Halting illegal bird trade to Gulf

By Sylvia Smith
Science reporter, BBC News

  • Published

Falcons are among the fastest and most ferocious of predatory birds and have been dubbed the "Ferraris of the air".

But in recent decades, falcon numbers have taken a nosedive.

Although it is smugglers caught taking birds across borders who grab the newspaper headlines, behind the scenes there are long term efforts to stem the flow of illegal eggs and birds into the Gulf states region.

A remote farm in rural west Wales is an unlikely headquarters for this counter-smuggling scheme.

But far from using highly-trained security guards at airports, the environmental group, Wildlife Consultants International is itself taking eggs from the nests of breeding pairs.

Image caption,
The reasons for falconry have evolved from hunting to sport

With only 1,400 peregrine breeding pairs left in the wild in the UK, this might appear a rash thing to do, but the group has specialist facilities that ensure the maximum number of eggs hatch and young chicks receive the best care.

Obligingly, the nesting pair lay fresh eggs to replace those that are taken. The captive breeding centre sells many of the falcons to the Middle East, but it has a licence to do so.

According to research biologist Andrew Dixon, who works for the group, skills acquired in producing birds for export and sale are transferred to conservation efforts in different parts of the world. At the moment his attention is focussed on Europe.

"In Bulgaria there are no more falcons left in the wild," he explains.

"Our plan is to breed birds from neighbouring countries, in Hungary and the Ukraine, in captivity and then to release them in Bulgaria. In that way we can reintroduce the birds in a country where they have become extinct."

'Sport of kings'

The art of falconry, known also as the sport of kings, is part of the traditional way of life of the Bedouin in the Gulf region.

First used for hunting, a fully-trained swift and sharp-eyed falcon would bring back prey and be rewarded. Over the centuries, the reasons for hunting has evolved from necessity to sport and then to status symbol with anyone of substance having hunting birds.

In the Gulf region, the Bedouin would traditionally catch and train birds for use during the winter and then they would release them back into the wild in the summer.

Image caption,
Captive breeding programmes can help reintroduce the birds to the wild

Today in the region, wealthy sheikhs commonly have a collection of falcons that they buy at auction and keep all year round. Nick Fox, director of Wildlife Consultants International, pinpoints other significant differences that stem from the sharp rise in the affluence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"In the UAE those desert ecosystems are very fragile," he says.

"There never was much in it. They don't call it an empty quarter for nothing. They're empty so they can only sustain a very low level of hunting pressure.

"Now people have got cars, they've got mobile phones. They can ring each other up: 'Oh! I've seen something over there. Come over here we'll go and hunt it.' And so they can put much more pressure on the wildlife."

This over-hunting has lead to measures to limit hunting in the desert with falcons following a sharp dip in numbers of both quarry and birds of prey.

Among the Gulf states, Abu Dhabi has taken the lead in formulating plans to ensure that hunting remains a viable sport and not just in its own region. It sponsors work by Wildlife Consultants International in many part of the globe.

"By supplying the demand of Gulf markets with top quality birds, we believe we can stem the number of birds being smuggled in from Central Asia and Pakistan." Nick Fox claims.

"We need to balance supply and demand, while at the same time ensuring that hunting with birds remains part of the culture in that part of the world."