restaurants in the Republic of Cyprus for the local and expensive delicacy of ‘ambelopoulia’ or for home consumption. This huge operation, often linked to organised crime, involves gangs using electronic decoys to lure birds into mist nets placed between acacia bushes and within orchards, or using sticky limesticks to catch birds as they move around the vegetation.

Before the international partnership began to assist authorities in tackling this issue 20 years ago, over two million birds were caught every year, with an estimated figure of over ten million birds being trapped in the 1990s. To tackle this illegal activity, law enforcement authorities in Cyprus, particularly the Sovereign Base Area Police, have worked with BirdLife Cyprus, CABS and the RSPB. This has seen a massive reduction in the number of traps being detected and birds being killed.

The partnership estimates that 4.69 kilometres of mist net rides were active within the survey area last autumn, implying an increase across the island of 6% compared to the previous year. While this is still a decrease of 88% since 2002, showing that enforcement and partnership working can be effective, the pressure needs to be increased by the authorities. This year’s increase is due to a concerning rise (41%) in the number of mist nets found in the Sovereign Base Area.

The report also notes the welcome reinstatement of the Cyprus Police Anti-Poaching Unit in 2023 that had been abolished in 2019, a key measure the partnership had called for. However, the report notes that the level of enforcement work undertaken last autumn against the bird trappers was very disappointing. And that going forward this unit needs to tackle the large scale, serious and organised trappers still operating with impunity.

Mark Thomas, head of RSPB investigations said: “For two decades our international partnership has shown that we can work together to tackle this criminal activity through direct action on the ground backed up by enforcement action. However, this autumn shows that more still needs to be done, particularly in the Republic of Cyprus.

“We cannot allow the progress we have made to be undone and the shocking levels of songbird killings to return to the abhorrent levels we once saw. In the British Sovereign Base Areas, they need to maintain police resources to keep the low levels of bird trapping achieved in recent years. In the Republic of Cyprus, we need to see a renewed commitment from the Government to tackling the organised trappers who continue making huge profits for little risk. By working together we can make this a thing of the past.”

Martin Hellicar, director of BirdLife Cyprus said: “Despite the very good progress made in recent years, this autumn was a reminder that this can be quickly reversed if enforcement resources are not maintained, as witnessed within the British Sovereign Base Areas.  Within the Republic of Cyprus, despite the decrease in bird trapping levels, we recorded an increase in organized trapping. This is very concerning, and we expect the re-instated Cyprus Police Anti-poaching unit to take a more active role in tackling organized trappers, in collaboration with the Game and Fauna Service.

“Moreover, BirdLife Cyprus has been growing its outreach and awareness raising campaign, aiming to achieve a change in the hearts and minds of the local culture, from eating to protecting and appreciating them. This is an even greater challenge to overcome, but we are committed to continuing and confident that eventually we will see a positive behavioural change in favour of bird conservation.”

To find out more about how the RSPB is working with BirdLife Cyprus and both the British and Cypriot governments to protect songbirds on the island please visit: https://birdlifecyprus.org/combating-bird-crime/