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Can anti-poaching activism save 25 million birds a year?

By Jason Gregg

It’s 3 a.m. and I am running through a dark field with a live, wild quail in my hand. I have just extracted it from a poacher’s net in the Famagusta region of Cyprus, one of the most dangerous places for birds on Earth. A poacher’s patrol car passes nearby. Ahead of me in the dark is one of the masterminds of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter’s (CABS) Cyprus operations, Bostjan. Our odds are pretty good. Bostjan has been evading poachers in Cyprus for six years. He knows how far we need to be from the headlamps of a poachers’ car to remain undetected and, perhaps more importantly, he knows how to calm down angry men. We gain some distance from the patrol car and continue working. By the end of the night, we have found six massive quail nets, and the relentless electronic decoys that draw the migrating birds to their deaths.

Catching and killing birds is done in Cyprus for food and money. During the fall, winter, and spring, electronic decoys broadcast blaring bird-song that attracts migrating birds overhead. Waiting for them beneath are nets, lime sticks, and shotguns that poachers use to kill them.

Mist-nets are fine mesh that are difficult for birds to see. Lime-sticks are small, thin, 2-ft long branches that have been trimmed and then covered with an extremely sticky substance that can trap birds as large as owls. Lime-sticks are at least 500 years old on Cyprus. They are a simple, effective technology that has been developed by various cultures around the world. Native Hawaiians utilized a very similar method to trap birds in order to make their ecologically devastating, beautiful feathered garments known as ‘ahu ‘ula.

While trapping birds may be traditional for Cypriots, the process has been industrialized for several decades and it is a huge issue. BirdLife Cyprus estimates that trapping on the island may kill up to 2.3 million birds annually and the Cypriot police have stated that the blackmarket for poached birds is 15 million euros.

Gangs of organized poachers rely much more on cheap technology than skill to make their harvest. Though they target specific species, nets and lime-sticks kill completely indiscriminately. Over 150 species of birds as well as reptiles have been found in traps on Cyprus, some of them highly endangered.

Bird poaching in Cyprus is part of a greater, alarming phenomenon across much of the Mediterranean. In a paper that will be published later this year in the Bird Conservation International journal, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has recently estimated that an astounding 25 million birds are killed every year across over a dozen different countries.

Half of the countries where this poaching is taking place, including Cyprus, are part of the European Union. Member states face legal action if they cannot control illegal poaching in their countries. Spain was sued by the EU in 2006 because it allowed trapping to remain legal, and there is a chance that France and Cyprus will be subject to similar legal action if they continue to fail to control the issue.

Across the many countries where bird poaching occurs, the trapping methods and the species targeted are diverse, thus CABS’s approach in Cyprus is unique to the situation there.

Interestingly, the most severe poaching occurs not in Cyprus itself but on two parcels of British soil called Sovereign British Areas (SBA). That Britain is implicated in some of the worst bird poaching on Earth has recently been broadcast by several programs. As a nation of bird-lovers, the news has been eye-opening and the tactic to draw attention to the problem has definitely worked.

This is the first year that the British police and military are taking the situation seriously and working regularly with CABS. It is in an SBA area called Ayios Nikolaos that Bostjan and I, as well as other CABS volunteers, keep finding more and more trapping sites. For weeks on end, CABS and the police raid poaching operations, the police confiscate the trapping equipment, and by the next night new decoys and nets are up and running. The trapping is so obvious in Ayios Nikolaos that electronic decoys can be heard loudly and clearly from the front door of the police station. They surround the town in repetitive, blaring sound, and attract CABS volunteers like angry moths.

Now that they have committed to addressing the issue, CABS is keeping the police in the SBA busy. Sometimes brave, sometimes frightened, and occasionally completely obstructive to our operations, I found the SBA police to be a varied bunch. The threat of retaliation from the mafia running the poaching operation in Ayios Nikolaos is somewhat real, and some police openly expressed their fear upon being asked to shut down a trapping site. On one occasion I walked through a dark orchard alongside an officer with his gun drawn. I felt the surreal edge of the night as he moved slowly and cautiously through the neat, dark rows of olive trees.

Compared with the intensive trapping happening in the Sovereign British Areas, poaching in the Cypriot countryside is less industrialized but remains widespread and intensive in small gardens and orchards. Unlike Ayios Nikolaos, a lot of our work here happens by daylight. One afternoon, Leah, a young Serbian biologist, and I discovered two mist-nets set in a quiet orchard.

