Endangered falcons shot as 'target practice' in Cyprus

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The Independent Online

Conservationists in Cyprus are calling for action after the massacre of nearly 50 endangered falcons by illegal hunters.

The killing of the red-footed falcons during their migration has prompted particular anger as the birds have just been reclassified from "vulnerable" to "globally threatened".

Bird Life Cyprus has called for an immediate ban on shooting on the entire Akrotiri peninsula, west of the resort of Limassol.

Martin Hellicar, from Bird Life, said farmers found the pellet-riddled birds lying in a tight cluster on a citrus farm. Another six birds were found shot but still clinging on to life.

"Globally near-threatened is as bad as it gets, which makes this one of the worst cases of illegal bird killings ever reported in Europe," said Mr Hellicar.

The red-footed falcon is strictly protected throughout the EU after a sharp decline in population in its main breeding grounds in eastern Europe.

Cyprus is right in the middle of one of the main migration routes for birds heading for the African warmth during cold European winters and conservationists have been battling hunters for decades over the right to shoot or trap the birds as they pass over the island.

The Greek-Cypriot government has had regular run-ins with the European Commission over the issue and earlier this summer received an official warning from Brussels after Nicosia sanctioned the spring bird shooting season for the first time in 14 years.

Bird experts who examined the scene of the slaughter in Fassouri said that the shooters appeared to be trained marksmen as there were only 52 spent cartridges found. It appears the birds were shot for target practice.

Mr Hellicar said: "To put it in context, the whole population of Bulgaria could be 50 red-footed falcons, so it is possible that, being colonial nest-birds, and that they also travel together in migration, that this shooting incident, this vandalism actually wipes out the entire red-footed falcon population of Bulgaria."

The red-footed falcon is a close relative of the British kestrel. The male is a slate blue, with a reddish colour around the breast and legs, and the female is a striking orange colour.

The massacre is being seen as a setback for conservationists in Cyprus who had expressed guarded optimism that attitudes towards hunting were beginning to change.

"It's very depressing for us; we've been working very hard for a number of years now, trying to clamp down on illegal shooting and illegal bird-trapping in Cyprus," said Mr Hellicar. "We like to believe we're making progress. But this kind of thing really sets us back, it is the worst incident of its sort in recent years."

Although almost all the Akrotiri peninsula is a protected reserve, a narrow coastal strip along the west is opened for hunting of turtle dove and quail from early September to mid-October. But the real draw for many hunters is not the legal quarry but the huge numbers of birds such as bee-eaters and yellow wagtails, both strictly protected species under Cypriot and EU law.