February 26, 2009 / 2:37 PM / 10 years ago

Cyprus races to save wilting forests hit by drought

NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - Conservationists in Cyprus are in a race against time to save the island’s forests from being wiped out by drought and fire.

A fireman fights to stop a forest fire tin southwest Cyprus June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Christos Theodoridis

Once known as the “Green Island” of the Mediterranean, forests now cover less than half of Cyprus. Over the years forest fires and drought have decimated scores of trees, with blackened stumps or brown trees a blight on the landscape.

“There are a number of areas where the forests are drying up even though we have had rain,” said Andreas Christou, a forestry conservation officer.

After a five-year drought, islanders have recently enjoyed a bout of precipitation that is slowly refilling reservoirs, but some lasting damage from lack of water has been done.

Cyprus boasts species up to 1,500 years old in remote areas and some pine forests are starting to show signs of strain.

“The real damage can be seen among the trees in Stavrovouni,” said Charalambos Theopemptou, Cyprus’s environment commissioner, referring to a forested region in central Cyprus. “I can’t give you an exact figure but just by looking, the number of trees with dry branches is huge,” he said.

Cyprus’s forestry department has set up a two-year action plan for 2009-2010 that will include the installation of irrigation systems to make the most of any rainfall.

“We have also noticed a drop in wildlife that usually inhabits the forests and the national game service has reported a drop in hunting,” Christou told Reuters.

In response to this problem Christou said that the forestry department has started placing water stations around the forests to help the animals remain in their natural habitat.

Hopes for the future of the island’s forests seem mixed.

“My biggest worry is that climate change models suggest noticeably higher temperatures in the mountain region...which would mean the disappearance of tree species adapted to colder climates,” said Theopemptou.

According to Theopemptou, Cyprus is making a big effort to plant Cypriot trees which are adapted to the climate to counter foreign “invasive species” such as the Acacia.

But the forestry department is optimistic that if the rain continues things should get better by next year.

“The action plan will help but we must use the rain water more wisely in future,” Theopemptou said.

Editing by Michele Kambas and Paul Casciato

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