A curious bystander watched us from the balcony of an apartment complex as we made our way through green scattered light between shady fruit trees. Two Eurasian blackcaps, a type of old-world warbler specifically targeted in Cyprus, were ensnared alive and alert in the nets. Without speaking, Leah and I used our skills as ornithologists and bird banders and disentangled the birds from certain death. After working a bird out of the net, there comes a moment before releasing it where I am able to study it closely and look into its eyes. I open my hand so the blackcap may return to its fast-paced, gorgeous world. I take a deep breath and know that this is a large part of why I am here.

When Cypriots encounter bird activists hiking through orchards and the outskirts of their villages they generally know who we are. Surprise meetings with poachers are often hurried and scary but can also be blunt, honest, and even humorous. Looking for traps with Bostjan one morning, a woman in her 40s pulled up next to us in her pick-up truck. I noticed a pair of binoculars on the passenger seat as Bostjan leaned into the open window and began speaking with her.

This poacher had recently been caught and we both knew why the other was there that morning. She asked what we were doing and Bostjan replied bluntly, “We are looking for lime-sticks. They are illegal.” “Why do you do this,” she asked earnestly. “We are an organization that saves birds,” replied Bostjan. Without missing a beat the poacher asked, “Why don’t you save people?” Perhaps a good point, but not our reason for being in Cyprus.

The poacher said nothing more and drove off frustrated. We began searching and found that she had set over 70 lime-sticks in the bushes nearby. We collected the lime-sticks into thick, sticky bundles and handed them off to the local police.

While simply destroying the poacher’s trapping equipment may not ultimately dissuade her from trapping again, lime-sticks require time and effort to make and are not entirely inexpensive to buy. Additionally, CABS volunteers will keep checking the area for the rest of the season, collecting data on whether the trapping site remains active or not.

I’ve been in Cyprus nearly a week when I am able to bring something new to the team. I use skills known as bird language, which is the practice of observing bird behavior and bird calls in order to gain cues about the environment. Not as mysterious as it may sound, bird language simply involves a meditative curiosity that can reveal otherwise unknown phenomena in nature.

On a hot afternoon Bostjan and I waited in the shade to be picked up at the end of our shift. I notice a redstart in an orchard behind us making hurried alarm calls as it investigated an olive tree. Taking the redstart’s hint, I began watching the tree closely. Suddenly, from twenty meters away, I witnessed some unusual movement inside the canopy. I waited and watched and several minutes passed.

I stared at the tree for a long time, when suddenly came the same movement in the same exact location; it must be a bird stuck on a lime-stick. I told Bostjan and he chuckled at my eagerness. When it happened a third time I was much more confident and he told me to investigate. I peered into the inner canopy and immediately found four trapped, struggling birds, including two more redstarts.

I believe that the alarm calls of the passing redstart were a response to its trapped, struggling kin. Sweeping the area, Bostjan and I found that the orchard held 90 lime-sticks. We checked trees again and again to find more and more of the well concealed traps, until we were certain we’d gotten them all.

In total, there were seven birds that we were able to clean of the sticky glue and release back into the wild. Had we not found them, the birds would have likely died slowly in the hot sun, to be ripped from the lime-sticks later that day at the poacher’s convenience.

Lime sticks in a tree. Photo credit: Committee Against Bird Slaughter

Over dinner that night, Bostjan said he had always been sure that that specific orchard was never used for trapping. He was happy to have been proven wrong, and for the rest of my time in Cyprus, the orchard was named after me.

Back in SBA territory, the entire CABS crew was attending a meeting where the British military was presenting a summary of an operation that had been going on over the last five days. The military had removed illegal irrigation pipes in an area called Cape Pyla. Poachers in Cape Pyla use these pipes to irrigate exotic acacia trees and literally grow their own trapping sites. The trees provide the cover needed to attract and concentrate high numbers of birds that can then be trapped using nets.

Without groundwater, these trees would be stunted and die in the hot and dry summer months and trapping rates would likely be much lower. Outright removal of the acacia trees has been attempted by both the police and the military. In both attempts, 60 or more poachers suddenly materialized, surrounding the operation and aggressively bringing the operation to a halt.

This is a serious situation for the British forces because they have no legal framework for engaging civilians, not even in self-defense. They carry no weapons while performing such operations and have an extremely high level of concern for a political backlash in Cyprus. I was amazed to hear that the military had actually masked their removal of the irrigation pipes by conducting training with live ammunition, and that at its height, the work had involved 54 people.

