RIZOKARPASO – It’s the butt of jokes and the source of choice curses, but the donkey is an integral part of Mediterranean culture, and friends on Cyprus are working to protect one of the world’s last wild colonies from extinction. Using a Facebook group and e-mail, hundreds of young Turkish Cypriots and a handful of Greek Cypriots have mobilized to «Save the Cyprus Donkey» after 10 of the rare brown animals were found shot dead at the end of March. «The enemy of nature is the enemy of humans,» reads a banner unfurled by a small group of demonstrators at a sandy beach near Rizokarpaso village on the panhandle of Cyprus that has for decades been a donkey sanctuary. Deniz Direkci, a 20-year-old primary school employee who addressed the rally, said the main suspects in the unsolved donkey deaths were farmers angered by crop damage. But fingers have also been pointed at hunters and developers eager to exploit the Karpas Peninsula, one of the last unspoilt parts of a holiday island where construction is booming on both sides of a UN-patrolled Green Line. The phenomenon is mirrored on the northwest coast’s Akamas Peninsula, where plans for a national park are under threat and farmers have shot a number of moufflons, a protected wild sheep. As a small group of donkeys kept their distance on a hillside above the dunes, Aysun Yucel, a 19-year-old law student from north Nicosia, was saddened and baffled by the killings. «It’s so cruel… We used to come here for summer vacations and you would hear the donkeys passing by your bungalow as you sleep.» «Now it’s sad: that doesn’t happen any more,» said Begun Gulderem, 20, a Turk who has lived in Cyprus for the past decade and works for a construction firm. «We don’t know why they are killing donkeys, or why people are the burning forests… I want to know the truth,» she said. Ironically, the Karpas donkey colony is a legacy of the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island’s northern third. The vast majority of the area’s Greek-Cypriot farmers fled south during the fighting, abandoning their animals. And as agriculture declined amid the growing urbanization, the «liberated» donkeys were replaced by tractors, pickups and SUVs. A study conducted in 2003 found that about 800 donkeys were roaming the olive orchards and wheat fields, and along the beaches of the rugged Karpas landscape. As some 15 vehicles with peaceful eco-warriors formed a funeral procession to drive 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the site of the demonstration, farmers on tractors looked on bemused and little girls along the roadside sold posies of wild flowers to the mourners. Police were out in force, preventing non-Turkish Cypriots from playing any vocal part in the rally. «We are losing our culture, our nature. It’s time to wake up!» Writer and poet Jenan Selchuk explained over lunch in a Rizokarpaso taverna that it was not just about donkeys, it was about preserving traditions and a way of life. «They are bringing big electricity lines to the area, over which we have also held protests. They have development plans for luxury villas rather than any national park idea. As for the donkeys, they are seen as an obstacle to progress,» he said. Antique dealer Tanju Nasir said the authorities were short-sighted in failing to protect the donkey «which is a symbol of the island… and a tourism draw,» even as the local mayor tried to assure the environmentalists that every measure was being taken to find the killers. The «eshek» (Turkish for donkey) draws both affection and ridicule from locals and foreigners alike in the as-yet unspoilt Karpas. Before the advent of money-spinning tourism and potato exports, the donkeys and mules of Cyprus were renowned throughout the Middle East for their size, strength and endurance. They were also valuable to the island’s British colonial masters during both world wars. Cyprus donkeys were exported throughout the region for cross-breeding with horses to produce a mighty strain of mule. According to the 1931 Handbook of Cyprus: «The Cyprus donkeys are of good quality, being able to carry a load from 168 pounds (75 kilos) to 224 pounds and over.» Only half in jest, Tony Angastiniotis, a Greek documentary filmmaker, says an intercommunal effort to preserve an ancient way of life could even help resolve the island’s decades-old division. «Maybe the donkeys will be the way to peace. They are the only true Cypriots anyway,» he said. Ediz Ismail-Eddie, a Turkish Cypriot living in Australia, joins in a lively debate on Facebook. «This is murder, all Cypriots should do something about this problem, Greek,Turkish, it doesn’t matter. We should protect this island together. We are losing our culture, our nature. It’s time to wake up.» Iraqi poet and philosopher Raad Abdul Jawad also bemoans the fate of donkeys abandoned to their fate along the Turkish-Iraqi border and in mountains between Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. He warns they are growing «rarer and rarer,» having been overtaken by modern life. Yet «the donkey held the fundamental key to building civilization, carrying water and food and construction materials, whereas the horse was used for killing,» he says.