PYLA RANGE, Cyprus (Reuters Life!) - A single talon ripped out of a bird is testament to an annual bloodbath in Cyprus, where songbirds are caught in their thousands to end up as expensive delicacies in the island's taverns.
Wildlife groups estimate as many as a million migratory birds are killed as they fly over Cyprus each year, ending up fried or pickled in a centuries-old practice which was once considered necessary sustenance, but is now gourmet fare.
The talon was picked out of a net, left on a bush by trappers who had cleared out an area just before a police raid at dawn to seize trapping devices dotted along Cyprus's coast.
It is considerably larger than those of minute birds preyed upon and which go by the generic term "ambelopoulia."
"About one million birds are killed a year. It's an unacceptable toll," said Martin Hellicar, Campaign Manager for BirdLife Cyprus, a unit of BirdLife International.
Bird trapping has been widespread in Cyprus since Medieval times at least, reaching its peak in the 1990s when up to 10 million birds were slaughtered a year.
While conservation groups say it has waned with tougher police action, they say there has been a new spike in trapping activity over the past three years.
Trappers use fine mist nets and sticks dipped in a natural glue substance. Both methods are strictly banned by international conventions because of their indiscriminate nature, but the practice continues unabated.
A dozen songbirds sell for up to 80 euros ($119.5) in restaurants.
"A key gap in enforcement remains the systematic and determined actions against restaurants which serve them," said Hellicar.
Trapping is known to be widespread in coastal areas, including an expanse of land where sovereignty rests with Britain, Cyprus's former colonial ruler.
Earlier this month, manpower from the British bases were deployed to help in a clean-up operation to net trappers.
"I suspect there is good money to be made out of the birds, and when there is demand there is always going to be supply," said Stuart Bardsley, a spokesman for the British bases.
"We are targeting supply, as well as a process of education to change the culture of eating these birds."
Poachers go to extremes in ensuring they cover their tracks. On a raid in early October, a lot of trapping gear had vanished, presumably because trappers got wind of an impending raid.
Thickets of acacia, planted specifically for trapping purposes, are used to lure birds in with the use of loudspeakers imitating bird song. Nets are placed vertically in clearings, and shingle is tossed into the thicket to frighten the birds into flight.
Birds flee, but only to hit a wall of meshed net.
"We have seized 150 large mist nets. If you multiply that by 40 or 50 meters each you can imagine how much area is netted to catch these birds," said Andreas Pitsillides, who led a raid by British bases police.
While mesh nets are widely used, lime sticks are also deployed. These are branches of wood, dipped in a glue then placed on trees. Birds which land on them cannot fly off.
Removing the creatures can be particularly brutal. Many birds are ripped off.
But so popular is the pastime that Cyprus's parliament is debating proposals to lessen the penalty for individuals caught using limesticks or mesh nets. The present penalty is up to 17,000 euros in fines, or a maximum of three years in jail.
While trappers normally target songbirds like warblers, other species also fall victim, including endangered ones. The Cyprus scops owl, an endemic sub-species, and strictly protected, has been found in trappers nets, as have falcons.
"The striking thing about it is that in some areas it's on an industrial scale. This is mass slaughter," Hellicar said.
Editing by Paul Casciato