Wildlife
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Introduction
Marine life
Invertebrates
Reptiles and amphibians
Birds
Ambelopoulia
Mammals
Plants
Hunting
Conclusion

Introduction

Cyprus is rich in most kinds of wildlife, except trees and mammals. It is an environmental necessity that the delicate balance should not be unduly disturbed, as it was by the malaria eradication scheme in the late 1940s/early 1950s. By this, I am not saying that the eradication was bad, as such, but the method was too drastic. The use of massive amounts of DDT, even in malaria-free regions (remembering mosquitoes cannot fly more than about 100 to 150 metres from their breeding area), resulted in the extinction of many insect species which upset the balance of the food chains that depended on them, including birds and mammals. In addition, the balance was also upset when wetlands were drained.

We have a similar problem today, because of the processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoeidae) that nest in the Aleppo pine trees. If unchecked, these pests will strip the needles from the pine trees, each year, stunting the growth and eventually causing the death of the tree. Large areas of forest are sprayed from aircraft to keep them under control. The timing of this spraying, usually between late October and early January, is crucial and depends on the weather. The important point is that it must be done in conditions of good visibility (for the safety of the aircraft), low wind (to prevent the insecticide from being blown away from the target), low temperature (to minimise the effect on other insect species) and no rain forecast in the immediate future (to give a chance of the the beasties contacting the insecticide, before it is washed away).

Another factor that has caused a major shift in wildlife is the construction of dams. In many cases, especially in dry winters, there is no water in the river beds, as a result. This has caused drastic changes in biotopes downstream from the dams. On the other hand, the retention lakes have attracted some species which would not normally be there. They are also sometimes artificially stocked with fish that are not native to the country, such as trout. This can also upset the local ecology.

Marine life

There is a certain diversity of marine life, although the Eastern Mediterranean has never had the abundance of some other seas. It has, unfortunately, been and is still over-fished, meaning that some of the edible species are endangered, while others are extinct. Pollution has also reduced the numbers of both specimens and species. The opening of the Suez canal in the mid-19th century has allowed some Red Sea species to reach the Mediterranean, although it took many years to do so. These have upset the natural balance.

Invertebrates

The balance of insects and spiders in Cyprus has been totally changed in the past 60 years, due to the anti-malarial use of DDT, mentioned above, and the constant over-use of agricultural, horticultural and household insecticides. This has had a profound effect on the food chains of some creatures that are predatory on specific insect species. This has resulted in a vicious circle: the number of mantids, spiders, geckos etc. has diminished, which has caused a proliferation of minute biting flies ("no-see-ums"), which have become insecticide-resistant. In turn, this has caused householders to try and control them with more and stronger insecticides, which has further reduced the predators, but not the flies. This circle must be broken, not only to restore a better balance of insects but also to prevent water pollution by the toxic insecticides.

Locust

Moroccan Locust, Dociostaurus maroccanus, a relatively common species on the island and throughout the Mediterranean basin. Although it is a hungry beastie and causes damage to plants, I have not heard of it swarming on the island. The recent swarms of red locusts in the Paphos district are from a different species, fortunately a rare visitor to the island.

Reptiles and amphibians

There are several species of snake. Only one, the Blunt-nosed Viper, is dangerous to man, although a couple of Colubridae are somewhat venomous, but generally harmless, because their fangs are at the back of the mouth. Unfortunately, many people have such an irrational fear of snakes that they will kill any, including the Black Whip Snake, which is predatory on the vipers' young and is the best means of controlling their numbers (also rats and mice!). On the other hand, as the number of fatal snakebites is very small (bee-stings kill many more people in Cyprus than snakes), a reasonable viper population does help to reduce the population of harmful rodents and thus the spread of disease.

There are also a considerable number of Lacertilia, including various species of lizards, chameleons, slow worms and geckos. These are all insectivorous and are useful to man and should never be destroyed.

Sea turtles, highly protected, nest in Lara Bay, on the west coast.

There are two species of amphibian, a very common sub-species of the European Tree Frog and the slightly rarer Spotted Toad. These are also insectivorous and are useful.

By allowing all the reptiles and amphibians to flourish, the amount of insecticides used can be reduced, thus reducing pollution.

Frog

This photograph of a tree frog shows the distinctive markings which separate it from the European species, which has a narrower black band behind the eye. This sub-species is common throughout the Middle East and is possibly better adapted to hotter, dry conditions. It was taken in 2000 on a grape vine in my garden.

Birds

Cyprus is very rich in bird life, with over 380 species identified. This is because we are on both the spring and autumn routes of birds migrating between Africa and both Europe and western Asia, including some that spend either the summer or the winter here. There are 3 endemic species, the Cyprus Warbler, the Cyprus Wheatear and the Cyprus Scop's Owl and quite a few sub-species. Many of the common small birds are insectivorous (e.g., the Swallow, the various wheatears and shrikes, the Redstart and many others), so they can also contribute to reducing the use of polluting insecticides.

Buzzard

The Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo, a relatively rare (mostly spring migrants) bird in Cyprus and endangered. (OK, I'm cheating here - I took this photo in Switzerland!)

