Accidental Nature: Vultures need a change of culture

Richard Taylor-Jones

119024755 300x187 Accidental Nature: Vultures need a change of cultureI forget just how many times I’ve stumbled across stories of Accidental Nature in the past with out putting them under the “Accidental Nature” label.

On Friday I was glued to my desk, looking into filming Fin Whales for Autumnwatch, when Ruth, a friend that works for the BBC’s Natural World office came and waved a DVD in front of me… “Vultures in Cyprus. Richard, you filmed them didn’t you?”

She was right; I had, about 5 years ago. It was a manic 72hr dash from Bristol to grab a story about how Ian Davidson-Watts, a West Country man, had been drafted into the army to help look after Griffon Vultures in Cyprus.  What has the British army got to do with saving Griffon Vultures you may ask? Here’s where the Accidental Nature bit comes in.

In 1960 when the Treaty of Establishment created the Republic of Cyprus some areas were still left as British Sovereign Territory. Those areas are all now part of the Akortiri and Dhekelia British Army Bases. Everything on those bases is effectively British. The soil, the rocks the trees, the birds and the bees. All of it.

At 98 square miles the amount of land is not inconsiderable, and much of it is left to its own devices. There are large areas of Mediterranean scrub ideal for small songbirds, long sandy beaches where turtles come ashore to breed and then there are the dramatic sea cliffs, where Griffon Vultures nest. The Ministry Of Defense had no intention of creating places rich in natural history but, as wildlife faces so many challenges across the rest of Cyprus due to intense development and the national passion for hunting, a wildlife reserve is exactly what it has created.

However, it’s not all a good news story. Far from it. Whilst the Ministry of Defense has as a pretty good record of being aware of its responsibilities towards wildlife, with people employed specifically to look after it, they’re far from being in a position to manage these spaces to the standard a conservation charity could. Their funds are obviously directed elsewhere. And, sadly, up to 8 million songbirds are killed every year in Cyprus, with some hunting certainly taking place on British soil. Some of the illegal hunters have been captured by covert operations involving the co-operation of British Army and local authorities, but it ‘s still far from banished from the bases.

I went to Cyprus to film the Griffon Vultures who were in serious trouble due to human actions. They were once common across Cyprus, but on my visit numbers were down to a few dozen at best. The largest colony left on the island nested on the sea cliffs of Episkopi, part of British Sovereign Territory. Here they are as safe from hunters and egg collectors as they can get, but the fundamental nature of their scavenging lifestyle means that a safe nesting site is far from enough to protect them. Vultures will cover vast distances looking for carrion on which to feed. This takes them across Cyprus where they become exposed to not only hunters but also the vulture’s biggest killers, dogs. Dead dogs to be precise.

Owning hunting dogs is a common past time in Cyprus, but once the dogs have reached the end of their useful life they’re poisoned and left to die. The fresh carcasses are a great attraction to vultures, which have seen the amount of dead livestock steadily decrease on farms. This is a result of Cyprus shifting from a rural economy along with health and safety laws tightening up to get farmers to dispose of dead livestock quickly. The resulting habit of vultures choosing to feed on dead poisoned dogs has had a predictable outcome. In once case I heard as many as 19 vultures been found poisoned after feasting on one dog carcass alone. In March of this year it seems there were less than 10 vultures left on the island, perhaps even less than five.

So, despite having the protection of the British Military, Griffon Vultures have not been available to benefit from Accidental Nature.

There are now plans afoot to bring in vultures from Greece to re-ignite the population. And this is what my colleague Ruth was getting her teeth stuck into, working out if there was a documentary to be made about the vulture rescue program. I think there is, but it will have to explore a lot more than just the translocation of vultures. There is going to have to be a massive translocation of Cypriot cultural thinking too, from one that has little respect for nature, to one that realizes it has its own inherent value, and needs protecting. How this might be achieved is worth documenting, for there are so many more countries where the same problems of human attitudes apply.

A good lesson to learn from story of the Griffon Vulture in Cyprus is that Accidental Nature is all well and good, but in some cases humans can’t leave conservation to a happy co-incidence, but must actively set out to get involved and help.

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