A group of volunteers who dedicate their free time to helping wild animals on the island of Paros was yesterday presented with the annual Vyron Antipas prize by the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature. Since 1995, when the Aegean Wildlife Hospital Alkyoni was set up at the home of its founder Marios Fournaris, these volunteers – including, but not only veterinarians – have been treating and rehabilitating all wild animals, chiefly birds, sent to them from around the country after being found ill or injured (often deliberately), or exhausted during migration. «Poaching is the greatest threat to wildlife. Around 85 percent of the animals brought to us for treatment have been shot,» Fournaris said at the award presentation ceremony in Athens on Tuesday night. The hospital is now housed in new premises that include four-meter-high cages for allowing birds to practice flying again before being released into the wild. Members also encourage the protection of the fauna through environmental education, and the protection of important wildlife habitats. About a third of the animals they treat are no longer able to survive on their own in the wild and are cared for at the hospital in suitable conditions for the term of their natural lives. A large pond on the site for resident water birds is the only part of the hospital that has an observation area for the public, as sick and injured animals should not be disturbed. Euthanasia is never used, except in extreme cases. The volunteers ensure that mammals and migratory birds are released back into the environment where they were found and that migratory birds are released either at nesting sites or during migration along migratory routes. This sometimes involves a major undertaking. One bird that had become separated from its flock was found to be a breed known only in central Africa. After a long and difficult process hampered by Greek bureaucracy, hospital staff members eventually took the bird to the Egyptian-Sudanese border and released it on the Nile River. A lesser-known area of the hospital’s work involves captive breeding programs. Mallard ducklings have been bred on hospital premises and upon reaching eight weeks of age, released with their mother into their natural habitat, the lakes of northern Greece. The Aegean Wildlife Hospital is a non-profit organization. All work is carried out by volunteers. Money to run the hospital is raised by subscriptions and the donations of members and friends. Parians have been extremely supportive of the hospital. Fournaris said that when it was being built, local builders offered their skills free of charge, joining young people from around the world who had come to the island to help. «We can’t understand why the State, which is looking for volunteers for 2004, doesn’t show any interest in the volunteers the country already has, and who have been working for years,» said Fournaris. «Some people find it hard to imagine why anyone would want to give up their free time in this way. I think it is because we usually have the wrong idea of the concept of wealth. It is not just about economic power. We see real wealth in the concept of friendship between us, in the moment when we see birds flying off into freedom again, in their beauty that is evident even in captivity. We believe we are very wealthy people.» The Aegean Wildlife Hospital has about 30 first aid centers around the country, from Thessaloniki to Corfu and Kalamata, and on many islands. What to do if you find an injured bird The Aegean Wildlife Hospital has the following suggestions for anyone who finds an injured bird in the wild: – Immobilize it by throwing a large cloth over it. – Find an adequately sized cardboard box and poke small air holes in it. – Keeping the animal away from your face, place it carefully in the box and close it well. – Place the box in a warm, quiet, dark and safe place (never leave it outside the house; injured animals have a unique ability to escape). – Call the Aegean Wildlife Hospital immediately to receive instructions on first aid and on ways of transporting the animal. – If you find an injured wild mammal or reptile, please call 2284.22931 immediately for advice.