Conservationists in Cyprus are urging authorities to expand a hunting ban throughout a coastal salt lake network, amid concerns that migrating flamingos could swallow lethal quantities of lead shotgun pellets.
Martin Hellicar, the director of Birdlife Cyprus, said flamingos were at risk of ingesting the tiny pellets lying on the lakebed as they fed. Like other birds, flamingos swallow small pebbles to aid digestion but cannot distinguish between pebbles and the lead pellets.
“Last year we had tens of losses of flamingos,” Hellicar said.
Cyprus is a key stop on the migration path for many types of birds flying from Africa to Europe. Larnaca Salt Lake, a wetlands network of four lakes, typically welcomes as many as 15,000 flamingos from colder climates. They stay through the winter and leave in March. Other water fowl to frequent the lake include ducks, waders and seagulls.
Hunting is banned around most of the salt lake, but hunters are still allowed to shoot ducks in the network’s southern tip.
The government’s game and fauna service said that in the first two months of last year, 96 flamingos were found dead in the Larnaca Salt Lake wetlands as a result of lead poisoning. Panayiotis Constantinou, a Cyprus veterinary services official who has conducted autopsies on flamingos, said lead from the pellets poisoned the birds.
The high number of deaths is mainly attributed to heavy winter rain two years ago that stirred up the lake sediment and dislodged embedded lead shot.
A sport shooting range near the lake’s northern tip closed nearly 18 years ago and authorities organised a cleanup of lead pellets in the lakebed there.
But Hellicar said the cleanup was apparently incomplete. A European Union-funded study is under way to identify where significant amounts of lead pellets remain so they can be removed. Preliminary results of the study showed very high lead levels in the wetlands’ southern tip, and Hellicar said continued duck hunting there could compound the problem.
“The problem is pronounced,” he said. “The danger is real for the flamingos and other birds that use the area.”
Alexandros Loizides, a Cyprus Hunting Federation official, said hunting in a 200-metre northern swath was not a problem, owing to the limited number of hunters. He said he was unaware of any flamingo deaths in the area and faulted pesticide and fertiliser runoff from nearby farms for creating any pollution problems hurting wildlife.
“I think the effect of hunting there is very small on the specific part of the lake,” he said. “It’d be a shame for hunters to lose the only area where hunting is permitted near wetlands.”
A ban on the use of lead pellets near wetlands has been in force in Cyprus for several years. A similar, EU-wide ban took effect last month but conservationists believe the laws are not being enforced properly.
Pantelis Hadjiyeros, the head of the game and fauna service, said it was less important to ban hunting in the area than to convince hunters to stop using shells with lead pellets.
“It should be drummed into people that the use of lead pellets is prohibited near wetlands and that only steel pellets are permitted,” Hadjiyeros said.