VARISEIA, Cyprus — No one has lived in this hillside village for 33 years. Nestled in the no man's land dividing Cyprus between its Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north, it has been abandoned to the elements and its stone walls are crumbling.
But the village and its surrounding areas are teeming with life: Once-endangered animals have moved into the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone, turning it into an unexpected wildlife sanctuary.
The transformation has sparked a comeback of the island's national symbol, a wild sheep called the Cypriot mouflon.
Wildlife experts from rival Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities discovered the wildlife surge during joint expeditions into the demilitarized area — the first scientific attempt to assess the flora and fauna of the buffer zone.
This week, they visited Variseia to observe the people-shy mouflon and adjust infrared cameras and other sensors used to track elusive animals.
"There are plants and animals which were thought extinct on the island — or at least on the verge of extinction — and which are actually still doing all right in the buffer zone," said Nicolas Jarraud, an environmental officer at the United Nations Development Programme who played a key role in the project.
Rare sheep thrive
There are up to 3,000 mouflon in the buffer zone, he said. The animal remains listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union after coming close to extinction a decade ago; the number rose to about 800 in the late 1990s through breeding programs.
"The main reason it survived so well is because of the buffer zone ... It's a symbol of Cyprus. If they lose the mouflon they lose their national animal."
Birds, foxes, snakes and other threatened wildlife — under pressure from rampant tourism development and overhunting — take refuge along the 180-kilometer (112-mile) strip of no man's land.
The buffer zone is strewn with minefields, patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers and heavily guarded on either side by rival troops. Peacekeepers from Argentina in well-marked vehicles accompanied the scientists throughout the nine-hour outing.
"We are very careful when we come here at night, because we don't want to get shot ... We don't go near the (military) checkpoints," said Salih Gucel, a Turkish Cypriot who heads the 14-member team of scientists.
He said the scientists from the rival ethnic groups are working well together.
"It's going very well with our Greek colleagues. We are all scientists and are all very curious .... Everyone is very interested in this project so we don't have problems," he said.
The buffer zone was created in 1974, after Turkey invaded and occupied the northern third of Cyprus following a failed coup by supporters of uniting the island with Greece.
Winding across Cyprus and splitting the capital, Nicosia, in half, the buffer zone covers nearly three percent of the island's land, and reaches a width of up to seven kilometers (4.5 miles).
The scientists' monthly trips into the buffer zone started in July in a yearlong nature project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Gucel's team is armed with high-tech gadgets to make the most of the rare access. Their kit includes bat detectors, infrared-activated cameras, motion censors, telescopes and light traps used to observe small mammals.
The team has also been surprised by some observations, said the UNDP's Jarraud.
Stray dogs, descended from domestic animals abandoned during the war, have adopted wolf-like behavior and roam in packs.
"They have filled the niche of top predator," Jarraud said. "They are all bastardized. Some look like a cross between a poodle and a terrier but they are completely wild and they do not approach you unless they are angry."
One sad discovery was that parts of the buffer zone have been used by rogue hunters.
Jarraud did not want to speculate on what would happen to the protected animals if Cyprus is reunited.
"These things have to be analyzed before a conflict is resolved, so the data is available," he said. "It's a delicate issue because the entire buffer zone belongs to someone — most of the buffer zone is Greek Cypriot land. We can only make recommendations, but it's for the people (here) to decide."