A few hours after our midnight rendezvous with the military, I received a call that showed exactly how the poachers feel upon finding the removal of their irrigation systems. One of them had called the police station and warned that anyone found in Cape Pyla that night would be shot. It was serious news because, as of an hour earlier, two of my team members were already in the area busily searching for trapping sites.

Cape Pyla is already the most dangerous place for anti-poaching work in Cyprus. This season, CABS volunteers caught by poachers have been pushed around, choked, held down on the ground and threatened with violence. Early in the season a poacher shot at the ground by a volunteers’ feet and was later prosecuted.

Though it must be said that the Cypriot poachers show some restraint, the above confrontations are just a sample of the aggression towards CABS volunteers this year, and over the many years and countries where CABS has worked. Volunteers have had their bones broken, had their belongings stolen, and cars destroyed. It is probably because of the caution and experience with which CABS conducts its operations that no one has been seriously injured.

Thankfully, this year’s cooperation with the SBA police allows us to call them at any hour of the night. This police cooperation in the SBA makes the work safer and more effective and has allowed CABS to focus on Cyprus’s most severe poaching much more than in previous years.

Guns are also used to poach birds in Cyprus. The more time we spend around hunters shooting birds, the better we can differentiate between legal and illegal shooting. Continuous fire and the use of electronic decoys indicate illegal activity, and these are both a regular part of any given morning on Cyprus in the fall.

Unfortunately, poaching and hunting are interconnected in Cyprus, and Cypriot hunting associations do not seem to have the maturity to deal with the seriousness of the issue. Instead, they remain defiant towards organizations like CABS and BirdLife Cyprus, claiming through press releases and demonstrations that anti-poaching laws are unfairly targeting them and their culture.

Hunters continue to freely hunt illegal species and also lobby the government to relax the modest anti-poaching laws that are in place.

My worst experience in Cyprus occurred one Sunday morning when a hunter witnessed me checking the canopy of a tree for lime-sticks and fired his shotgun into the leaves above my head. I hope that hunters and ecologists can agree on the importance of sustainable wild bird populations, begin communicating, and move forward without someone being seriously injured.

Long before there were lime-sticks, nets, and guns, birds flew to Cyprus during migration on a route now known as the Black Sea-Mediterranean flyway. The millions of birds that come here depend on the island to rest and recuperate. Today, Cyprus attracts birds migrating over the open ocean and then kills them, thus it is an ecological trap.

The pressures facing wild organisms are immense. Dense human populations, increasingly intensive agricultural practices, and climate change pose incredibly serious challenges for birds and other wildlife. If we are to prevent extinctions then clearly we must prevent the massive declines in populations that presuppose them.

Can CABS volunteers actually stop 25 million birds from being killed by poachers annually? I believe that by working with the police, and with the help of the media, politicians, and other environmental organizations, they can. The astounding amount of work that the organization has been doing is testament to the effectiveness of environmental activism today.

Other conservation organizations are also addressing wildlife crime in the Mediterranean and informed citizens are increasingly demanding change from their politicians. With so many birds being killed every year, engaging in dedicated, long-term anti-poaching efforts are essential as we ask even harder questions about human overpopulation and resource consumption.

As police effort, political will, and laws fluctuate in Cyprus, I know that CABS will continue to be extremely dedicated in the field. In the Lombardia region of northern Italy, CABS is amazingly completing its 32nd year of fieldwork. Traps and nets that formerly covered entire mountainsides in this region are now relatively difficult to find due to their scarcity. Still, each fall hundreds of traps are found in Lombardia and 40-50 poachers are arrested by the skilled police working on the issue. It shows that despite its illegality, the change in public opinion by Italians, and continuous work by CABS, the issue can be stubborn. However, that poaching is now at a mere fraction of what it once was is surely a sign of success.

When poaching begins to drop significantly in some regions, CABS can focus on areas where poaching is still rampant. This year, the organization made a first, cautious foray into Lebanon where hunters kill rare hawks, storks, and anything else that flies by the millions.

Birds traveling through Lebanon are met by extremely well-armed and numerous poachers. These birds must be protected. Securing migration bottle-necks such as Cyprus and Lebanon are critically important for reversing the well-studied declines of Palaearctic birds and ensuring that these populations have a chance to become healthy once again.

Far away from Brussels and outside of the jurisdiction of the E.U., many might ask whether CABS has any business pursuing environmental goals and animal rights in countries such as Lebanon or Egypt. With a massive influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon due to the horrifying war, the poacher’s question posed to Bostjan and I about saving people might ring all the more true.

