The houbara’s strong links with the ancient Arabian tradition of falconry have contributed to it being driven to the edge of extinction.
But that very connection has also driven recent conservation efforts to stop the species, which is popular as prey for falcons, from going the way of the dodo.
Once found across North Africa, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, Mongolia and Iran, both species of houbara – North African and Asian – are classified as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with a decreasing population trend.
More than 40 years ago, the UAE began a multimillion-dirham programme to repopulate natural habitats with captive bred birds.
The International Fund for Houbara Conservation, via the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) and Sheikh Khalifa Houbara Breeding Centre in Abu Dhabi, have developed one of the largest repopulation programmes of an endangered species anywhere in the world.
“The houbara is in danger due the destruction of its habitat and illegal hunting,” said Sylvain Boullenger, operations manager at NARC in Sweihan.
“Poaching is providing birds to be hunted by falcons in the Middle East, causing the population to decline.
“Without these kind of programmes, the number of houbara in the wild would be considerably less.”
In the early years of the centre’s release programme, only two birds were released into the wild in 1998.
Last year, that number rose to 39,137, from a captive bred stock of 55,505 birds.
“We are trying to work with falconers to make them part of the solution,” said Mr Boullenger.
“More are becoming involved in this kind of conservation, in North Africa and Asia.”
He said the centre has made huge progress over the past decade.
“The idea is to provide enough houbara for falconers to stop the black market threatening the species.”
The houbara is popular with falconers in the UAE, who describe the bird as 'formidable prey' with incredible defences.
If under attack, the bird makes itself large by puffing up its feathers, using its wings as a shield. Along with being a powerful flyer, it discharges a liquid that acts like a glue on the attacker.
Houbara are essential for the future of falconry, experts say. High speed duels in the desert skies are dangerous for prized falcons that can cost more than Dh1million.
Half the size of a houbara, falcons are at considerable risk of damaging a wing when striking their prey in mid-air.
Experts say the project is about more than just breeding game birds for slaughter, it is about saving the species from extinction as the threat of poaching continues to rise.
Three centres in the UAE, Morocco and Kazakhstan are helping restore numbers, but it is a painstaking process.
Stepping through the gates of the NARC compound in Sweihan is like entering a top secret military bunker.
The remote setting surrounded by dunes and sprawling landscapes is one of the UAE’s best kept secrets, and it is beginning to make its mark on the natural world.
Bio-security is tight, with restrictions on movement inside the vast compound, which produces tens of thousands of birds every year.
Visitors must cross a tightly controlled anti-contamination zone, and remove all outdoor footwear when moving between zones housing birds at different stages of growth and development, and wear coloured overalls at all times.
Daniel Da Silva, rearing administrator, said human contact is kept to a minimum during the first few weeks of the rearing phase, to try to mimic conditions in the wild.
“We want the chicks to associate with their own species as quickly as possible,” he said.
“Most of them will be released back to the wild, so we want to reduce human sounds inside the room where they are fed.
“It is very important the first few weeks of life are kept as close to nature as we can.”
Chicks are fed mealworms and crickets by hand, and huddle together under a lamp in each breeding pen, mimicking the warmth of their mother.
Birds to be released into the wild, to re-join migratory routes, take their first steps outside of the tightly controlled laboratory conditions after a few months.
They are kept in large tunnels where they have space to learn to fly, scratch around for their own food and socialise, as nature intended.
“When the birds are in the tunnels, during the final stage of the rearing programme, they will strengthen their wings,” said Mr Da Silva.
“Human contact is reduced to just once a day, or once every other day to make them less dependent on us.
“If they follow humans when they are released, there is a good chance they will be poached and the programme is compromised.”
Argyrios Choimes, the centre’s head of scientific communication, said once birds are released, they continue to monitor their progress.
“When we release the birds back into the wild, we track their movements, sometimes thousands at a time via radio tracking and GPS,” he said.
“Some birds are fitted with a harness tracker so we can see the kind of migratory routes they are taking.
“It has been a long process to determine what works, and what does not restrict their natural movements in the wild.
“Some birds we have been monitoring for 15 years.”
At the peak of the breeding season, close to a 1,000 staff from more than 40 nationalities are working to preserve the future of the Houbara.
In January, borders officials in Ras Al Khaimah intercepted 12 houbara birds taped up and hidden inside vehicle tyres.
All but one survived, and are due to be released back into nature.
Captured birds smuggled across borders risk transmitting avian viruses that can decimate local populations of other birds, and falcons.
Mr Boullenger insists the centre’s primary objective is to kill the black market, by providing healthy, strong birds for falconers to hunt.
“The main goal is to protect the future of the species,” he said.“It is very important for the UAE.”