Journeys Falling Short

Many migratory birds pass through Europe as part of their journeys, but huge numbers are killed by locals for various reasons. Estimates quantify these killings to around a billion. Here I will focus on the Cypriot case ‘ambelopoulia’, since being a Cypriot and pro conservation I believe I can see both sides of the coin.

‘Ambelopoulia’ is the Greek name for blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) and they are considered a unique delicacy by some Cypriots. Trapping, selling and consuming these birds is illegal under both National and European law. Blackcaps are also a protected species under National law. However, trapping has been an old tradition in Cyprus, dating back to medieval times (Picture 1). This now stands as an excuse by some locals who violate or try to relax these laws, contributing to an ecological disaster, and impeding conservation.


Picture 1: Pottery depicting limestick making. Credit: Archaeological Research Unit University of Cyprus

So why is it illegal?

The methods used to trap the birds are mist nests and limesticks, (Picture 2) the latter being the traditional method.


Picture 2: Limesticks. A twig around 60 cm, covered in sticky glue made by fruits. Credits: Inmagine

Both methods usually include a recorded birdsong to lure the birds to their deaths. These are both non-selective to the species that they trap (Picture 3) and are also ranged among the most inhumane trapping methods. These factors make them illegal.

Capture birdlife 2013

Picture 3. Credit: BirdLife Cyprus.

Why is it a problem for conservation?

Apart from being a non-selective trapping method; trapping now happens at incredibly big scales. Even though exact poaching numbers are likely underestimated, 2.5 million birds were estimated to be killed, just in Cyprus, every year. This may not sound a lot, but for a small island, this number is huge.

Furthermore, blackcaps are long-distance migratory landbirds and use Cyprus as a stopover; in order to build up their fat and protein deposits to sustain their journey to Africa. Therefore this stopover is important for their reproduction rates [1,2]. Most of the birds, having survived the migration journey, means that they are fit, therefore by killing them we remove fit individuals from the population.

On the other hand, some of the migratory birds that are caught, for example blackcaps, are widespread across Europe, so they are listed as Least Concern under the IUCN Red List. However, the criteria are hard to apply accurately for migratory species and it is likely that the threats are underestimated. Poaching pressure, can diminish population numbers critically, and bird populations are already threatened by other threats like climate change, habitat destruction and collision with man-made objects like wind turbines [3]. Furthermore long-distance migrants have been shown to suffer more population declines than short-distance migrants and resident birds [4].

Here it needs to be noted that although decreases in population numbers are observed in many bird species, it is not possible to attribute them just to trapping, since it is by no means the only threat.


Poachers have big incentives and the current financial crisis and unemployment rates do not help. Trappers view it as a chance to make huge amounts of money, since being illegal means two things; increase in their value and a tax free income. ‘Ambelopoulia’ are estimated to cost around €90 (£65) for a dozen, which puts the total turnover of the ‘business’ to around €15 million. The current fine ranges from €100 to €600. Poachers did the math. It pays off. In fact, CABS’s (Committee against Bird Slaughter), recent investigation showed that 83.3% of the active poaching sites, were prosecuted previously and at some instances within days after prosecution, the same trapping sites were found trapping again.

The situation at the moment is tolerated and even proudly promoted by some local politicians, which is at least shameful and unacceptable, not to mention illegal. These attitudes encouraged the trapper’s campaign and request to the EU Commission in May 2015 with an ‘alternative plan’ in order to legalize blackcap trapping. The plan was rejected, but the campaign had a negative effect on the society’s perception of conservation efforts, since it undermined the laws and ecological destruction behind ‘ambelopoulia’ trapping.

Conservation efforts

Different NGOs like Birdlife Cyprus and CABS, are engaged in different actions in order to reduce the crime, raise awareness and monitor the populations. CABS organize Bird Protection Camps and detect trapping locations which are then reported to the police. However they are of course not welcomed by the trappers, who often threaten the volunteers, and since volunteers are in the huge majority non-Cypriots; it irritates the poachers more, and they claim that ‘These foreigners do not understand our culture’.

Campaigns aimed at the general public by BirdLife Cyprus, making this problem visible, are also important for conservation efforts. I believe that even if a lot of people know about the problem; seeing a bird caught on a limestick (Picture 4) has a different effect on the perception of the crime.

whitethroat-bird guttenfelder.jpg

Picture 4: Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) on a limestick. Credit: David Guttenfelder.

Overall, bird trapping is undoubtedly part of the Cypriot tradition and culture. However it has been illegal since 1974 and we need to reinforce the penalties involved, since at the end of the day this is not about tradition anymore, it’s about money. Furthermore, it has been shown that more can be gained if poaching came to a halt.

In 2010 people from 81 countries including Prince Charles, have contacted Cypriot authorities to urge them to stop these practices and some stated that they wouldn’t visit the island. These numbers were used to estimate that poaching causes a loss of revenue to the tourism industry of around €41 million due to a bad image of Cyprus.

To conclude, I believe some traditions are important to keep; however, these mass killings were never our tradition and anything that deprives us from our natural heritage should not be called a tradition and should perish. Cypriots need to assess the true value of nature and the ecosystem services [5] birds can provide when alive!

Reference List

  1. Kirby, J.S., Stattersfield, A.J., Butchart, S.H., Evans, M.I., Grimmett, R.F., Jones, V.R., O’Sullivan, J., Tucker, G.M. and Newton, I. (2008). Key conservation issues for migratory land-and waterbird species on the world’s major flyways. Bird Conservation International, 18(1), pp.49-734.
  2. Tenan, S and Spina F. (2010). Timing and condition-related effects on recapture probability, mass change and stopover length of spring migrating songbirds on a small Mediterranean island. Ardeola57(1), pp.121-132.
  3. Hueppop, O., Dierschke, J., EXO, K. M., Fredrich, E., and Hill, R. (2006). Bird migration studies and potential collision risk with offshore wind turbines. Ibis,148(1), pp.90-109.
  4. Sanderson, F.J., Donald, P.F., Pain, D.J., Burfield, I.J. and Van Bommel, F.P. (2006). Long-term population declines in Afro-Palearctic migrant birds.Biological conservation131(1), pp.93-105.
  5. Bull, J.W., Suttle, K.B., Singh, N.J. and Milner-Gulland, E.J. (2013). Conservation when nothing stands still: moving targets and biodiversity offsets. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11(4), pp.203-210.

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