Songbirds are a culinary delicacy in Cyprus — but catching and eating them is illegal. Even so, the practice is on the rise and could be threatening rare species.
26 January 2016
Mist nets are strung across flight paths to trap birds.
It wasn't until I saw the blade glinting in the sunlight that I realized how grave the situation was. Broad and belligerent in army fatigues, the man strode along the track, ranting in Greek. Behind his back, his hands flexed a knife blade in and out of its wooden handle. This man was a trapper, a poacher of birds — and he clearly didn't want company. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
My companions and I had come to this dry scrubland on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to look for evidence of songbird trapping. The birds are caught illegally and eaten in a traditional dish called ambelopoulia — and I was joining a September trip to monitor the extent of trapping. With me was Roger Little, a British conservation volunteer, and Savvas, a field officer with the conservation group BirdLife Cyprus whose name has been changed to protect his identity. We didn't expect to encounter trappers at this spot in the southeastern region of Cape Pyla; they usually work at night, when the birds are active. But now it seemed that they had started patrolling the site during the day. “You are on my land,” the trapper said to us in Greek.
“If this is your property, then I apologize — we didn't know, we are going,” Savvas said. We acted casual as the man escorted us back to the battered four-by-four in which we had come. “I shouldn't really be letting you go,” he muttered. Moments later, we were driving away.
Bird trapping in Cyprus has grown into a controversy that encompasses crime, culture, politics and science. The practice was made illegal more than 40 years ago — but that simply forced it underground. Today, trappers routinely cut wide corridors through vegetation and string fine 'mist nets' from poles to catch the birds, which are sent to local restaurants and quietly served. A platter of a dozen birds sells for €40–80 (US$44–87), and the trade in songbirds is responsible for an estimated annual market of €15 million. The delicacy is so prized and lucrative that it is suspected to be linked to organized crime, and those trying to stop it have been subject to intimidation and violence.