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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 5 March 2021

Stronger enforcement of laws needed to protect the region’s bird population

New research presented at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition says some species are at severe risk

Falcons on display at the Falcon Center during Adihex 2019 in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National 
Falcons on display at the Falcon Center during Adihex 2019 in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National 

Conservationists have called for tougher enforcement of laws and licensing programmes to protect the region’s birds from over-hunting.

Experts said they understood the importance of hunting and falconry to the region’s culture – but new efforts were needed to educate people about practising their hobbies sustainably.

It is estimated that up to 4.6 million birds, including endangered species, are being shot for sport, food or taken for falconry, causing populations to plummet and placing some at risk of extinction.

Licensing programmes for hunting and better enforcement of existing laws were among other possible solutions put forward as the results of the research unveiled at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition, or Adihex, which opened on Tuesday.

Between 1.7m to 4.6m birds from at least 413 species are illegally killed each year in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Iran.

“Trying to change some of the attitudes of some of the people is going to take a long time, but it can’t just be about law enforcement and regulations,” said Rob Sheldon, chairman of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, which led the study alongside BirdLife Middle East.

“Another part of the solution is how we educate the next generation, how we inspire them about birds and wildlife, and get it across to them that these birds don’t belong to any one nation state. They might breed in Kazakhstan, then migrate through 10 or 15 different countries, and spend winter in Africa.

Rob Sheldon, the Chairman of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East speaks at Adihex 2019 in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
Rob Sheldon, the Chairman of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East speaks at Adihex 2019 in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National

“When they are visiting any individual nation state, they should be treated as guests for the time they are there. Inspiring people about some of these arduous journeys they take is a key way to reduce some of this illegal killing.”

A meeting about the illegal trade in birds heard that, although many of the countries already had tough laws in place to protect species, these were often ignored or not enforced.

It was estimated that up to 2.7m birds are illegally killed or taken in Saudi Arabia each year, up to one million are killed or taken in Iran and up to 524,000 are killed or taken in Iraq. Researchers, who used a variety of sources, including reports from local experts, police, hunting groups and government authorities to arrive at the figures, could not reach a consensus on a figure for the UAE. The other counties included were Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman Qatar and Yemen.

Among the species threatened are the European turtle dove, marbled teal and common pochard – all classed as vulnerable, and the sociable lapwing, which is critically endangered. Falcons were also being trapped in unsustainably high numbers, the event heard, with the practice driven mainly by high prices paid by Gulf falconers.

Mr Sheldon said he often saw social media posts from hunters, boasting about their prowess, accompanied by pictures of dead birds. However, he said he was encouraged to see that these were attracting a backlash from other Arabic speakers. OSME has begun producing more material in Arabic and launched educational campaigns aimed at promoting sustainability, and has also set up ‘bird camps’ designed to inspire a love of birds among young people in Arab countries.

“It is difficult to say whether it is getting better or getting worse but people are becoming aware of the scale of it as a potential problem,” Dr Sheldon said. “This is not about stopping hunting or falconry. Where it is sustainable, it probably has a positive contribution to make to many different bird species.

“The problem is when it’s done in an unsustainable way and too many birds are taken from the wild for falconry, or shooting of birds in an uncontrolled way.”

Although some young people are more open to conservation, there was also concern that hunting may be on the rise. The wider availability of 4x4 vehicles were making previously isolated areas where birds were safe accessible to amateur hunters, said Ibrahim Khader, director at BirdLife Middle East.

“The younger generation is more involved [in hunting],” he said. “Sometimes, culturally, in Lebanon for example, the father will teach his children about hunting. This has been decreasing but it is picking up again in some countries ... But we are trying to work with fathers, or even mothers, to raise responsible hunters.”

Elsewhere at Adihex, a new campaign was launched to spread awareness of the dangers of the illegal trade in the houbara, a bustard species, which are prey of falcons and can be used to train them.

Named the ‘fear’ campaign by The International Fund for Houbara Conservation, it is designed to warn members of the falconry community that the illegal trade of the birds threatens falcons, the sport of falconry and the wider ecosystem, as smuggled houbara commonly carry diseases. Unlawful poaching, hunting and smuggling of the birds attracts strict penalties and has left the houbara a threatened species, which in turn poses a risk to falcons.

Updated: August 28, 2019 12:44 PM

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