Desperate Cypriots turn to traditional songbird trapping to make ends meet - defying law
NICOSIA, Cyprus - It's just before first light and the bird-catcher strings nets among the orange, pomegranate, fig and carob trees in his orchard. The sound of chirping emanates from inside a massive carob — a trick sent from speakers to attract tiny songbirds. By mid-morning, the man disentangles about a half-dozen blackcaps, snaps their necks with his teeth and drops them in a bucket.
For centuries, the migratory songbirds have been a prized delicacy among Cypriots. They are also an illegal one, as entry into the European Union forced Cyprus to ban the tradition of catching the creatures, some endangered, in nets or on sticks slathered with a glue-like substance.
Now economic crisis is luring many out-of-work Cypriots back into the centuries-old trade. They risk stiff fines and even jail time by supplying an underground market for the tiny songbirds illicitly served up in the country's tavernas — but they say it's their only way to make ends meet.
Served whole either boiled or pickled, the fatty birds are such an ugly sight on a plate that outsiders find it hard to fathom how there could be any profit to be made from them. For many Cypriots, however, the tangy-sweet taste of the birds is pure bliss.
Supporters of trapping 'ambelopoulia,' as the blackcaps, robins and other warblers are known locally, ruefully reminisce about how until recently the practice was widely considered an ingrained part of local culture, one so lucrative that it sustained entire livelihoods and put countless kids through college.
That changed when Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004 and authorities began cracking down. Trappers were cast as greedy villains out to line their pockets without regard for the ensnared birds. The threat of a maximum €17,000 ($22,500) fine, a three-year jail term or both persuaded many to quit trapping.
It's difficult to say how many have again turned to trapping because they've lost their jobs. Even discreet queries are met by a wall of silence. Trust must be earned, especially in villages in the country's southeast, where ambelopoulia trapping is most prevalent.
But Andreas Antoniou, the head of the special police anti-poaching unit, said songbirds, hares and protected mouflon sheep have been at the centre of a surge in illegal hunting island-wide that he blames on the economic crisis. He conservatively estimates a 10 per cent spike in recent months, although the number of nabbed trappers has remained steady.
Authorities are alarmed.
"We're concerned that in light of the economic crisis, there are signs of increased poaching and illegal trapping of ambelopoulia," said Cyprus Game and Fauna Service Director Pantelis Hadjiyerou.
Martin Hellicar, a spokesman for conservationist group BirdLife Cyprus, says locals have confirmed that trappers who had given up the practice have been drawn back because of money problems, noting a "dramatic rise" in bird-trapping using both nets and "lime sticks" since last autumn.
The country's southeast straddles well-worn routes for birds migrating in spring and fall from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Coincidentally, it also has one of the island's highest unemployment rates, running as high as 50 per cent, according to local officials, with most of the job losses in the construction business.
"With the crisis, people are turning to poaching," says Liopetri Hunting Association President Costas Michael, surrounded by a half-dozen fellow hunters in the Association's cramped headquarters, replete with maps and life-size photos of hares and partridges hanging on the walls. "People who can't find a job know that there's money to be made just in their orchard."
Stavros Neophytou, president of the pro-trapping advocacy group Friends of the Lime Stick, puts it this way: "If you can't eat, what are you supposed to do?"
In headier times, trappers would earn around €40 ($54) for just a dozen birds, while restaurants would charge customers double that. But demand has dropped amid the crisis, says Game Fund Service official Petros Anayiotos, resulting in an ambelopoulia glut which, in turn, has meant prices at restaurants are down by as much as half.
Even with the plunge in prices, however, the cash enticement to trap birds remains high for those who have lost jobs. Trapping also gives the unemployed a way to fill their hours.
And for many Cypriots, bird-trapping is about more than the money.
Michael says it's about tradition that stretches back centuries. A book entitled "Xoverga" ("Lime Sticks") — a kind of unofficial bible for trappers — refers to a 16th-century English traveller named John Locke, who recounted how he witnessed hundreds of bottles of pickled ambelopoulia being exported to Italy during a visit to the then-Venetian ruled island in 1553.
Michael says his association strictly supports lime stick trapping because it's been passed down from father to son for centuries, but frowns upon the more modern and more indiscriminate mist nets.
"Like my father, I would wake up and go out to set traps and I would think of nothing else," says Michael. "Ambelopoulia aren't going to disappear, there's so many of them, how many can poachers possibly catch anyway? Birds are there to be eaten."
Michael says politicians let trappers down during the country's EU membership talks by not asking to allow lime stick trapping as a traditional form of hunting. EU officials say there's no going back to allow for such an exemption.
But for authorities and conservationists alike, the rhapsodizing about tradition simply rings hollow. Both lime sticks and mist nets are non-selective trapping methods that can ensnare threatened birds such as the cuckoo, golden oriole and nightingale.
Axel Hirschfeld, spokesman for The Committee against Bird Slaughter, a group that for several years has dispatched volunteers to the island to help stop trapping, scoffs at the idea that tradition justifies the culling of endangered birds.
"I come from any area in Germany where they used to burn witches," said Hirschfeld. "Maybe it's time for these traditions in Cyprus to go away as well."