Arabian falconry: Killing two birds with one stone?

Hunting with raptors is a tradition that goes back millennia in Arabic culture, but is the modern pursuit of this sport pushing the primary prey species to the brink of oblivion, and impacting on the wild population of the falcons themselves?

On the frontline of this debate is the houbara bustard. This elegant, long-legged creature, sized somewhere between a chicken and a turkey, has traditionally been the favoured prey species for Arabian falconers—not least because the flesh of this fowl is rumoured to have aphrodisiacal properties.

Now, though, the poor little bustard is caught in the crosshairs of a row that involves politics, power, wealth and wildlife preservation, which has excited comment from the likes of Imran Khan and featured as the subject of a WikiLeaks communiqué.

most wanted: houbara bustard
most wanted: houbara bustard

Because the houbara is a species under stress. With a global population hovering somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, it is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List and is flapping around on the edge of extinction in parts of the world where it was once prevalent. Across the Arabian peninsular the bustard has effectively been wiped out in the wild, and now the hunters and their falcons are pursuing the thinning population across central Asia, hitting the migratory birds hard in their breeding and wintering grounds.

Probably the biggest problem is the scale of the modern hunts. Traditionally, these outings were relatively small affairs, with one or two birds and a few tents, but now convoys of four-by-four vehicles charge across deserts and steppes, accessing areas that would once have been too remote or challenging to reach, and releasing multiple falcons into the air.

As a result, huge numbers of prey animals can be slaughtered during each hunt. In 2014, an official report was leaked revealing that a Saudi prince had killed over 2,000 birds in one 21-day hunting safari in Pakistan, and there was an outpouring of anger.

Quotas were introduced in Pakistan as the existential threat to the species became known, and then an all-out ban on bustard hunting was announced. But the situation is complicated. Here, access to hunting land can form part of complex deals between wealthy individuals and local authorities in the impoverished areas where the birds can still be found. Permits were still issued, sometimes under the guise of ‘partridge hunting’ licences, and falconry continued.

Nigel Collar, Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Bustard Specialist Group told us: ‘The key issue from a conservation perspective is simply that any hunting, wherever it occurs, is indeed sustainable. IUCN fully acknowledges that hunting houbara with falcons is a long and cherished Arab tradition, and it is willing to support this tradition, but there are now too many falcons and too few houbara. If hunting of houbaras is to resume in Pakistan, then both hosts and guests should now strictly observe scientifically determined quotas so that the species can return to its former population levels and flourish.’

But the question remains, how can anyone possibly police the practice when so much wealth and influence is wielded by those who want to pursue it? The BBC recently reported that poor Pakistani farmers were being ordered off their own land in remote rural areas such as Nurpur Thal, while large hunting parties swept through in motorcades of SUVs, destroying crops as they went. Other locals claim to have been paid to identify and guard bustards’ nesting spots.

Saker falcon, worth a lot more than its weight in gold
Saker falcon, worth more than its weight in gold

In March 2015, a Qatari prince was fined and two of his extremely valuable hunting falcons (worth up to US$250,000 each) were seized when he was caught pursuing houbara bustards in the northwestern Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa without a permit, but this enforcement of the law was an exceptional case.

Late last year, the hunting ban was reviewed and then scrapped altogether, with opponents of controls on falconry arguing that the policy was impacting Pakistan’s relationship with its Middle Eastern trading partners. The federal government of Pakistan and provincial governments of Ballochistan and Punjab even filed petitions claiming that hunting of houbara bustards was one of the key pillars of the country’s foreign policy, which provoked a furious response from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chief and former cricketer Imran khan, not to mention many wildlife groups.

In many ways, the fate of the bustard is symbolic of a process that’s been playing out across the region for years, with traditional hunting practises transforming from sustainable to utterly devastating due to the oil-wealth of the hunters and technology they now have access to.

The discovery of vast amounts of oil beneath the ground in the Arabian Peninsula in the mid 20th century transformed absolutely everything within the space of a few short decades. By the 1980s Saudi Arabia was earning US$3,000 a second from oil and boasted a GDP of US$150 billion. The sudden acquisition of such wealth revolutionised life in the deeply conservative country, but it wasn’t so positive for the region’s wildlife.

In the 1940s, 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population was nomadic, but by 1990 this had been reduced to around 3%. Even aside from the environmental changes that swept across the country during this seismic societal shapeshift, the prevalence of all-terrain vehicles and ability of hunters to get their hands on high-powered weapons has resulted in the full or quasi extinction of numerous species.

Philip J Seddon and Frédéric Launay—from the Department of Zoology at the University of Otago in New Zealand and the Environment Agency (EAD) in Abu Dhabi—have written about how the Asiatic cheetah had become locally extinct by the 1950s, the Arabian ostrich was completely eradicated by the 1950s and the Arabian oryx had disappeared from the wild in the 1970s. Other animals, they said, had suffered dramatic declines in both their breeding populations and range; these species included the Nubian ibex, Arabian leopard, sand gazelle, mountain gazelle and, of course, the houbara bustard.

arabic falconry2

As Seddon and Launay note, the practice of Arab falconry had changed in at least five ways over the preceding five decades, in ways that combined to profoundly impact the wild populations of both bustards and falcons.

