Cyprus overrun by asses. Donkeys too
DIPKARPAZ, Cyprus - Cypriot donkeys are a particularly stubborn lot.
Decades after machines replaced them as the backbone of the farming economy, donkeys just refuse to bow out. Wild herds have overrun a remote part of the island, trampling crops, scaring drivers and giving authorities a headache over what to do.
The invasion has pitted village communities against environmental activists. The goats also serve as an unlikely reminder of the violent recent history of Cyprus - split for the past 35 years into a Greek Cypriot South and a Turkish Cypriot north.
Mehmet Demirci, mayor of Dipkarpaz, or Rizokarpaso in Greek, in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, says donkeys outnumber villagers by two to one and should be forcibly sterilized, or even expelled to Turkey.
"The donkeys are a real problem, (authorities) just don't care about us," Demirci told The Associated Press.
Demirci says the last straw was the death last summer of a local youth, who crashed his car trying to avoid a wandering herd.
Although estimates vary widely about the precise number of feral donkeys, Demirci says there are now about 1,000, all officially protected by Turkish Cypriot authorities.
The beasts are a peculiar remnant of war, abandoned in 1974 by Greek Cypriot farmers fleeing an invading Turkish army after an abortive coup by supporters of the union with Greece. The island has since been split along ethnic lines, despite repeated diplomatic efforts for its reunification.
Despite a lack of human care, the animals have multiplied and thrived in the sparsely populated Karpas peninsula, a largely unspoiled sliver of land sticking out of the Mediterranean island's northeastern edge. Over the decades, they have been broadly adopted as a cuddly symbol of the island's agrarian past.
"Donkeys have offered so much," says Maria Nicolaou, manager of a donkey sanctuary near the coastal resort of Limassol, in the island's internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot south. "They are beautiful animals and very smart."
But most Karpas residents just see the long-eared animals as a major pain. Demirci says 1,000 donkeys are far too many for a 116 square mile (300 square kilometer) area, and complains that the fiercely territorial animals are encroaching on populated areas in search of food.
Locals say they gobble up wheat and barley crops, ravage fruit and vegetable gardens, trample down vines and wantonly amble across the peninsula's narrow roads.
Demirci says at least three villagers have been convicted of shooting donkeys dead and have each been fined 1,000 euros ($1,350). They were fortunate to avoid jail time - intentionally killing the protected animals is punishable by up to 7 years in prison.
Hoping to capitalize on the frustration, one Turkish businessman offered to buy several of the donkeys at 1,000 euros per head, and put them to tourism-related work in Antalya, Turkey.
Demirci said the idea "made good sense," but was turned down by Turkish Cypriot authorities.
Word of the rumored sale drew quick condemnation from environmentalists on either side of the heavily militarized divide that cuts through the island from coast to coast. Kenan Atakol, head of the Turkish Cypriot environmentalist group CEKOVA, says sterilization is a solution officials could consider after careful scientific study.
Turkish Cypriot authorities tried years ago to pen the animals inside a 2,000-hectare (4,942-acre), fenced sanctuary at the very tip of the peninsula. Some locals were paid to feed and water the animals.
But over time, donkeys breached the 11-mile (18-kilometer) fence in several places, spilling out to seek food.
Local conservationist Lois Cemal advocates a selective cull while admonishing "armchair environmentalists" for turning a blind eye to the needs of locals.
"I'd like to say to them, have a donkey in your backyard, see how you control them," says the 56-year-old Canadian, who has lived in the north with her Turkish Cypriot husband for the last 22 years.
Cemal says a "sustainable" donkey population could be rounded up and placed in two or three smaller sanctuaries that could be converted into moneymaking ecotourism enterprises, such as petting zoos or dairy farms.
"Ecotourism is a solution for sustainable development," she says. "You won't need to build five-star hotels."