Bird trapping is a Europe-wide problem since this illegal activity has been reported in many European Union member states. The connections to organised crime and smuggling are also evident in many EU countries, such as Malta, France, Italy, Croatia and Cyprus, among others.

In Cyprus, the problem has taken particularly worrying dimensions. According to some estimations as many as 2.5 million birds were killed in 2014 alone.

In Cyprus, the birds are called ‘Ampelopoulia’ and should refer to a specific genus of birds. However the nets and limesticks used by trappers do not discriminate. As a result, 155 different species of birds are trapped. Worse still is that 78 of these species are on the list of endangered species.

“If there is no real progress to stop illegal bird trapping both with mist nets and limesticks, then it would not be a surprise if the Commission decides to take further action against Cyprus on this matter”, Elena Markitani told European Interest.

Markitani comes from an interdisciplinary background in humanities and technology and has been working with BirdLife Cyprus since 2015. She is now the Communications Officer for the organisation focusing on media work, awareness raising campaigns and digital communications.

European Interest asked Markitani about the problem of bird poaching in Cyprus, the role of the organised crime, the efforts of the authorities with which BirdLife Cyprus successfully cooperates and the ways its activists fight against the slaughter of the Ampelopoulia.

“If there is no real progress to stop illegal bird trapping both with mist nets and limesticks, then it would not be a surprise if the Commission decides to take further action against Cyprus on this matter”, told us Elena Markitani.

European Interest: Spring is here. Should we expect a new slaughter of the Ampelopoulia this year?

Elena Markitani: While the bird trapping problem still persists in Cyprus, the last two years we have seen remarkable progress.  Our latest report on autumn trapping levels for 2018 shows a positive and continuing decrease in bird trapping levels in Cyprus. The analysis of the field data for autumn 2018 has shown a 90% decrease in trapping levels with mist nets within the survey area (compared to 2002). Tackling the problem of bird trapping is BirdLife Cyprus’ longest-running campaign and an area where our constant efforts and pressure on the relevant authorities is, we are happy to say, finally beginning to bear fruit. While the big picture is one of welcome success and relief for Europe’s migrant birds, an estimated 335,000 birds were still trapped across Cyprus last autumn. Autumn is the main trapping period in Cyprus, so in spring, trapping continues, but in much lower levels.

Both the national and European legislation strictly forbid these methods due to their non-selective nature and the large scale killing of migratory birds they contribute to

While the legal framework exists – national law (152(I)/2003) renders the trapping of the birds illegal – why does the trapping continue?

The use of mist nets and limesticks has been forbidden in Cyprus since 1974, but real enforcement never materialized due to lack of political will to tackle the issue. Both the national and European legislation strictly forbid these methods due to their non-selective nature and the large scale killing of migratory birds they contribute to. But apart from serious law enforcement, there also needs to be targeted education and awareness raising taking place in order to tackle the issue of demand. As long as people continue to eat ambelopoulia, and there is money to be made out of this, bird trapping will continue to be a problem, facilitated by restaurants that continue to serve this illegal dish.

The trapping and commerce of the birds are part of the organised crime activity, not only in Cyprus but in other EU member states. Does BirdLife Cyprus have any figures about the extent of this activity?

We have been battling against the persistent problem of illegal bird trapping for over two decades now. We spend most of our energy campaigning against this and we work on all fronts: monitoring in the field, lobbying at all levels including Brussels, awareness raising work and, increasingly, education work. It is a tough problem to overcome, because of the profit and the criminal gangs involved, but we are determined that we will overcome it in the end. According to an estimation by the Game and Fauna Service in 2010, the ‘black market’ of this illegal activity in Cyprus is in the order of 15 million euros every year. The involvement of organized crime network in bird trapping is well known, and on many occasions police has confiscated bird trapping paraphernalia while undertaking operations against organized crime activities. Furthermore, on many occasions, game wardens and police officers have been attacked by suspected poachers or trappers.

Since the major cases of the slaughter occur in territories owned by the defence ministry, why is it so difficult to apply the law?  Who is protecting the poachers?

We must not forget that this practice, although illegal, is still very ingrained in the local Cypriot mind-set and culture, which makes the work of the SBA authorities more challenging, as they try to minimize frictions and conflict with local communities. Both BirdLife Cyprus and it’s UK partner, the RSPB, have been working closely with the SBA authorities in the last few years. The positive results of autumn 2018 are primarily due the SBAs’ multi-pronged approach to addressing the problem within their jurisdiction. By increasing police patrols, introducing deterrent sentencing for trappers, enabling covert surveillance work and continuing operations targeting trapping habitat (acacia plantations), the SBA Police in particular has been playing a key role in the dramatic reduction of trapping levels over the last 2 years. The anti-trapping effort in the SBAs has grown into a true –and truly effective– collaboration between the authorities and the NGOs, namely BirdLife Cyprus and their UK partner – the RSPB.

The involvement of organised crime network in bird trapping is well known … on many occasions, game wardens and police officers have been attacked by suspected poachers or trappers

EU directive 2009/147/EK has also declared the trapping of the birds illegal. Last summer, the European court ruled against Malta for allowing the hunting and trapping of several finch species. Should we expect a similar move again Cyprus?

Bird trapping is prohibited both by the national legislation (Law 152(I)/2003) and by the European Birds Directive (Directive 2009/147/EC), as well as International Conventions (e.g. the Bern Convention of 1979 and the Bonn Convention of 1979). The Malta ruling was a great outcome to shatter the pro-trapping argument that claims limesticks, a so-called traditional practice, can be permitted by EU law under derogation. Tradition is not a valid reason for granting such derogations, as highlighted in the judgement of the European Court against Malta. In the case of Cyprus, if there is not real progress to stop illegal bird trapping both with mist nets and limesticks, then it would not be a surprise if the Commission decides to take further action against Cyprus on this matter.