Here’s an article from the Environmental News Service (ENS) on September 20, 2005: Cyprus Tries Education to Halt Illegal Songbird Slaughter.
NICOSIA, Cyprus, September 20, 2005 (ENS) – In an attempt to stop the illegal trapping and sale of migratory songbirds for food, the Cyprus government and BirdLife Cyprus announced Monday the launch of an anti-bird trapping publicity campaign. To get the word out, they will distribute a leaflet prepared jointly by BirdLife Cyprus, the government’s Game Fund, and police.
Trapping songbirds has been illegal in Cyprus for more than 30 years, but fines are low compared with money to be made supplying the songbirds to local restaurants, where birds can sell for two pounds (US$3.60) or more each. They are served to customers as an expensive delicacy known as ambelopoulia.
Image: Migratory songbirds served up at a local restaurant as ambelopoulia, a lucrative and popular dish, from RSPB.
According to a recent poll commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or BirdLife in the UK, 88 percent of Cypriots surveyed say they disapprove of the illegal trapping of migrating songbirds.
Still, half those polled had tried ambelopoulia, and 14 percent of those surveyed said it was their favorite bird dish.
Large-scale commercial trapping takes place between September and October, mostly in the Famagusta District in the southeast of the island, including on the British Sovereign Base Areas.
In 2000, BirdLife Cyprus estimated more than 12.6 migratory million birds were trapped each year.
Blackcaps, Sylvia atricapilla, and European robins, Erithacus rubecula, are the most common targets, but because the trapping methods are not selective, some 150 species have been caught in the traps. Forty-two of those species are threatened or vulnerable in Europe.
Two of the species often caught in mist nets are Cypriot endemics, the Cyprus warbler, Sylvia melanothorax, and the Cyprus wheatear, Oenanthe cypriaca.
The indiscriminate use of mist-nets and lime twigs to catch the birds results in “by-catch,” unsaleable birds such as long-eared owl Asio otus and the globally threatened lesser kestrel, Falco naumanni.
The trapping of songbirds persists due to the popularity of ambelopoulia. The restaurant price usually charged for each tiny bird – served either pickled or boiled in pilaf – can be as high as CYP 2,00 (US$4.25).
There is strong support for songbird trapping in some Cypriot communities, who regard it as a traditional form of hunting which ought to be exempt from European law. But local anti-trapping campaigners point out that it has become a multi-million pound industry, with nothing traditional about it.
Image: A European robin trapped on a limed twig is headed for a Cypriot restaurant, from RSPB.
Once a way of supplementing a family’s subsistence diet by setting out a few limed twigs, trapping now uses mist nets, recordings of songs and calls, and groves of trees deliberately planted to attract migrating birds looking for water and shelter. A campaigner with the RSPB, investigating one such grove in 2004, found poles for mist nets permanently embedded in concrete bases.
“With demand for ambelopoulia still strong, we want tough action against restaurants which serve it, and truly deterrent penalties imposed by courts for bird-trapping offenses,” said Martin Hellicar of BirdLife Cyprus.
BirdLife Cyprus has been working in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to crack down on the trapping. The partners believe that since 2002, their efforts have saved around 20 million birds.
With the law enforcement taking effect, some restaurateurs have been turning elsewhere for supplies of songbirds. Malta and Italy are seen as alternative sources, and one restaurateur discussed with an undercover reporter from the “Cyprus Mail” the possibility of buying songbirds frozen, by the container load.
RSPB Chief Executive Graham Wynne said, “The majority of islanders, strongly supported by the Cypriot government, clearly want this practice to end. Regrettably, the activities of a tiny minority of die-hard isolated hunters continue to bring shame on the island and one of the European Union’s newest members.” Cyprus joined the European Union on May 1, 2004.
The RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus conduct surveillance in the areas where the illegal activities are most widespread. They have provided information to the police in the UK’s Sovereign Base Area and to the Cyprus Government’s Game Fund, and illegal hunters have been arrested, say the conservation groups.