Abu Dhabi helps Mongolian falcon revival

There are 5,000 artificial nests erected across the Mongolian steppe for a breeding project implemented by the UAE and Mongolian governments.
A home of their own: recognising that saker falcons will not build their own nests, a project has provided them with artificial ones in Mongolia, allowing trade in the prized hunting birds to continue. Courtesy Andrew Dixon
A home of their own: recognising that saker falcons will not build their own nests, a project has provided them with artificial ones in Mongolia, allowing trade in the prized hunting birds to continue. Courtesy Andrew Dixon

BAYAN SOUM, MONGOLIA // On the road south to the Gobi desert, Gankhuyag Purev-Ochir cuts a left on to a spider web of dirt roads.

Whistling along to an Abba song, he scans the steppes for nests, binoculars at the ready.

In the distance, there is a single structure in a fragrant field of wild grass and white flowers: a turquoise barrel atop a crooked pole.

It may not look like much, but to the saker falcon it's home.

To conservationists such as Mr Purev-Ochir, it is hope.

The recycled juice barrel is one of 5,000 artificial nests erected across the steppe last year in a breeding project introduced by the UAE and Mongolian governments.

"Our project really wants to produce conservation through sustainable trade," says Mr Purev-Ochir, the project leader of the Mongolian team.

"We will have a number for export based on the chicks that we are checking. It's a good estimation, a real estimation."

Since 1993, Mongolia has traded saker falcons to the Middle East, where the birds are prized by Bedouin hunters.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, trapping grounds that were once limited to Pakistan and North Africa have expanded to Central Asia - a situation that has not benefited the bird's population.

Mongolia is the exception. Saker populations are believed to be stable. Trade is transparent and follows the framework of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), with an export quota of 300 birds last year.

The saker falcon (or falco cherrug) is listed as a globally vulnerable species by Cites, downgraded from endangered last year. But the bird can be traded as long as there is no effect on the wild population.

Cites considered banning the trade in Mongolia in 2009 because there were no population estimates available, so it was impossible to determine whether the population was being harmed.

But things changed last month when Cites ruled to continue the saker falcon trade based on the results of the Dh8.6 million breeding project implemented by the Environmental Agency - Abu Dhabi, in association with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre of Mongolia and the UK's International Wildlife Consultants.

In July, the Cites animal committee recommended Mongolia maintain its quota of 300 birds this year. The country can set its own quotas from next year on.

The programme's first-year results show that 174 saker falcon pairs had an average brood size of 3.1 fledglings in the nests built over 10,000 square kilometres.

A slightly rusted bin on a three-metre pole may seem like a step down from a rocky perch in the Gobi desert, but the birds share a problem faced by many couples: they must find the right home before they can start a family.

"We're thinking there is a big non-breeding population of sakers, that's why we put nests there," Mr Purev-Ochir says.

The nests cater to the notoriously lazy nature of the saker, which does not build its own nest but takes over those of ravens and buzzards.

Artificial nests on the steppe come with a steady diet of Brandt's vole, the Mongolian gerbil, horned larks and Mongolian larks.

The programme is forecast to produce an estimated 1,500 chicks from 500 saker pairs by 2015.

Sakers are prized by falconers from the Gulf and Syria who fly to Mongolia for the trapping season between July and October.

Trappers prefer strong and broad-shouldered females, which are larger, better hunters and more aggressive. The younger the better: their instincts are wild but they can still be easily trained and managed.

Trappers must buy permits from Mongolia's environment ministry that specify when, where and how many sakers can be trapped.

Mongolia exported 3,141 sakers between 1997 and last year, and 99 per cent went directly to the Gulf and Syria. The number of illegally exported sakers, gyrfalcons and peregrine was thought to be at least 3,900 in that same period.

"There are still some problems because buyers don't want microchips," Mr Purev-Ochir says. "They say they're not wild."

He has helped to microchip 594 saker chicks from 172 nests this year. Last year, 612 nestlings were microchipped.

Microchips are now placed near the flank feathers, where they are hard to find and impossible to take out without damaging the feathers, making it difficult for the birds to be resold if smuggled.

Scientists hope the microchip can become a trademark of the bird's standard and a falconer's commitment to the sport.

 

azacharias@thenational.ae

Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM

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