Ambelopoulia

No mention of birds in Cyprus can be complete without discussing this disgraceful subject. The Greek αμπελοπouλία literally means "birds of the vineyards". In fact, they are small birds that are illegally trapped in vast numbers, particularly in the Pyla, Cape Greco, Famagusta triangle, by the use of mist nets, lime sticks and electronic devices. This is not only a danger to some species, it is immensely cruel. This is organised crime, which is very lucrative (a single bird may sell in some restaurants for as much as £2 or even more and it needs quite a number for a meal).

Traditionally, this goes back for hundreds of years. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Venetian literature mentions the beccaficos, literally translated as the fig-pecker. These birds, probably Ortolan Buntings, were said to gorge themselves on ripe figs so much that they could not fly off. They were simply picked up off the ground, killed, plucked and pickled whole for six months or so in olive oil, until the bones were soft. Today, the ortolans are so rare that only a handful are observed in the autumn, probably as a result of the mass killings. A large number of the trapped birds may be Corn Buntings, but various other species are also victims.

Happily, over the past few years, there have been efforts to clamp down on the perpetrators of this trapping, especially by the British police in the Dhekelia SBA, as well as the Game Fund, in conjunction with the Cyprus police. This has reduced the number of amateur poachers, but there are still many professional trappers, who are more skilled in escaping detection, using modern technology.

Birds can be a problem with wind generation (see the essay on Renewable Energy).

Mammals

There are relatively few species of mammals in Cyprus, mainly because of the efforts of the two-legged species to render the four-legged ones extinct. The largest one is the Cyprus Moufflon, an endemic wild sheep, found in the Paphos forests. It is highly protected but nonetheless poached. Other species include various types of rodent, hedgehogs, hares, foxes and bats. The bats are mostly insectivorous, taking over from the swallows at dusk.

Moufflon

This is a photograph of a Cyprus Moufflon ram and ewe I managed to take in 2001. It differs from similar animals found in North Africa and other Mediterranean islands by the distinctive black markings down the front of its neck and upper forelegs, clearly visible here.

Plants

The number of species and sub-species of wild plant in Cyprus is possibly in the thousands, many of them being endemic. They include varieties from all three of the surrounding continents, plus some naturalised escaped species from elsewhere, such as the ubiquitous opuntiae (prickly pears). The number of species has certainly diminished because of man's increasing destruction of biotopes and the use of herbicides.

Hunting

No essay on wildlife in Cyprus would be complete without mentioning hunting, which is probably the most important destructor on the island. Very few, if any, countries in the world has such a high per capita population of hunters in the world. Quite apart from the attitude that "if it moves, shoot it, whether it can be eaten or not", that seems prevalent amongst a proportion of the shooters, there are other factors that must be taken into account.

The amount of illegal shooting, even by licensed hunters as well as poachers, is too high. Many hunters exceed their game quota. Then there is the eyesore of thousands of spent cartridges that litter the ground, despite regulations that call for them to be picked up and disposed of correctly. Tens of thousands of hunters trampling the ground twice per week for three months are not without damage to plant and animal life. Lack of respect of the regulations concerning the proximity of habitations endangers the inhabitants (I have personally heard pellets reach my garden on several occasions and even once found some in a grapefruit). Also, the noise pollution is unacceptable when guns are fired at less than the mandatory 300 metres from a house.

One of the worst cases of senseless poaching took place in the spring of 2003. Griffon and Egyptian Vultures used to be common up to the 1950s but were all but exterminated by the indiscriminate use of DDT, resulting in very poor eggshell quality, by mandatory carcass removal and by indiscriminate shooting. Today, there are two very small Griffon Vulture, Gyps fulvus, colonies, one of about 25 birds and the other about 15. The Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus, is extinct as a breeding bird, although it is occasionally seen as a migrant bird of passage. The larger Griffon colony, near Episkopi, has survived precariously. A nesting female was criminally shot for no other reason than to satisfy the bloodlust of some deranged person. These birds are no use for the pot, they cause no harm and are the carrion-eater par excellence. It is too early to tell whether the colony can survive this setback. This is not the only case of protected species being killed; flamingos and other inedible rare species are also killed from time to time.

However, the worst aspects of hunting derive from the sheer numbers of cartridges fired. It is estimated that there are roughly 1,000,000 hunter-days per year (including poachers, but not including clay-pigeon shooting). If each hunter fires an average of 6 cartridges per day, each cartridge containing 25 grams of shot, this produces a total of 150 tonnes of lead which is scattered throughout the island, in the form of small pellets, each year. Depending where these pellets fall, they represent a danger to wildlife. This is dramatically illustrated by the number of Greater Flamingos that have died at Larnaca Salt Lake after ingesting lead shot, over the past few years. Other aquatic species are also at risk, but so are seed-eaters, predators eating injured animals and carrion-eaters. The gases produced from the explosives are rich in NOx, which are responsible, along with VOCs, for photochemical ozone production (see the essay on Cars for a further discussion on this type of pollution).

Conclusion

The wildlife in Cyprus is in a precarious position, as the concrete jungles expand. The utmost care is needed to protect the unique nature of the island. Measures are urgently needed to educate the population, to restrict the use of agricultural chemicals to a strict minimum, the ambelopoulia-trapping ban must be strictly enforced, hunting licences should be restricted to proven competent persons only and poaching fiercely suppressed. Above all, as has been done in many countries, lead shot should be withdrawn from sale and replaced by steel shot, which simply rusts in nature (lead pellets can remain intact for many years).

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