Volunteers in Droushia © BirdLife Cyprus

The “Nature Watchdogs” keeping Cyprus’ wildlife safe

By Louise Jasper

The Larnaca Salt Lakes are actually a complex of four water bodies that lie to the south of Larnaca, an ancient city renowned for its large numbers of sarcophagi (stone coffins) and its picturesque seafront. “It’s one of the two most important wetlands of Cyprus,” says Ioanna, “and also a landmark for my home town.” The city draws large numbers of tourists, many of whom visit the lakes to enjoy the spectacular views, cultural sites and to see the vast flocks of flamingos that overwinter there. In winter and spring the lakes are an important congregation site for many species of migratory birds on the Mediterranean flyway, including Common Crane Grus grus and Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola. For this reason the lakes enjoy several layers of classification and protection, as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, an IBA and a Natura 2000 site. This should be enough to ensure Larnaca’s wildlife is safe from human disturbance, right?

Wrong. Ioanna estimates that since she became an IBA Caretaker in 2014, she has had to report destructive activities affecting the lakes every couple of months. She has seen it all: from kite-surfers zooming across Larnaca’s protected waters during peak flamingo season, to the disruptive construction of pipelines across the lakes, and bulldozers clearing native vegetation. She reports any new problem to BirdLife Cyprus, which then proceeds through official channels to resolve the issues before they can escalate. “One day some people were racing motorbikes along the beach next to the Kentish Plover breeding site”, says Ioanna. “Soon I found out that they were preparing for a bigger event in the same spot. I warned them the beach was a protected site and I notified BirdLife Cyprus.”

“One day some people were racing motorbikes along the beach next to the Kentish Plover breeding site”

BirdLife Cyprus (BirdLife Partner) has just nine permanent staff on an island boasting 34 IBAs, that collectively encompass an area of more than 310,000 hectares. Even with the best will in the world, BirdLife Cyprus can’t keep watch over all of these sites all of the time. This is why the IBA Caretakers are so precious. There are currently 21 of these conservation heroes scattered across the island, reporting threats to habitats and wildlife across 18 IBAs. Each Caretaker looks after their local IBA, which means they visit regularly and respond quickly each time a new threat arises.

In a country where nature is often overlooked in favour of irresponsible leisure activities and rapid development, even by the authorities, Clairie Papazoglou, former CEO of BirdLife Cyprus, appreciates how important the network is as an environmental early warning system: “The Caretakers often find out about threats that BirdLife Cyprus would never have heard about, or only when it was too late to do anything about it.” Papazoglou believes so strongly in the programme that she and her partner are also IBA Caretakers in their free time. They have had many successes, but frustratingly they can’t always prevent ill-conceived projects before it’s too late. On her first bird survey as an IBA Caretaker, she was horrified to find a new development project had wreaked havoc on the mountainside of her local IBA.

Greater Flamingos © Stavros Christodoulides
Greater Flamingos © Stavros Christodoulides

Illegal or poorly planned picnic sites can cause disruption in wild places. There are usually no services such as litter collection, so the site quickly becomes polluted. Picknickers can disturb wildlife and their barbecues risk igniting dangerous bushfires in Cyprus’ dry, fragile forests. Activities like this are not rare. Papazoglou estimates at least half of the country’s IBAs regularly face with these sorts of problems, and BirdLife Cyprus’ work often involves trying to deal with them. Historically, BirdLife Cyprus had a small but valuable network of bird-loving volunteers who took part in annual bird surveys. Ornithologists are a rare breed in Cyprus, however, and to help in their mission to conserve the island’s wild places they needed to reach out more widely. A new approach was required. In 2014, the Important Bird Areas of Cyprus were published, and at the same time they launched the IBA Caretaker project (IBACareCY), using funding from the European Economic Association (EEA). Many volunteered immediately. The new volunteers came from all walks of life, and most were motivated by a general interest in protecting their local site rather than a love of birds.

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