Fifty Houbara birds released into the UAE desert - in pictures

Members of the UAE Special Olympics team helped the International Fund for Houbara Conservation release the birds

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Fifty endangered houbara birds were released into skies over the Al Ain desert as part of a conservation project to improve their numbers in the wild.

Staff from the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC) helped volunteers remove the birds from plastic cages and place them gently on the sand before they took flight.

Among those taking part were students and members of the UAE's Special Olympics team.

“We released them deep in the sand dunes because that is their natural habitat. We don’t push them to fly. The houbara will decide if they want to walk or fly,” said Ali Shamsi, a spokesman for the organisation.

“If you push a bird to fly, then it will land on the highway. They walk or fly and discover the land, find food on their own.”

The release site was chosen to maximise the birds' chance of survival.

Tracking devices are placed on the creatures to monitor their journey. The data helps plot their migration routes from the UAE across various countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Houbara birds have been released by the organisation in countries including Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

“This is good weather to organise the release. The breeding season starts in January and the release season is from October and goes on until April or May,” Mr Shamsi said.

The centre runs a captive breeding programme and uses artificial insemination to raise the birds.

The birds to be released into the wild are exposed to minimal human contact after hatching so they learn to adapt to the harsh desert environment.

The data gathered has shown that the Asian houbara travels an average of 6,000km during the migration season.

Tracking devices provide information about the temperature of the bird and speed and height that it flies.

The houbara bustard that falconers traditionally hunt in the Gulf region is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Their numbers have declined due to unregulated hunting and poaching. Conservation projects in the country have helped raise their numbers.

Customs officials in the UAE have intercepted networks of smugglers who attempt to transport the birds illegally into the country.

Smuggling houbara birds is illegal in the UAE and punishable with a jail term of six months and a fine of up to Dh50,000.

There have been several projects in the UAE to shore up the population including a breeding scheme was launched by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE, in the late 1970s and the first captive-bred houbara was hatched in 1982. The initiative has since grown into an internationally recognised conservation programme.