Cyprus Europe's biggest killer of migratory birds
Dhekelia, Cyprus // The robin's tiny heart thumped as it cried out. A policeman was tenderly extricating its feet and tail from a net, snipping the fine mesh with scissors.
He then held the red-breasted bird aloft and it soared into a cobalt sky as dawn broke over Dhekelia, a British military base on Cyprus's southeastern coast.
"The trappers think they are smarter than us, but we're cleverer than them," said Inspector Theodoulos Kousiounos, 59, lighting a cigarette with satisfaction.
Mr Kousiounos is a veteran police officer, working for the British base, who led that morning's 12-man Operation Freedom raid against rampant illegal bird trapping.
They saved 40 birds, made two arrests, and confiscated trapping paraphernalia.
But while they may well be smarter than the trappers, Mr Kousiounos says his unit is not large enough to eradicate the scourge. He estimates that there are some 100 ever-shifting trapping sites in Dhekelia - which covers 130.8 square kilometres - while his men can raid no more than a handful on any given morning.
And there are countless more sites outside the base in the Republic of Cyprus where a new police anti-poaching unit, working with Game Fund officers, is involved in a similarly Sisyphean struggle against trappers.
Conservationists say Cyprus is Europe's biggest per capita killer of migratory birds. They end up fried or pickled. For centuries, the birds were simply food, but now they are gourmet fare that fuels a multimillion-euro industry.
Birdlife Cyprus estimates that 1.5 million songbirds were slaughtered on the former British colony in 2009 and believes that number could soar to well over two million this year.
The organisation argues those numbers cannot be slashed unless the courts impose sentences that will deter the trappers. And "urgent action" must be taken to target the demand side of the industry by cracking down on restaurants selling the songbirds, BirdLife Cyprus said in a recent report.
Money drives the trade. A single mist net - a nearly invisible web that resembles a finely meshed fishing net - which typically measures four metres high by 10 metres wide, can yield 25 birds a day, enough for a pensioner to significantly bolster his monthly state allowance.
But a professional trapper with 10 nets can earn €2,000 (Dh10,100) a month, Mr Kousiounos says. "Some people have built their houses and educated their children on the strength of these birds."
The inspector is a grizzled, larger-than-life character with zest for his job and an encyclopedic knowledge of local trapping habits and folklore. "Now with the recession and unemployment, people will do anything to feed their families," he says.
Three more robins, nine blackcaps and a song thrush were rescued by his men from a single net in an acacia thicket. The birds were seduced by a cheerful bird song, relayed by a cassette player powered by a car battery. It convinced them they were landing in a safe haven with the possibility of mating.
These were the lucky ones, delivered to freedom before trappers killed them with a toothpick or small knife to throat. Many birds are ripped off the nets, leaving their feet behind.
Trappers are after blackcaps, a common European warbler served in taverns as a delicacy known as ambelopoulia. But other birds, migrating robins from Britain and elsewhere in Europe, are also devoured under the same generic name.
A restaurant pays between €30 and €45 for a dozen blackcaps: diners pay double once the birds are fried or pickled. They are gobbled down with a glass of whisky or a local grape-based alcoholic drink called zivania.
Snaring birds with mist nets or sticks dipped in glue is outlawed by the European Union and international conventions. Inedible falcons have been found in nets as well as endangered birds such as the Cyprus scops owl.
Dhekelia base lies on a major bird migratory route and its scrubby terrain is a favourite trappers' haunt. The base's authorities and those of the Republic of Cyprus - which often conduct joint operations in Dhekelia - insist they are doing their best to combat the songbird trade.
Mr Kousiounos's men have seized hundreds of nets and "lime" sticks in recent months, as well as making dozens of arrests and liberating nearly 1,000 trapped birds.
Trappers argue that they are merely indulging in a traditional practice that dates back to at least medieval times. But eating ambelopoulia, critics of the bird slaughter say, has become a status symbol on the prosperous island.
Those who want to eat birds that are not endangered can do so legally. Licensed hunters using shotguns harvest the legal birds during permitted seasons.
Ambelopoulia, however, have the cachet of forbidden fruit. "We Cypriots love the idea that we are such passionate gourmands we are even prepared to break the law and pay silly money for these delicacies," scoffed a columnist in the English language Cyprus Mail.
"We also like the idea that we are breaking a law imposed on us by ignorant and squeamish Europeans."
Trapping reached its peak in the mid-1990s, when 10 million birds were massacred a year, conservationists say. With tougher police action, the annual death toll fell rapidly in the early 2000s as Cyprus geared up for European Union membership in 2004. By 2006 about one million birds perished. Now there is an alarming backslide, wildlife groups warn.
The laws and penalties on and off Dhekelia base are the same: bird trapping is punishable by up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of €17,000.
But the court at Dhekelia has yet to jail a trapper, and Mr Koutsiounos is bitter. "We're spending all this time and facing danger while first-time trappers are fined just €400, which is just one day's work." He hopes that offenders convicted a second time will be imprisoned. "There should be tougher penalties. We need more help from the courts."
Mr Koutsiounos would also like to see suppliers of mist nets convicted, although securing evidence is difficult. The nets are legitimately imported as fishing equipment or for decoration and only then adapted into poaching machines.
One trapping family was fined €15,000 by a Cypriot court in spring 2009, and a court on the base once gave a two-month suspended prison sentence to another trapper. But these are rare exceptions.
BirdLife Cyprus says trappers enjoy the support of their local communities and parliamentarians. The organisation also insists on the need to punish restaurants for selling ambelopoulia. But Martin Hellicar, BirdLife Cyprus's campaign manager, doubts diners themselves will ever be convicted.
Even so, he says: "People here are turning against bird trapping. The man on the street is beginning to see behind the myth that it's a harmless tradition and realises it's a big industry."
Pantelis Hadjigerou, director of Cyprus's Game Fund, says most Cypriots are against illegal trapping, but see little wrong with eating ambelopoulia.
Mr Kousiounos agrees. "Ninety per cent of the male population are eating these birds," he said. "And as long as there is one Cypriot on Cyprus there will be mist-netting."
Updated: November 11, 2010 04:00 AM