By Michele Kambas
ANOGYRA, Cyprus (Reuters) - Barn owls and black snakes are being enlisted in Cyprus to protect carob trees, known on the Mediterranean island since antiquity and once a flourishing export but now threatened by urbanization and rats.
Since April, conservationists at centuries-old groves near the island's southern coast have been laying barn-owl nests and planning reptile nests, primarily for the non-poisonous black snake. They want to swap poison for natural predators to keep rat populations in check and prevent damage to the trees.
"Historically and culturally, the carob is significant for Cyprus," said Menelaos Stavrinides, an assistant professor at Cyprus's University of Technology and national coordinator of the project. "It's a characteristic of the island, and for people who live here, its an important source of income."
In the 1960s its crop, the locust pod, was a prized export, with production averaging 53,000 tonnes a year, making Cyprus the third-biggest exporter worldwide. Seeds in the pod are used to make locust bean gum, a thickening agent widely used in food.
But as Cyprus moved from an agriculture-based economy to a financial services center, the country's carob production dwindled. The latest data from 2012 puts production at just over 9,000 tonnes.
A carob needs little attention, just the occasional pruning. Its biggest enemy is the black rat, which gnaws the bark of the tree. Unchecked, it can strip the tree of its foliage, slowly killing it.
The conventional defense, laying poison, is never effective and can threaten birds, reptiles and insects. Carobs are believed to be the natural habitat of a beetle unique to Cyprus and considered critically endangered.
"With the owls, we are going to let nature take its course," said Lefkios Serghides of Terra Cypria, a conservation group participating in the three-year project. "A pair of barn owls can kill up to 3,000 rats a year."
Part of the conservation program is focused at Anogyra, a small community where carob production once sustained the local economy.
The project is being financed as part of a drive for farmland with high nature values, a concept that biodiversity depends on low-density farming. For experts, it will also shed light on little-known aspects of the tree, such as which insects are its pollinators, and their ages.
Michalis Makri, an elderly farmer whose family has been cultivating carobs for generations, says nobody knows how long the trees have been standing.
"They were old when my grandfather was alive. We just found them here," he said.
(Reporting By Michele Kambas; Editing by Michael Roddy and xxxx xxxxxxx)