The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Gulf Falconers Push Rare Bird Toward Extinction
SOUTH AFRICA: September 16, 2004


JOHANNESBURG - The majestic saker falcon is being pushed toward extinction because of soaring demand from wealthy Gulf Arabs who prize the animal for its hunting prowess, conservation group BirdLife International said yesterday.

The saker falcon is the traditional species used by Gulf falconers when hunting the houbara bustard - with devastating consequences for both species. "The expansion of falconry expeditions into the wide range of the houbara, and the increasing technological sophistication and efficiency of these expeditions, has caused the pressure on both the houbara and the saker to intensify," BirdLife said.

The prices involved are so high, and the demand so great, that there has been a huge explosion of commercial interest in the species in the past 20 years or more," it said in a report obtained by Reuters. BirdLife has recommended to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) that the bird be "red-listed" as endangered.

The Swiss-based IUCN's Red List is a respected wildlife barometer widely used by scientists and conservationists.

The classifications are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Animals in these categories are considered to be threatened with extinction.

Sakers are traditionally trapped in the autumn, with young females usually targeted.

This is because they are easier to trap and train than adults, and more capable than male birds of tackling houbaras, long-necked birds which spend much of their time on the ground.

The saker's range extends from eastern Europe to China.

BirdLife said recent surveys show its population has fallen to around 4,000 pairs in 2003 from about 10,000 pairs in 1990 - a decline of 60 percent.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have seen the sharpest drops with their populations down by around 90 percent over the period. Conservationists say enforcement will not be easy.

The wealth of the buyers, the poverty of the trappers, and the sums involved down the chain of purchases, are so great that no legal instruments can really control events on the ground," said Dr. Nigel Collar of BirdLife.

On the brighter side, economics and the bird's own resilience may contrive to save it.

If the figures on the decline rates are accurate, then consumers are likely to turn to captive-bred birds, which can be supplied abundantly - and at a certain point it will be cheaper to do this than pay for (rare) wild-caught ones," Collar said.

Fortunately sakers can bounce back quite rapidly," he said.

Story by Ed Stoddard

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