Cyprus no man's land a haven for rare wildlife

NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - A corridor of no man’s land dividing Cyprus between rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot factions has become home to some of the island’s more retiring inhabitants.

The unspoilt ribbon of land, which has been under the control of a United Nations peacekeeping force for the past 35 years, has become a haven for wildlife escaping from the threat of human intervention.

Finding out exactly which species are thriving in the buffer zone is the goal of a UN project which brings together researchers from both sides of the divide.

Since it began nearly three years ago, 358 plant species, 100 bird species, 20 reptile and amphibians and 18 mammal species have been observed in the 180-km (110-mile) strip.

“This is a live demonstration of what happens when nature takes over,” said Nicolas Jarraud, co-ordinator of the project.

Within the buffer zone, created after the Turkish invasion of 1974 in response to a Greek-inspired coup, small villages once buzzing with life now lie empty.

Variseia in the northwest of the island is typical -- houses, the local school and the village coffee shop lie abandoned in the overgrown vegetation.

And, just as happened in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, when the humans move out, the animals move in.

One in particular has been the Mouflon, a type of wild sheep native to Cyprus.

A shy, retiring creature, the Mouflon has slowly regained its numbers, mainly thanks to a conservation drive by the government in the south and the serenity of the buffer zone, and it now numbers some 3,000 island-wide.

“In the village of Variseia there are about 300 Mouflon -- the project’s most symbolic find,” said Jarraud.

“The Mouflon is symbolic for both communities,” he added.

Dotted around the rolling green hills of the valley around the village, rare flowers add splashes of color to the landscape.

Two exceptionally striking and unique flowers to the island -- the Cyprus Bee Orchid and the Cyprus Tulip -- now flourish in the buffer zone, safe from the prying hands of locals.

The project itself has been an exercise in co-operation.

“Science doesn’t have any borders or boundaries -- we speak the same language whatever the politics,” said its leader Salih Gucel of the Institute of Environmental Sciences.

“Differences between the two communities are not so big. The island’s nature is a common heritage that belongs to all,” said Gucel.

But what will eventually happen to this untouched pocket of nature has yet to be decided.

Ideas for a national park have been aired but do not take into account the views of those forced to abandon their homes when the strip was created.

“People want their land back,” Jarraud warned.

Editing by Steve Addison