A Bird's Eye View of Tilos

This little-visited Dodecanese island is a haven for wildlife. Hunting was banned 13 years ago but at the last elections the minister for the Aegean allegedly promised that it would be reinstated. A winged resident tells her story to travel writer Jonathan Carr

I love my husband but sometimes he seems to go stone deaf, no matter how often I repeat things. Look at him now. Soaring through the air, riding the thermals. "Please!" I cry. "Just one more circuit. Otherwise, I'll never speak to you again." But he shows no sign of having heard me. I dare not tell him the real reason I want to go back.

Can you see them? Some of your kind - humans, I mean - are approaching the brow of that hill, hoping to spot us when they get to the top. I think being seen is our only chance. How else are we going to stop the hunters coming back here?

View over Ammohosti beach - as seen by a Bonelli Eagle

Any moment now and it will be too late. We'll be out of sight. I try calling him again but he's still deaf. So I use my last card. "There are some people down there," I shout, "and they all think we're Booted." Ah, I know my man! In an instant, his tail feathers stiffen and he turns. My husband thinks it outrageous we are classified together in the same genus.

Here he comes, his wings horizontal to make sure they notice the white undersides marked with dark beauty streaks. There is no comparison with the grey colour of the Booted eagles. As we circle together, his yellow eyes burn suspiciously into my own. I know what he is thinking. No, no, I insist. It's true. I promise nearly all of them thought we were Booted. But I see he does not believe me.

Some people have their binoculars out, others are squinting. All of them are doing their best to keep us in sight. They are conferring. I lip read. Bonelli. I wonder whether anyone will manage Hieraaetus, the genus we share with the Booted. There it is again - Bonelli, Bonelli, Bonelli. There is agreement. And now I know it is done. They have identified us correctly. We can depart. But when I look up I find my husband has already sped off without me. Oh scat! He's in one of his tempers again. Excuse me. I'll have to chase after him.

The problem, I'm afraid, is that my husband has lost faith in you. By 'you', I mean humans. He says that in the end it will all come down to politics and money and there is nothing

The church in deserted Mikro Chorio
has been restored

we can do. They banned hunting on Tilos 13 years ago but he is certain the guns will return. Everyone knows the minister made a deal before the last election and that it's now only a matter of time. So we've got to search for a new territory. At least, that's what my husband thinks.

But I still have hope. Some people down there are fighting for us. They even want to turn parts of the island into a Natural Park. And if they do that, it'll mean more visitors and more money. The right kind of money.

I don't go with him to look for a new territory. "It's a man's job," I tell him. "Anyway, you've got a better sense of direction than me." I probably should go. Two pairs of eyes are safer than one. And he always looks so lost without me.

But I've got a job to do too. I want to persuade you to come here. So, for starters, welcome to my home high up here in these cliffs! Or homes, I should say. As you can see, we've built five nests close together that we use alternately. But please don't tell anyone where they are. An egg of mine sells for 5,000 euros. It's a beautiful spot, isn't it? That's Nisyros over there, and sometimes you can see Kos and Turkey and Symi and Rhodes (that's a whole 65 kilometres away). We can also watch the sun fall each evening into the sea, which it does rather more slowly than we fall on our prey.

We like to watch the sun come and go because we have a special relationship with it. The story I've heard is that Tilos was the youngest son of Alia and Helios. One day, he came here to find rare herbs to try to cure his sick mother. He gave them to her and, bingo, she recovered. So he came back and built a temple to Helios-Apollo and Poseidon. Then he thought the temple really ought to have a priest and since he didn't have a job, why shouldn't it be him? And that's how the island got its name.

It's a good story, I think, because this has always been a special island for flora and fauna. There were even elephants here once. I'm glad my husband isn't listening in at the moment. He says you aren't interested in these kinds of things. "They only want beaches and sunbeds and bars and clubs." But I don't think that's right. I'm sure there are some of you who'll want to hear about the elephants.

My mother (oh, she had a theory or two!) told me that elephants came across from Africa via Asia Minor a long time ago and got stuck here. And because they had to adapt to island life they became very small. Then, 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, there was a volcanic eruption. That may have trapped some of them in a cave, called Harkadio. Or it may not have. Either way, that's where the bones were found and if you want to see them they're in the museum in Megalo Chorio, the old capital of the island.

I don't believe the volcano was the reason why the elephants became extinct. I'll be honest. I think you lot - humans - were probably the reason. You have to admit you're rather good at it.

That's why we are now endangered. There are only 800 pairs of us left in the whole of

Remains of the Castle of the Knights of St John,
Megalo Chorio
Europe. And four pairs are here on Tilos. How is it possible, you may wonder, for four Bonelli pairs to live on an island of only 64 square kilometres? In case you didn't know, we usually need a territory of 100 square kilometres per pair. And it's not just us. We live here with 700 pairs of our endangered cousins, the Eleonora falcon. And then there are the Mediterranean shags, the Auduin gulls, the Long-legged buzzards.... the Boot.... Oops, I nearly said it. And we're just the ones who live here all year round. We get loads of visitors. Over 100 types of birds come here at different times of year and 27 of them are endangered like us.

And the flora? A mere thousand or so different species! Rare crocuses and orchids with all the usual stuff too - pomegranates, citrus trees, almonds, pears, pistachios etc. And there are 300 humans as well. How, in a developed and polluted world, is such a huge quantity of life possible in so small a place? I will tell you.

But hang on a minute. I can see my husband on the horizon. He's flying a bit strangely. Maybe he's still in a mood. And he'll be even more annoyed when he finds out I'm talking to you. How did I end up with a bird like you? he'll grumble. Best thing is to leave him a note and get out of here. That way he'll have a chance to calm down. Partridges in bush, I write. Back soon.

