Return to the wild for UAE birds of splendour

Each spring, a team of conservationists, falconers and vets head to Kazakhstan to free rehabilitated falcons back into the wilderness under the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme. Jennifer Bell reports from Aktau with photographs by Silvia Razgova.

Falconer Yaqoub Al Hamadi releases a peregrine falcon into the wild, north of Aktau, Kazakhstan. Silvia Razgova / The National
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Releasing a bird of prey into the wild is no small feat.

In May of each year, dozens of peregrine and saker falcons are transported from the UAE to the Kazakhstan coast and returned to their natural habitat under the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme.

It marks the end of another exhaustive 12-month cycle to rescue, treat, monitor and train the wild birds to enable them to be fit enough to return to the wild.

“People think you just throw the falcons into the air and that is that,” said Dr Margit Muller, director of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, which helps oversee the programme. “In reality it is a much bigger job than that.”

The moment a falcon is donated, or confiscated and brought to the hospital the bird enters the release programme, Dr Muller said.

Vets first examine the birds to ensure that they are free of disease before they are treated, tagged with microchips and rings, and the feathers, legs and claws measured for individual identification.

When fully fit, falcons are then sent to a special training camp where experienced falconers train the birds to relearn survival skills to cope in the wilderness alone.

Falcons need intensive training because the wild can be a tough environment, Dr Muller said.

It can take more than a dozen attempts for a falcon to catch its prey and the bird must be able to withstand flying hundreds of kilometres per hour, in both the heat and sub-zero temperatures.

When fully trained, the falcons are taken from the UAE in spring time to Kazakhstan – chosen as it is along the birds’ migratory routes and has an abundance of prey, said Mohammed Al Baidani, director general of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, which helps to organise the programme.

“It has a very nice habitat. There are a lot of rodents, a lot of small water birds and many species which can give enough choice for the falcons to feed on.”

This year 55 falcons; eight saker females, 41 female peregrines and six peregrine males, were fit enough to be released into the wilderness.

The falcons are transported in individual boxes in a customised Dash 8 aeroplane from Abu Dhabi to Kazakhstan and then taken to an on-site camp before the UAE team – a team of falconers, Dr Muller and Mr Al Baidani – arrive.

A fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles takes the team and birds away from the populated areas towards the vast tract of untouched, rocky terrain where they can fly free.

They drive to the north from Aktau along the Caspian Sea coast for the first of 27 releases over 14 hours, spread over two days.

Two falcons are released at each earmarked site, spaced at least three kilometres apart to avoid competition or territorial rivalry.

Release sites differ for peregrine and saker falcons. While mountainous or coastal areas have proved better for peregrines, sakers prefer scrubland. “Of course, these places are not selected randomly,” Mr Al Baidani said. “Information on where to release the falcons is on experience from the most popular scientists in Kazakhstan.”

The first bird to be released is a three-year-old female saker. She is one of 10 fitted with a solar powered satellite transmitter – used to track migration and breeding patterns. Scientists hope to use the information to ensure higher survival rates.

Dr Muller performs a final physical examination by squeezing the falcon’s belly to check it is plump enough and by pinching its feet to ensure the bird is not dehydrated.

Before release, the ring number of each falcon is double-checked and the GPS location recorded to evaluate scientific data.

Even before the jess – a thin leather strap used to tether the falcon to the falconer’s glove – is cut, they know something is different, Dr Muller said.

“Even before the release day, they are taken here in cars as a practice, but when it comes to the release day they know something is different. It is instinct.”

As the falcon becomes excited it is the job of Khamis Al Hamadi, head falconer, to reassure her.

He then uses his teeth to loosen the leather hood used to cover her eyes. He snips the jess on each foot before removing the hood.

The team falls silent as the falcon takes in her surroundings.

“It’s so beautiful every time,” said Dr Muller, as the falcon blinks against the sunshine before flapping her wings and gliding into the wind. “It is stunning to see them back where they belong.”

A falconer reaches into a crate full of pigeons and pulls the feathers off one – slowing it down to make it easier for the falcon to catch – and tosses it in the air. A pigeon can sustain it for 24 hours.

The team continues north toward Fort Shevchenko. Falconer Sultan Al Ameemi picks another bird. He calms the falcon by stroking her soft underbelly before releasing her.

Despite the relationship a trainer can build with a falcon, he feels no sadness when he watches the bird glide away in the wind’s current.

“I am very happy to seem them go back to their natural habitat,” he said. “Hopefully, they will breed a new generation of falcons.”

The exhaustive health checks, preparation and training, the logistics and paperwork of transporting the birds abroad, the staggered and laborious process of releasing the birds, can all make it an extensive effort to return each falcon back into the wild.

But this process is essential in protecting the once-endangered species and ensuring their best chances of survival, said Abdulla Al Qubasi, general manager of Sheikh Mohammed’s private office.

“Keeping the falcons alive and free in the wild and giving them back to the nature – these are the reasons for all this work,” he said.


Read more in our Falcon release special series:

The success of the UAE falcon release scheme

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital director, who mends broken wings, moved to tears