MISSOUR, MOROCCO // Inside the sprawling complex in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, men and women clad in grey overalls hold tiny chicks in their palms, using fingertips to massage their soft, full bellies and tiny heads.
They are just days old, these sandy brown, black and white-specked balls of fluff. They sleep in boxes now, a half-dozen of them grouped together. Outside, Moroccan music plays from the radio as more staffers play with older birds that live in cages, feeding them by popping milk worms in their mouths.
The birds are endangered North African houbara bustards, their ongoing care part of a carefully thought-out plan to help prevent them from becoming extinct. Numbers have dwindled dramatically in only a few decades, a result of poaching, over-hunting and destruction of the dry grasslands where they live.
Between opening in 1995 and last year, the Emirates Center for Wildlife Propagation has produced more than 60,000 of the birds. Although it is located in the remote Moroccan town of Missour, it is financed entirely by the Abu Dhabi Government. The cost of the programme has not been revealed.
"If you consider any endangered species and talk about the cost, projects will not see the light of day," said Faris al Mazrouei, a board member of the Abu Dhabi-based International Fund for Houbara Conservation. The fund was created in 2006 to oversee the work of the Moroccan facilities, similar centres in the UAE and Kazakhstan and proposed new conservation projects in China and Turkmenistan - all countries where the houbara bustard was once plentiful.
The centre in Morocco has ambitious goals for the future: there are plans to expand the release efforts to 15,000 birds per season, up from the 12,000 released between August 2009 and March last year.
To reach that goal, every stage of the birds' lives is carefully managed.
"Before a bird even hatches we know whether we will keep it for breeding or whether we will be releasing it," said Guillaume le Loc'h, veterinary manager at the centre.
Even petting the newly hatched birds has a purpose. Birds that are destined to be used for breeding are trained to be familiar with humans, who must be in regular contact with the birds to complete the in vitro fertilisation process.
El Yousfi Elhousaine, the head of keepers in the adult breeders section, works at a second station near the village of Enjil, an hour from Missour. Spring is breeding season for the houbara bustard and a busy time for staff at the two centres. In an effort to obtain sperm, Mr Elhousaine uses a wooden, bird-shaped dummy to trick the male houbara bustards he works with. Sperm samples are examined to see if they are up to standard.
At the height of breeding season, the Enjil station processes up to 600 semen samples. Another set of technicians works on matching females and males, a process that is tightly controlled to ensure the genetic composition of future stock.
The team does up to 400 inseminations a day in Enjil alone. After the females are inseminated, it takes about four days for one to lay about three eggs. Eggs laid are collected and carried to an incubation facility, where they hatch after 24 days. The chicks are separated into two groups. This season about 10 per cent will be kept for breeding, while the rest will be released. Those birds are given as little human contact as possible to "promote wild behaviour", said Mr le Loc'h.
Chicks due for release are kept in wire cages, kept covered with cloth, until they are just under nine months old. They are then released in two batches each spring and autumn in one of two stretches of land: a 40,000-sq-km area in eastern Morocco and or 22,000-sq-km part of the country in the south. About half of this land mass is used for hunting, an effort that is suspended each spring to protect breeding birds.
Vincent Lieron, the release coordinator, said that no birds are released during the active hunting season in autumn. Before release, Mr Lieron and his colleagues divide the targeted areas into a grid so that between six and 20 birds are released at 5km intervals. A year after their release, an average of 65 per cent of the birds survive, said Mr Lieron.
The scientists also monitor what happens to the birds after they are released, using radio and satellite transmitters to track their movements. "One of the keys of success is the reproduction of the captive birds," he said. "We know now all the females and males after a few years have a successful reproduction."
The success of the programme can be measured though their density in the wild and by observing the number of nests - and so far these numbers are up, said Sylvain Boullenger, co-ordinator of ecology and conservation. "Since the past 10 years, nesting has increased, the number of displaying males has increased and density has increased 10 times, so the programme is working," he said.