Champions of the Flyway Conservation Action 2015 – Combatting illegal trapping in Cyprus

Now just by-catch, a magnificent Eurasian Bee-eater, robbed forever of its aerial mastery, hangs helpless and awaiting despatch in a Cypriot hunter’s mist net.

At roughly 250 km long by 100 km wide, Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean and is used as a crucial stopover site by migrating birds during their sea crossings. The volume of migration there is actually quite incredible with millions of songbirds, waterfowl and birds of prey passing through twice a year.

With such a volume of birds streaming through Cyprus, it is unsurprising that the hunting and trapping of migrant birds there is rooted deep in the historical culture of the islands. In fact, evidence of seasonal hunting in Cyprus stems back to the middle ages.  In the past, songbirds – mainly Blackcaps and similar-sized warblers – were trapped for consumption by the rather poor islanders who saw the twice-yearly influx of birds as a valuable source of protein while they scraped their meagre existence, living off the land. The impact this had on bird populations then would have been tiny and quite sustainable.

Nowadays however, bird trapping in Cyprus has little to do with tradition or history. Nor is it sustainable. It has become widespread, extensive and is driven by by profits sought by organised crime.

The reason is the demand for a local dish made from small passerines called Ambelopoulia which is considered a delicacy by certain members of the Cypriot community and, perhaps more worryingly, some misguided tourists.

The dish is in such demand that would-be diners are prepared to pay in excess of €5 per bird with the associated illegal industry considered to be worth in excess of €15,000,000 per year.

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A €40 plate of Ambelopoulia served illegally in a Cyprus restaurant

While the trapping of birds (by non selective methods such as mist nets and limesticks) and the sale of Ambelopoulia has been illegal since 1974, the law has little deterrent effect.

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Europe_Cyprus_ ColourBirdLife Cyprus advises that despite strong evidence suggesting the vast majority of islanders are totally against the practice,  in excess of two million birds are now illegally killed there each year. Their recent surveys show that trapping is still increasing year on year and more than 150 different species of birds have been found in mistnets and on limesticks including no less than 78 listed as threatened by the EU.

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Conservation action in progress

During the autumn of 2014, BirdLife Cyprus ran a systematic study that monitored illegal bird trapping activity from the beginning of September to mid-October. This covering the peak of the autumn bird migration – the main trapping period. The situation was as bad as ever and many trapping locations full of mist nets and limesticks were found again. Very high trapping levels were still observed in the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area and in the Republic of Cyprus.

At the same time as they surveyed, BirdLife Cyprus called on the authorities in the British Sovereign Base Areas and in the Republic of Cyprus to take serious and urgent enforcement action.

As the alarming rise in illegal trapping and hunting activities in Cyprus continues, BirdLife Cyprus become ever-further stretched.    Pleas to the authorities usually result in little additional enforcement action.  A complicated political situation also makes dealing with the problem very difficult.

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BirdLife Cyprus have mounted a public awareness campaign to challenge the practice of selling ambelopoulia illegally.

Through the support generated by the Champions of the Flyway event in 2015 we aim to secure vital funding to aid BirdLife Cyprus in their fight against illegal killing of birds and to help them turn the tide on the needless slaughter.

Please log on to the Birdlife Cyprus website to learn more about the problem and if you’d like to help make a donation here.

Conservation Action 2014 – Preserving the miracle of migration at the Batumi Bottleneck.

SPNI and BirdLife International are pleased to announce that the first recipients of funding generated by the Champions of the Flyway Bird Race will be Bird Conservation Georgia (BCG) – an NGO that was established through a merger between the Georgia Centre for the Conservation of WildLife (BirdLife in Georgia) and the Batumi Raptor Count (BRC). 

The conservation action BCG are undertaking will help preserve the miracle of migration at the Batumi Gorge in the Ajara Autonomous Republic, Georgia.

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The amazing spectacle of hundreds of migrating raptors passing over Batumi in south-western Georgia. © Christian Gelpke

The ‘Batumi bottleneck’ in south-west Georgia is an area of the utmost importance for migratory birds. 

Every autumn a huge concentration of southbound soaring migrants get funneled through the narrow stretch between the Black Sea’s east-coast and the high mountains of the Lesser Caucasus.

With more than one million migrating raptors of up to 35 species passing through the area at this time, it is simply the greatest bottleneck for migrating birds of prey in all Eurasia.

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Migration route at the Batumi Bottleneck. © BRC

Research has shown that around ten thousand birds of prey fall victim to illegal shooting here each autumn, as Honey and Steppe Buzzards, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, Eurasian and Levant Sparrowhawks and various eagles and other raptors pass low through the gorge, unwittingly presenting themselves as easy targets.

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Around 10,000 raptors are illegally killed in the Batumi Gorge every year. © Bert Willaert

Bird Conservation Georgia takes a novel approach to tackling the illegal killing here and strives to work with, rather than against, local communities in order to reduce hunting pressure through mutually beneficial actions.

Monies raised by the Champions of the Flyway bird race will now go directly towards their innovative on-the-ground conservation activities and help them advance these on several fronts. 

Each year, volunteers are invited to attend Batumi Raptor Camp and participate in BCG’s work recording the extraordinary passage of migrants that takes place there in the spring and autumn. Visitors stay with local families and bring valuable ecotourism revenue to the economy. The many volunteer raptor counters considerably swell the ranks of the professional scientists at Batumi and their ‘Citizen Science’ contribution helps expand the scale of monitoring that is now possible.

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Volunteers monitoring migration at Batumi Raptor Camp © Jasper Wehrmann

With support raised through Champions of the Flyway, they will also engage receptive local hunters and falconers as ‘ambassadors for conservation’, to raise awareness among their peers of the consequence of their current actions and the significant ecotourism opportunities that a change of attitude and behaviour presents.

The falconers BCG are engaging with stand side by side with hunters on the high ridges overlooking the Batumi Gorge.  The art of falconry is long established in Georgian culture and, being highly skilled, its exponents are revered as ‘wise men of the hills’ by most modern modern hunters toting guns. As such, falconers are ideally placed to ‘act from the inside’ encouraging a reduction in the generally indescrimiate and unsustainable shooting that takes place.

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A local Falconer about to release, rather than kill, an ‘unwanted’ Levant he’s trapped. © Otto Pantema

With larger falcons such as Peregrines and Sakers hard to come by, local falconers in the area mainly hunt with Eurasian Sparrowhawks. The nets they use to catch them also trap other birds of prey that are unsuitable for training, such as Levant Sparrowhawks and various harriers. In previous years, such birds would just be killed but now, the falconers BCG work with are being trained to ring ‘unwanted’ birds of prey before releasing them back into the wild.

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School children learning about migration at Batumi. © Simon Caveilles

Bird Conservation Georgia also engages with schoolchildren and other members of the general public, awakening them to the miracle of migration, their rich natural heritage and the scale and importance of the incredible migration of raptors that is passing overhead. Batumi Raptor Count provides an ideal opportunity for children to participate in field trips and BCG also engages more widely through regular school visits and workshops held with older members of the local community. 

The influx of eco-tourism that Batumi Raptor Count brings to the area is now eagerly awaited by locals. Continued international publicity of the events, that stimulates more visitors, is another important part of Bird Conservation Georgia’s plans. If you’d like to take part in Batumi Raptor Count you can find more details here.

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Film maker Ingeborg Jacobs zooms in on soaring raptors through the amazing Swarovski STX 95. © Johannes Jansen