I've just received this account of just one operation in the fight against illegal bird trapping in Cyprus. Martin Hellicar, BirdLife Cyprus' conservation officer, please back them and show your support here.
An hour before dawn, in an olive grove somewhere in the British Base (SBA) of Dhekelia, in the SE corner of the island. Sitting crouched to the ground under a squat, bushy olive tree in the pitch dark, with an SBA police officer and a photo-reporter for company. We wait – in vain as it turns out – for the bird trapper to turn up. We are “dug in” on the edge of his ‘patch’, a grove of unkept-looking young olive trees bisected by a run of mist nets about 60 metres long.
Rather different to the usual daily routine of phone-calls, meetings and the computer screen and the adrenalin rush keeps me wide awake, despite the early hour. We keep our voices low, but there is no need really, for any noise we might make would be masked by the blast of the trapper’s tape-lure, set to play in an endless loop of blackcap song designed to drawn in migrants from miles around. The net is only a few feet away from us, the nearest tape-lure speaker a few yards. Another officer is hidden near the other end of the net. We wait.
Officer Petros (not his real name) is a member of the SBA police anti-poaching unit, a four-man team on experienced poacher-catchers. He’s out every night in the autumn season, he explains to me and the visiting journalist as we sit in our hide-out. We’ve joined the patrol so the foreign journalist can experience the trapping problem at the sharp end, in the hope that his pictures and story will focus attention on the intractable, nasty, damaging problem that bird trapping is.
Petros tells us the only chance of securing a conviction is to catch the trapper red-handed, working his nets. We expect the trapper, or trappers, to turn up at first light to throw handfuls of pebbles (we’ve already spotted his one-tone pile of gravel conveniently dumped on the edge of the grove) into the trees to flush the birds into the waiting nets. But Petros is concerned that we may already have been spotted by one of the trappers’ look-out vehicles. We parked a good mile away and approached on foot, ducking behind bushes or into ditches to avoid being caught in the headlights of the vehicles slowly cruising around the network of farm tracks. But one of our dives for cover was perhaps a fraction too late… More pick-ups cruise by as we sit under our olive tree. The trappers have become careful and super-organised in recent years.
The sun comes up and there is still no sign of the trappers. Operation called off. No arrest today, but at least we collect the car CD player and speakers, take down the three nets and release seven birds – three Blackcaps, one Lesser whitethroat, a Chiff-chaff, a Great reed warbler and a red-backed shrike. These lucky few birds are a neat illustration of how non-selective trapping is. Seven birds - four different species. Seen it all before, but the raw reality never fails to shock. We’re all disappointed no arrest was made, but, as the SBA officers point out, the court fine resulting from a conviction would – to their disgust and ours – have probably been in the order of just a few hundred Euros. The confiscated nets and tape lure are probably worth more, so the trapping was dented, at least a bit.
The trapper will be back. The gains to be had from selling ambelopoulia are too great to make our night’s effort a real deterrent. And the officers will aim to come after them again, but the take-home feeling is mixed: renewed respect for those dedicated officers out there on the frontline, but also renewed realization of the enormity of the task they, and we, face…
Follow me on twitter.
Did you catch ITV news this morning? A new study has found that diclofenac, a widely used pain killer, is linked to an increased risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. I was prescribed this drug a few months ago after a small operation on my toe, and very grateful I was for it too. But I might be inclined to use an alternative in the future, as why take the risk? The risk/benefit balance is always tricky as every drug has side effects, and our decisions are dependent on what we know.
So what does this have to do with saving species?
Another thing we know about diclofenac is that tiny amounts kill Gyps vultures. Three species of Asian vulture are hurtling towards extinction more rapidly than the dodo because of this pain killer. Diclofenac is also used to relieve pain in sick cattle, but when the cattle don’t survive, vultures feed on the carcasses. If diclofenac is still present in the carcass, the vulture dies from kidney failure. If even 1% of carcasses contain diclofenac, then enough vultures die of kidney failure to send them to extinction!
Several countries (including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh) have banned diclofenac for veterinary use, but recent studies have proven that human diclofenac is still being sold for illegal use in cattle. So the problem persists. We are working hard with our SAVE partners to get diclofenac removed from the environment once and for all, but it’s a long haul.
Our only chance of saving these iconic birds is to breed them in captivity in the mean time, and we desperately need funds for this. So have a heart, and give these birds a stroke of good luck – donate today to help save Asian vultures from extinction.
Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
For more information on the SAVE consortium and its work, visit www.save-vultures.org/