Phew! I think he saw me sneaking off but I'll just have to face the music when I get back. Come on. Let's take a tour of our little paradise. See that monastery down below on the edge of the cliff? That's called Panteleimon. Built in the 15th century. People are always visiting so there must be interesting things to see inside. Frescoes and cobbled courtyards and marble floors and things like that. But for me it's the setting that makes it. Quite something, isn't it?

We'll take the coastal route. My husband might sneer but I don't think there's anything wrong with beaches. Lying on them all day may not be for us but if you want to do it, I don't see why you shouldn't. Tilos has so many beaches I can't remember all their names. But the one below us now with that long stretch of sand is Plaka. Not the best perhaps - people prefer Eristos or Tholos or Ammohosti - but I've always been fond of it. My husband says that's only because I like studying the nudists at the far end. Are you jealous? I ask him. He shrugs his wings and glowers.

We have to make a serious ascent now. Because we are about to stop by one of my favourite places. Ruins of a castle that stands above the island's capital of Megalo Chorio. If the Knights of St John hadn't arrived first, we would have built some nests here ourselves. When you come here on your own, you'll have to walk up the path from town but it's worth the climb. And it'll probably get your imagination going. Thinking what it must have been like when all the islanders came up here for shelter because they were under attack from pirates or the Turks or whoever. They must have felt very safe. On top of the world. That's how we feel, at least when there are no hunters around.

Time, like us, is flying. My husband hates it when I'm away, especially when I haven't told him where I've gone. He's very traditional like that. But let's just take a quick look at two old towns on the island before going back and making up with him. Megalo Chorio, down below, is also in the traditional mould. Yes, go on and take out your cameras. All those white-walled stone houses and narrow alleys. And the pink and purple bougainvilleas. People here are house-proud, all right. Oh, look! See that cat stretched out in the sun? If I wasn't busy showing you round I might just drop down for lunch.

And that's Mikro Chorio over there, a couple of minutes' flight to the southeast. It's a bit different. Well, you can see for yourself. Completely deserted, even though the houses are still standing. That's because all the people left about 40 years ago and went down to Livadhia, now the island's main town and port. With no fear of being attacked they can live happily enough on the shore, I suppose.

But it's not the same. I don't really like Livadhia. Too much cement and too little beauty. But what can you do? This is the modern world. But at least there's a good atmosphere in town and the location is great - right in the middle of a huge sandy bay.

Oh my God! There's my husband. He's found me. Please pretend you're not here.

But what's wrong? His flying is awful. I wonder... His right wing must be hurt. See how it's trailing behind him. "What's happened?"

He does not reply. He is swerving towards me now, losing height, his throat turned a terrible grey colour. And... Oh no. He's dripping blood. "I'm sorry," I wail. "It's my fault."

And it is. Because I know what he's like. He takes too many risks, and he's not as observant as I am. Men generally aren't. If I had been with him, I'd have seen the hunters. I'd have warned him and we would have flown out of range. But I wasn't. Instead, I was being a tour guide. "We must get you down to the new treatment centre at Eristos," I say, doing my best to support him.

Well, my husband may have survived but he's not what he was. He's always depressed. I don't know what to do about it. He will never fly as he used to. All talk of finding a new territory has stopped. I grieve about how this happened.

I also feel responsible. More than ever now, I need your help. I said earlier I would explain why there was so much life here but I don't think I have to any more. You understand. Hunting to survive is one thing, but hunting for fun is something else.

So I am making this appeal to you. Come here. Come here as soon as you can. Bring your friends. If not this year, come next year. Cut this out of the newspaper to remind you. The more tourists we have, the more chance we have of keeping the hunters away.

But I don't want you to leave with my husband in such a state. Before you go, let me try something. News has just come in that I think might lift him. So let's take one last flight together.

There's a group of people down there hoping to see us. So we'll just...Oh scat! He's realised what I'm doing and he's trying to turn away. He never liked performing. And I bet he'll go deaf if I'm not careful. "I'll never go AWOL again," I promise. Good. That seems to have worked.

Now we're flying in circles above them. "Look!" I tell him. "Lip read." Bonelli. Yes, we know that. But please, somebody down there, help me. The genus, please! My husband is going to leave unless... "Wait, my love!" I shout.

At last! We are in luck. "Lip read," I say again. It is unmistakable. Aquila. My husband frowns. Aquila? "They must think we are Golden," he says. But I shake my head. "No," I tell him. "We've just been reclassified. We are now the Aquila genus too." And the Booted? he asks breathlessly. The Booted, I tell him, did not make it out of Hieraaetus. My husband, for the first time in months, is grinning. Ah yes, I know my man.

* How to get there

Either go from Rhodes' Mandraki harbour on the Sea Star (22460-77048) - its schedule is notoriously subject to change - or try to catch one of the infrequent main line ferries

* Where to stay

Helpful Tilos Travel (www.tilostravel.co.uk) (22460-44294) can organise rooms and car hire. Georgia's Rooms are quiet (tel 22460-44261). Hotel Irini (22460-44238) is pleasant and the Faros Hotel (22460-44068) is friendly and away from everything

* Where to eat

There are good basic tavernas in Livadhia, all within walking distance - Mihalis with a garden, Irina's on the front and Armenon along the shore. In Megalo Chorio, the Kastro taverna is good for lunch

* Other info

To find out more about proposals for the creation of the Tilos Natural Park go to
www.Tilos-Park.org or call 22460-70880. Certified walking guides Iain and Lyn Fulton (22460-44128) can take you on otherwise hard-to-find tracks

(Posting Date 21 September 2006)

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