Posted by: Dan | August 5, 2010

Trappers’ Tactics and Attitudes

I finally got a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s recent article in The New Yorker, “Emptying the Skies” (subscription req’d), and there are some really good bits of detail that should get out more to the public:

The worst area in Cyprus for poaching is the British military base on Cape Pyla. The British may be the bird-lovingest people in Europe, but the base, which leases its extensive firing ranges to Cypriot farmers, is in a delicate position diplomatically; after one recent enforcement sweep by the Army, twenty-two Sovereign Base Area signs were torn down by angry locals. Off the base, enforcement is hampered by logistics and politics. Poachers employ lookouts and night guards and have learned to erect little shacks on their sites, because Game Fund officers are required to get a warrant to search any “domicile,” and in the time it takes to do this the poachers can take down their nets and hide their electronic equipment. Because large-scale poachers are nowadays straight-up criminals, the officers are also afraid of violent attacks. “The biggest problem is that no one in Cyprus, not even the politicians, comes out and says that eating ambelopoulia is wrong,” the director of the Game Fund, Pantelis Hadjigerou, told me. Indeed, the recordholder for most ambelopoulia eaten in one sitting (fifty-four) was a popular politician in north Cyprus.

What seemed Orwellian to me was Cyprus’s internal politics. It’s been thirty-six years since Turkey occupied the northern part of the island, and the ethnically Greek south has prospered immensely since then, but the national news is still dominated, seven days a week, by the Cyprus Problem. “Every other issue is swept under the carpet, everything else is insignificant,” the Cypriot social anthropologist Yiannis Papadakis told me. “They say, ‘How dare you take us to European Court for something as stupid as birds? We’re taking Turkey to court!’ There was never any serious debate about joining the E.U.–it was simply the means by which we were going to solve the Cyprus Problem.”

Cyprus’s nominally Communist ruling party ardently embraces private development. The tourism ministry is touting plans to build fourteen new residential golf complexes (the island currently has three), even though the country has very limited supplies of fresh-water. Anyone who owns land reachable by road can build on it, and, as a result, the countryside is remarkably fragmented. I visited four of the southeast’s most important nature preserves, all of them theoretically due special protection under E.U. regulations, and was uniformly depressed by their condition. The big seasonal lake at Paralimni, for example, near where I was patrolling with the CABS people, is a noisy dust bowl commandeered for an illegal shooting range and an illegal motocross course, carpeted with shotgun shells, and extensively littered with construction debris, discarded large appliances, and household trash.

Before we quit for the day, Rutigliano wanted to make one last stop, at an orchard where the previous year a CABS volunteer had been roughed up by trappers. As we were turning, in the team’s rental car, off the main highway and up a dirt track, a red four-seater pickup truck was coming down the track, and its driver made a neck-slicing gesture at us. After the truck had moved onto the highway, two of its passengers leaned out of windows to give us the finger.

Heyd, the sober German, wanted to turn around and leave immediately, but the others argued that there was no reason to think the men were coming back. We proceeded up to the orchard and found it hung with four collared flycatchers and one wood warbler, which, because it couldn’t get airborne, Rutigliano gave to me to put in my backpack. When all the lime sticks had been destroyed, Heyd again, more nervously, suggested that we leave. But there was another grove in the distance which the two Italians wanted to investigate. “I don’t have a bad feeling,” Rutigliano said.

“There’s an English expression, ‘Don’t press your luck,’ ” Conlin said.

At that moment, the red pickup sped back into sight, fifty yards down the slope from us, and stopped with a lurch. Three men jumped out and began running toward us, picking up baseball-size rocks and hurling them at us as they ran. I would have guessed that it was easy to dodge a few flying rocks, but it wasn’t so easy, and Conlin and Heyd were hit by them. Rutigliano was shooting video, Mensi was taking pictures, and there was a lot of confused shouting–“Keep shooting, keep shooting!” “Call the police!” “What the hell is the number?” Mindful of the warbler in my backpack, and not eager to be mistaken for a CABS member, I followed Heyd as he retreated up the slope. From a not very safe distance, we stopped and watched two men attacking Mensi, trying to pull his backpack from his shoulders and his camera from his hands. The men, who were in their thirties and deeply suntanned, were shouting, “Why do you do this? Why do you make photos?” Mensi, keening terribly, his muscles bulging, was clutching the camera to his stomach. The men picked him up, threw him down, and fell on him; there ensued a blur of fighting. I couldn’t see Rutigliano but later learned that he was being hit in the face, knocked to the ground, and kicked in the legs and the ribs. His video camera was smashed on a rock; Mensi was also hit in the head with it. Conlin was standing amid the fray with formidable military bearing, holding two cell phones and trying to dial the police. He said to me, later, that he’d told the attackers that he would drag them through every court in the country if they touched him.

Many thanks to Alex Kirschel (ornithologist, University of Cyprus) for sending me the full article.



  1. “I don’t find a woodcock, so let’s shoot a kestrel”
    This is quote from a Maltese hunter. Same thing happens in Cyprus. They’ll shoot anything in their frustration, including pretty much every roadsign on the island.

  2. To be fair though, most hunters I’ve spoken with assert that they only hunt legal species. I have no way of telling if they are lying to me of course, but I have to take them at their word. What they do disagree with me on (to my face at least) is my view that there should be quotas for Song Thrush, etc. Even one very intelligent/educated Australian-raised Cypriot whom I work with thinks that he should be able to shoot as many τσίχλες as he wants.


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