Whereas once a hunter might fly only one bird, they said, wealthy falconers are now using hundreds; the value of trained falcons became absurdly inflated because of the wealth of the hunters, encouraging more people to trap and train birds; the use of captive-bred and hybrid falcons also soared, and fewer falcons are being released into the wild at the end of the hunting season (as they were traditionally); a large trade in live houbara has been established, with prey birds trapped in countries such as Pakistan and Iran and sold to Arab falconers for use in training their raptors; and the depletion of wild houbara populations in the Arabian Peninsula has led falconers to travel further afield in order to hunt, into central Asia and Africa.

The houbara bustard has recently been separated into two separate sub species: the North African houbara and the Macqueen’s bustard (or Asian houbara). Unethical and unsustainable hunting of the North African houbara, along with other severely threatened species (allegedly under the auspices of a ‘dubious Arab charity NGO’) in south-central Chad, was the focus of at least one wikileaks spill, with the source document dating back over a decade, but it’s the Asian houbara that’s been particularly hard hit by hunting.

Dr Jacky Judas, Research Manager with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS) told Love Nature that hunting has left resident Arabian populations of the Asian houbara critically endangered, with very few small remnant populations in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan and possibly Syria. Birds from further north in the range, including China and Mongolia, come south to over-winter, and this is where the migrants also run into trouble.

‘One of the most striking features of the migrant populations is their low connectivity,’ says Judas. ‘If you consider a breeding population of a small area in China, birds from this population can dispatch across a very large area for wintering. For example one bird might winter in Turkmenistan, another one in Pakistan, and another one in the UAE.’

This means that any given wintering population might contain birds from very different breeding sites around the world. A profound consequence of this migratory characteristic is that hunting in one area can potentially affect the overall population of the entire species.

Periods of instability and war in the region (particularly Iraq and Afghanistan) decreased poaching and hunting of houbara in these areas, but this only seemed to push falconers to explore new hunting grounds.

‘Historically hunters were mainly concentrated in Arabia,’ explains Judas. ‘But then they spread their geographical range into Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, to the wintering ground of the houbara, and then gradually went further north, to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, reaching right into the houbara breeding grounds. This hunting pressure is one of the leading factors that has led to the quasi extinction of resident populations, and sharp declines of migrant populations all over the range.’

Like Seddon and Launay, Judas is also concerned about the demand that has been created by wealthy falconers for live wild houbaras to train their birds. ‘There is significant smuggling and poaching on their wintering range, mainly in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, to feed a local market in Arabia,’ he says. ‘This illegal market also contributes largely to the decrease of wild populations. To meet the Arabian demand for live houbaras bustards, a large number of live birds are captured every year. Many of them die during transportation because of bad conditions of detention and containment.’

And the capture of wild migrant falcons is still largely done in Arabia too, all along the coast of the Red Sea (Saudi Arabia, Yemen) or in the Gulf. ‘Teams of trappers will stay for several weeks during migration time, waiting to catch falcons,’ explains Judas. ‘The capture of a single big female saker can be very rewarding, since it can be sold for several thousand US dollars.’

However, the case isn’t quite as black and white as it may seem. As Judas points out, like it or not, falconry does bring some significant political and economic benefits to countries where the houbara survives and access to hunting grounds is facilitated—Pakistan and Morocco in particular, but also Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. ‘The practice of falconry in different countries is undoubtedly contributing to the economic development of some regions, in which Arab countries will invest to build roads, schools, hospitals, airports, dams or sponsor different development projects.’ he said.

And between them, the two nations most heavily involved in falconry, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, boast the largest, most diverse and well-funded wildlife conservation and environmental protection programmes in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development has so far created 14 wildlife natural reserves, covering around 2.5 percent of the entire the country, and has plans for a total of 103 such areas in the coming years. It protects over 50,000 sq km of land, and while one of the primary objectives of this exercise was to safeguard the existence of the houbara bustard (so it could still be hunted), the benefits to other native desert dwelling species are enormous.

For its part, the UAE has the National Avian Research Centre, part of the Environmental Agency (EAD), which established a captive breeding and research station for houbara bustards in the early 1990s, and provides lots of excellent information on the species (recently they satellite-tracked a wintering houbara bustard as it travelled from Abu Dhabi to China and back, a round-trip journey of over 10,000km).

In theory, such breeding centres produce captive-bred houbaras for reintroduction into the wilderness, and to supply the demand for falcon training, relieving the poaching pressure on wild populations. But the results are mixed, according to Judas. ‘Most falconers still prefer wild houbaras over captive-bred ones,’ he explains.

And there’s little doubt that both bustard and falcon populations are in decline—certainly in the wild—and that hunting habits are primarily responsible, both directly (with some irresponsible individuals vastly exceeding sustainable limits and doing irreparable damage to migratory and breeding populations), and indirectly, with wild-born birds continuing to be perceived as preferable and their higher price tags promoting poaching. And unless the hunters acknowledge this at the highest level, their age-old cultural tradition is just as endangered as the species their raptors prey upon.


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