Demand for prized falcons and other raptors has led to the UAE becoming the number one bird trafficking destination in the world, a new report has found.
Figures released by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) suggest that while instances of smuggling cases in the country remain high, numbers appear to be coming down.
From 2011 to 2012, 23 cases of illegally trafficked birds were discovered in the emirates, whereas only one incident was identified last year.
In that specific case, customs officials at Dubai airport recorded an intercepted shipment of falcons from Kyrgyzstan.
“Live animals are transported in two preferred ways,” said Patricia Tricorache, assistant director of strategic communications and illegal wildlife trade at the International Cheetah Conservation Fund.
“One is in luggage or under clothing, and the other is in cargo usually hidden with legally transported species like dogs or other animals.
“We have found this to be quite prevalent for primates and cats, but probably likely to happen for all other live species.
“Usually heavy clothes might hide animals, or suitcases that are oddly shaped or handled. Also unusual odours or noises might indicate the presence of animals.”
The new study found the high number of animals recovered in the UAE is partially due to the country’s significance as an international transit hub.
But research also claimed substantial Emirati demand for protected falcons and other bird species such as grey parrots and love birds was also to blame.
Since 2009, authorities in the UAE have recorded a total of 35 bird seizures at airports.
This compares with Brazil and the USA both reporting 23 cases over the same period while authorities in Indonesia found 21 and Spain found 18.
The legal trade in falcons throughout the Gulf region is sufficiently common to warrant their inclusion alongside guide dogs in certain airline regulations regarding in-cabin animals.
Qatar Airways, Etihad, and Emirates all allow falcons in the main cabins of their aircraft, as long as importers can show valid import permits, health certificates and vaccination records.
To avoid the exploitation of regulations by traffickers, and ensure the health of other passengers, Etihad states all falcons seated in the main cabin must have their own passport.
Between 2002 and 2013, UAE authorities issued more than 28,000 passports for falcons to combat the illicit trade.
The USAID research found that the number of cases of trafficking in Central Asia and the Middle East was specifically being driven by a high demand for the endangered Saker falcon, a migratory bird popular among falconers in the Gulf.
“Wildlife traffickers use whichever means of transportation is easier to achieve evasion,” Ms Tricorache said. “Points of exit or entry are often understaffed when it comes to wildlife officials.”