Committee Against Bird Slaughter
Chris’s latest unsung hero
THEY’RE ALL HIGHLY MOTIVATED AND HELL-BENT ON MAKING A DIFFERENCE.”
Andrea, Axel and the rest of grassroots group ‘CABS’ risk life and limb to save migrating birds in Europe.
Snipping through a mist net with scissors feels like a crime, but crouched in total darkness with a blackcap cupped in my hand, I know it isn’t. I cut the fabric and gently place the little bird in my pocket where five more are already secreted. Then I cut through the ties, roll the whole thing up and stuff it into Andrea Rutigliano’s bulging backpack.
We don’t speak – if we’re caught by the poachers we’ll be shot at or beaten up. We’re on Cape Pyla, Cyprus, where an estimated 10,000 small birds are illegally killed every night to satisfy a business worth €15 million. The criminals are supplying the trade in ambelopoulia – a Cypriot so-called ‘delicacy’.
Warblers and thrushes and whatever else has the misfortune to get lured into these nets end up boiled or grilled and served up as a ‘status’ dish costing €60–80 per head. So it’s big money and a big problem. But tonight it’s being confronted by a few remarkable young people brave enough to work at the coalface of conservation.
I first came across the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) on Malta a few years ago and immediately liked their fearless attitude and no-nonsense approach. They get stuck in and I was pleased to join them in Cyprus.
CABS is based in Germany and acts entirely within the law, liaising with police and customs officials to combat illegal bird-killing across Europe. Its members pride themselves on rapid reaction to wildlife crises. We need more people like them.
On Malta Axel Hirschfield led us on a convoluted trail through the thick, dry scrub to a little glade where a trapper had nets set for thrushes, and a few metres away a tiny cage full of song thrushes was putting all heaven in a rage. The police duly arrived, confiscated the trapping materials and promised to investigate the situation further.
Axel told me how CABS had bought a drone to fly over the Maltese countryside to spot illegal trapping sites. Unfortunately, it was shot down, like everything else that dares to fly over. He also told me how, while in France investigating ortolan bunting hunting, he and his colleagues had been shot at and then, while they were hiding in a cereal field, the hunters sped through the crop in tractors trying to run them over. Axel has no doubt that the hunters were trying to kill him. (Earlier, when I explained that I was going to Cyprus, he warned me: “Be careful, be very careful.”)
On the night cameraman Luke Massey and I were stumbling across Cape Pyla’s stony fields it was thick with trappers, their nets and their acoustic lures, all pumping out a cacophony of birdsong. Leading the way were Andrea and Bostjan Debersek with a map of all the trapping sites.
Andrea had already been on the island for two weeks, out every night and up all day in a relentless assault on the illegal activities, and Bostjan was there to take over. As it got light we snuck off and started looking for birdlime sticks, releasing the captives and smashing up the sticky poles.
That afternoon I met with all the CABS volunteers and what a moment it was. Young, old, male, female and from all over the world… one young man had come all the way from Hong Kong. All unpaid, all highly motivated, all disenchanted with the lack of progress by the authorities and hell-bent on making a difference. This committed collective of activists was the most inspiring gang of gamechangers I’ve met in a long while and I salute them.
The fearless, motivated and international members of CABS.