The houbara must be saved for the sake of our culture and tradition

One of the greatest successes of the UAE's conservationists has been to stop the decline of the houbara bustard, writes Mohammed Saleh Al Baidani

The importance Abu Dhabi places on conserving its biodiversity can be seen in its dedicated programmes for species such as the Arabian oryx. The emirate can also be proud of the work it does in preserving the bird that is our national emblem: the falcon. But one of our greatest successes has been the conservation of the houbara bustard.

The species is linked with our culture and tradition. So it is vital that we do everything we can to preserve this species, both in terms of our responsibility towards the environment and to ensure that our centuries old heritage remains strong.

Today we celebrate World Migratory Bird Day – a day when the world focuses on the fate of birds such as the houbara bustard that travels thousands of kilometres each year as part of its natural life cycle. Organised by the United Nations Environment Programme, the occasion is an opportunity to highlight these issues.

Our wildlife faces increasing pressures, largely from man-made factors. For migratory birds, the problems are multiplied because they traverse the boundaries of many countries. The houbara crosses nearly 30 countries, posing various difficulties for conservationists.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has called for “greater international efforts to restore and preserve migratory birds and the network of sites they need to survive”. At the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC), the Abu Dhabi-based global organisation dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the houbara bustard, we wholeheartedly support this call. We share our knowledge and expertise with many other countries to provide the species with the best possible chance for survival.

From the start the programme, based on the vision of the late Sheikh Zayed, set out to learn more about the environment of this naturally shy bird. Studies of the habits of the houbara were undertaken across its range, including Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and China.

This ground-breaking research has provided vital data that has underpinned our breeding and release efforts. These field studies, combined with 20 years of satellite tracking, have established the IFHC as the world’s leading authority on the species.

Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, President of the UAE, is building on his father’s vision to create a living legacy for future generations. That’s clearly evident in the expansion of the houbara programme (which now breeds thousands of birds each year) through the addition of two more breeding centres (in Abu Dhabi and Kazakhstan) to those already operating in Abu Dhabi and Morocco.

The new centre in Kazakhstan is strategically vital in our efforts to ensure a sustainable future for the houbara. The country is home to the world’s largest single population of wild migratory Asian houbara, some of which visit the UAE. Last month, 2,000 Asian houbara that were bred in Abu Dhabi were released in Kazakhstan – the largest ever single release of the bird.

In recent years, we have developed partnerships across the Arabian Peninsula. Utilising the knowledge and expertise we have built, thousands of houbara have been provided for release into designated protected areas in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen and Jordan.

The success of our breeding programme enabled us last year to take the next step in our strategy. By providing houbara to falconers for training, we directly tackle one of the main reasons for the historical decline of the species: the black market of the birds poached from the wild.

As the prized prey of the falconer, the houbara plays a crucial role in our culture. Therefore, the future of falconry is inextricably linked to the fate of the houbara. The natural world sustained our forefathers and will sustain us in the future. The work of the IFHC proves that culture and conservation can and need to work together. In doing so, we are preserving our heritage. So it is much more than a breeding programme.

In his foreword to the original houbara strategy, Sheikh Zayed said: “We wish to leave the Earth as good, or better, than we found it.” Before the programme started the bird was in historic decline.

Now, as a result of the conservation efforts of Abu Dhabi, that decline has been halted; reversing a trend that had existed for decades.

Through the vision of Sheikh Zayed and the leadership of Sheikh Khalifa, Abu Dhabi has created one of the world’s leading conservation programmes – one we should all be truly proud of.

Mohammed Saleh Al Baidani is director general of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation

Published: May 10, 2014 04:00 AM

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