Hares, birds and orchids: the casualties of peace in Cyprus

Wildlife has flourished in the no-man's land that divides the country – but reconciliation could end all that

It's called the Green Line, but despite the name, it is a completely accidental wildlife sanctuary. The narrow strip of land that zigzags across the island of Cyprus was imposed in 1974 to separate the parties to armed conflict. As humans moved out, abandoning farms and villages, nature moved in. Thirty five years on, this no man's land has become a safe haven for some of the rarest endemic plants and animals in Europe and a place of special scientific importance. Now however there's a threat hanging over the unique eco-system, not from war, but from peace.

At its narrowest, the Green Line measures only 3.5 metres, and 7.5 km at the widest. But since Cyprus was divided in 1974, the area has seen minimal human activity, barring the occasional patrol by UN peacekeepers. The resulting surge in wildlife became evident early on, but its full scale has become apparent only since Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot scientists began working together to compile the first comprehensive inventories of plant and animal life. An absence of building development has allowed wildlife to flourish. "It means healthy populations of various species have survived without having their habitats fragmented, degraded or destroyed," explains Dr. Iris Charalambidou, a leader of the joint-North South scientific team which has been studying the area.

One of the most exciting finds are populations of two indigenous plants, the Cyprus Tulip (Tulipa cypria) and the Cyprus Bee Orchid (Ophrys kotschyi), both extremely rare. Likewise, a few decades ago, there were only a few hundred Cyprus mouflon, an endangered wild sheep found only on the island. But the Green Line has helped the sub-species to thrive to the point where Cyprus now has a healthy 3,000-strong herd.

In Variseia, one of the crumbling abandoned villages inside the Green Line 200 mouflon have settled happily. Ms Charalambidou, a birdlife specialist, has also found a number of interesting species and a large number of migratory birds arrive every season. For while closed to humans, animals move in and out, and seeds fly freely. "The buffer zone may look wild, but one can still see traces of agriculture, and there are still no deep forests," says Dr Nicolas Jarraud, environmental officer with the UN Development Programme. "Besides, there are species here now that are not endemic to Cyprus – rats and eucalyptus certainly aren't", he added. Packs of wild dogs now also roam the buffer zone. "Cyprus has never had a predator this size, so this creates a whole new dynamic," Dr Jarraud says.

The other new dynamic is political. Since September 2008, the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities have been negotiating a reunification deal. A rare alignment of good will between the two groups and a conducive international climate (the EU and Nato are pushing for a settlement) have created the best opportunity in years for a breakthrough. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General last Friday reported "solid" progress. "I am cautiously optimistic that a solution can be achieved," he said. The parties are hoping for a Spring accord.

But the political progress is bad news for the plants and animals. Any permanent settlement will inevitably have to resolve the matter of property rights within the Green Line- most of the abandoned land once belonged to private individuals whose descendants will certainly want to reclaim their rights.

But as soon as the borders are removed, the habitats will feel the sudden impact of bulldozers and human encroachment. "Many of the species won't find a corridor to escape to safety", says Dr Salih Gücel. The idea of the area being turned into a national park has been mooted but it's unlikely the entire area would be covered even if some was.

Most of the scientific mapping of the Green Line was completed last year, and the team's final report is expected soon. "We're hoping that the decision-makers will pick it up and use it as one of their inputs," Dr Jarraud says.

Scientists hope at least to set up micro-reserves making the locals custodians of the natural heritage. And while the politicians struggle to find common ground, the scientists have found their collaboration to have fostered a new climate of trust across the ethnic divide. "Our aim was the same, and therefore we managed to build trust," said Salih Gücel, a Turkish Cypriot.