My hope, however, is that by working with passionate environmentalists and naturalists in countries such as Lebanon, CABS will find powerful allies and nurture what are perhaps smaller environmental movements. I believe that learning to identify and value wild birds has the power to transform how one sees the landscape around them. This in turn has the ability to bring a deep sense of connection that can form the basis for endeavors of eco-justice and sustainability as well as inspire communities to celebrate their local ecology.

Furthermore, I believe that when we allow for the unsustainable and violent destruction of wildlife we form the basis for restricting and harming humans as well. Because of this, I hope that the anti-poaching work that I do is not just about saving birds.

As I approached my last night in Cyprus I was feeling incredibly exhausted. Our shifts began at midnight and ran for 9 or 10 hours. Sleep was irregular, and waking up at 12 a.m. after falling into a deep sleep could be jarring. But yet again, four of us climbed into the car, drove onto the empty highway and pushed through another night of work.

After two weeks of this my last memories of Cyprus were hazy. I was tired, the sun was bright, and I waved my new friends goodbye. I deeply hoped that I will be able to join again next year.

As I write this, Bostjan sends news that the fall trapping season in Cyprus has already shifted into the winter trapping season, without any pause or remarkable period of reduced activity. Thrushes are now the main target and the poachers need only load a different MP3 file onto their equipment to broadcast thrush song into the colder, darker nights of winter.

Thankfully, come January, a new group of volunteers will travel to Cyprus and engage in the first anti-poaching operations of 2018. There is clearly a lot of work to be done. The time to save birds is now.

Guest blogger Jason Gregg is a conservation biologist/ornithologist based in the United States, working with the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS)
for a second season this fall in the countries of Spain, Cyprus, and
Italy, helping counter bird poaching. He is an avid naturalist and birder, with a passion for understanding wild and human-altered landscapes.

Read another of his environmentally themed articles: In Conversation: Ramon Navarro, Chilean Big-Wave Surfer and Environmental Activist

Editor’s Note: Read the National Geographic Magazine feature Last Song for Migrating Birds and Slaughter of the Song Birds on nature.com.

Comments

  1. Niels Friedrich
    Switzerland
    November 25, 11:18 am

    Thanks for the moving Blog Post wich brought the pictures and feelings of my cyprus experiences back into mind. I joined the CABS in Cyprus as well and worked with them for 14 exhausting days/nights till to the end of autumn camp. One of my deepest movingly moments there was when we found a long eared owl stuck in a very sticky lime stick. We discovered this deadly trap in a tree at noon, we already worked for twelve exiting hours, our mission started at midnight. Logically my team member and I have been totaly tired and we were complaining because we didn’t know what will happen in a few minutes; «Why is Boštjan sending us to this boring place? Lets go home and get a few hours sleep, before we have to start again.» But well, obviously Boštjan has an additional sense for wildlife animals in danger. At this moment I saw this beautiful owl suffering on the lime stick. I felt the adrenaline rushing through my body – no more fatigue. The first thought was, lets release the poor owl, the second – but how? Because of the awful situation the owl was very aggressive, hissed and snapped with its beak. Fortunately the volunteer beeing on my side was very experienced and knew exactly how to handle it. I called Boštjan while hiding behind a bush and asked him to come to our place to help us, Boštjan was checking other places close to us. Our owl was completely stuck in the glue. But it was like the owl realized we want to help, when we started cleaning it with the water we had in our backpacks. The owl calmed down and was just watching at us with its amazing eyes, always tracking our movements, like the owl was thinking; «Come on, hurry up and set me free.» It was a very magic moment to me because I felt the interaction between the wildlife animal and us – I will never forget this experience. After a while Boštjan was coming, just when we ran out of water and the owl was still stuck. Boštjan told me; «If you don’t have water, use spit from your mouth.» «What!?»; I thought. Okay, no time for discussions, I started to lick at the wings of a long eared owl. Not the easiest task in the burning midday sun. Luckily we have been close to a church and there was a free water access and we were safe to finish cleaning the feathers of the owl and finally we released it beside the church after we have checked the surroundings and removed every illegal trap we found. For this time the owl survived and all the effort was worth it. I started feeling a deep and long lasting satisfaction when I saw the owl flying again.

    Owls are not on the menu card of the «Gourmets», that means this owl was for the poacher just needless bycatch. I’m so lucky we saved the life of these unique animal.
    It makes me feel confident there are some small but hard working organisations like CABS or http://stiftung-pro-artenvielfalt.ch/seiten/aktuelles.php supporting the people who makes the difference.