It can be lonely being an environmental activist in Cyprus. Politics is a contact sport on the divided Mediterranean island, and campaigners can count on running up against business concerns, criminal networks and deep-rooted cultural traditions. “You’re always messing around with political and economic interests,” says Klitos Papastylianou, who has done as much as anyone to fight the illegal trapping of wild birds in Cyprus. “This is the challenge.”
Cypriots kill some 1.5 million to 2 million birds every year during the migratory season in spring and fall, trapping them with fields of “lime sticks,” tall thin poles covered with glue or sap. “You have, actually, killing fields all over the island,” says the 35-year-old activist. It’s a lucrative business — the birds are expensive delicacies — involving everyone from local farmers to restaurant owners, politicians and organized crime.
“Mafia is deeply involved in this wildlife crime, and of course it’s a serious constraint [in the fight against bird trapping],” he says. In February, members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, a local activist group, said they were “violently attacked,” when their car was rammed repeatedly by a well-known poacher.
The issue is sure to heat up in the coming year, after the Cypriot parliament passed legislation last summer that activists say encourages the use of lime sticks by applying lighter sanctions to the practice than to other methods of bird trapping. The government disagrees, arguing that the new law will fight poaching through hard-hitting penalties. Brussels, already in a tussle with Malta over bird trapping, has warned Cyprus that it could face sanctions if birds are not adequately protected.
Meanwhile, Papastylianou, who is originally from the Cypriot capital Nicosia, is gearing up for a campaign aimed at protecting two nature reserves from development. “We have to challenge political and economic powers in order to foster social and ecological change,” he says.