Political sensitivities

Jim Guy, divisional commander of the eastern SBA police, is polite, charming and hard as nails. I met him at the police station in Dhekelia, a cluster of low-lying buildings behind a wire fence set off the road, a few kilometres from the city of Larnaka. He’d originally come from Glasgow on a 3-year posting, but has ended up staying for 17.

“As far as the bases themselves are concerned, there’s no denying it’s one of the main trapping areas,” he says. But Guy seems aggrieved about the criticism aimed at the SBAs since BirdLife Cyprus’s report, and says that lax enforcement is not to blame. Rather, he says, the eastern SBA — and especially the promontory of Cape Pyla — is a target for trappers because it is a key stopping point in the flight path of migratory birds. “Cape Pyla in particular has no buildings or houses or anything to deter, or put off birds, so it’s an ideal situation.”

Guy says that his team takes a three-pronged approach to tackle trappers: prevention, education and enforcement. “To some extent, enforcement is an Elastoplast,” he says. It might catch some trappers, but the practice will continue as long as there is demand for high-priced ambelopoulia from diners and the restaurants that serve it — and these lie almost entirely in the Republic.

Stopping that demand is extremely difficult, Guy adds. “The illegal practice in some cases is overtly or very often tacitly supported by people in very high political and administrative positions.” What’s more, officers trying to tackle trapping can find themselves threatened or worse. “In the UK, you can go home at night and you don’t have to think about your home or your family being attacked,” says Guy, who has had officers seriously assaulted while dealing with trappers.

His sense of frustration is shared by Panayides. The walls of his office are lined with pictures of birds, and an EU Birds Directive poster perches above the table. Panayides says that there have been at least 30 cases in the past decade in which game-service officers responsible for wildlife enforcement in the republic were harassed by trappers. “We’ve had people put bombs in the private cars of game wardens, and cases where the houses of game wardens have been burnt down,” he says.

Even when trappers are caught, Panayides says, the weak punishments imposed by courts are not effective deterrents. Technically, Cypriot law allows a first-time trapper to be jailed for up to 3 years, or fined up to €17,000. In reality, most get off with a fine of a few hundred euros. Panayides tells of one poacher whom his team has caught and prosecuted eight times over the past decade. “What else can we do as a department?” he says disconsolately.

The fight escalated last year. In May, a previously agreed plan to deal with bird killing was passing through Cyprus’s Council of Ministers when the government added a last-minute clause that would allow selective hunting of blackcaps for ambelopoulia. The move caused an outcry in environmental organizations, because any method used to capture blackcaps would inevitably catch other species and is in breach of the Birds Directive. In August,the altered plan was rejected by the European Commission in a letter to the Cyprus government, and observers are now waiting to see how the government will respond.

Meanwhile, authorities in both the republic and the SBAs are stepping up efforts to curb bird killing. The republic authorities are looking at the use of a genetic technique known as DNA barcoding to identify the birds served up at restaurants (see ‘DNA identifies baked birds’), and the SBA Administration says that it removed 11 football-pitches’ worth of planted acacia from the central poaching area of Cape Pyla last summer. The removal met with demonstrations, and people sat in the dirt tracks to stop the clearance contractors. In the area where we encountered the knife-bearing poacher, the monitoring team now enters only if it has a police escort. The conservationists and the poachers have reached “the top-end of the fight”, says Savvas, who has been monitoring trapping on the island for nearly five years.

Surveillance and enforcement will only go so far: most parties agree that the only real way to tackle bird killing is through education and social change. “The general public has to recognize that this is not correct,” says Panayides. “Not just legally, but also morally and socially.” Papazoglou, too, is realistic about what needs to be done. “If we don’t get the minds and hearts of people to change — we will never change it,” she says.


Source:  http://www.nature.com/news/slaughter-of-the-song-birds-1.19222