RIZOKARPASO, Cyprus (AFP) - 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 email, hundreds of young Turkish Cypriots and a handful of Greek Cypriots have mobilised 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," read 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."

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