An ambitious and vital conservation project to preserve stocks of the Asian houbara bustard is under way in the UAE.
It may be 45°C outside, but the 30 tweeting balls of fluff that are crowding around the cylindrical metal heating element in the middle of their pen do not appear to have noticed. Some doze, while others attempt to scale the shifting chick mountain to get their share of heat. Of course, in the wild, this cylinder would be of the feathered, maternal variety. But we're not in the wild: we're in the cool, air-conditioned confines of the National Avian Research Centre (NARC), among the dunes of Sweihan, Abu Dhabi, where an ambitious conservation project is underway. The bird in question is the Asian houbara bustard, a brown and white-feathered omnivorous species, best known for its flamboyant feather displays - and as the most highly prized quarry of the falcon.
Its population has been in steep decline over the past few decades due to over-hunting, poaching and the degradation of its habitat. Specialists have warned that if the situation remains as it is, their numbers will decrease by 10 to 20 per cent per year. "We cannot just hunt and do nothing for the species," says Mohammed Saleh al Baidani, the director general of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC) and acting director of NARC. "Arabian falconry is based on two elements: the falcon and the houbara. There cannot be any Arabian falconry without these two birds." Next month, the organisation will be taking centre stage at the International Festival of Falconry in the UK, where it will showcase its conservation efforts to the international falconry community.
Efforts to manage the species' population were instigated in the 1970s by the late president, Sheikh Zayed, who supported "sustainable, balanced use of resources". Following a royal decree, NARC opened in 1993 as a centre of scientific research on houbara ecology. The captive breeding programme, which has so far seen 449 birds released into the wild in the UAE, started in 2002. To preserve the houbara, al Baidani says, is to preserve an integral part of Arabian culture. "We would like to increase the number of birds and protect their habitats to the level of expectation of falconers, and to a level that will allow us to protect our heritage," he says.
More recently, in 2006, the IFHC was established by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to unite research and conservation efforts. Its aims include protecting and increasing the houbara population through projects such as NARC, heightening awareness of the species' fragility and implementing conservation efforts across its dispersal area through international co-operation. Elsewhere, and also under the umbrella of the IFHC, is the Emirates Centre for Wildlife Propagation (ECWP) in eastern Morocco, which has bred an extraordinary 14,240 North African houbara this year alone; and a similar project in Kazakhstan which is currently in the planning stages. "With the help of these countries, I think we can change the mentality of hunters," says al Baidani.
Traditionally, Asian houbara, which are dispersed from the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to China, were hunted when they migrated South from their breeding grounds in Central Asia, China and Mongolia to the Arabian Peninsula during the winter months. But the advent of technology, radio tracking, four-wheel drive cars and the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed hunters to move further north. Soon, they were hunting houbara in large numbers directly from their breeding grounds. Together with an increase in the number of falconers, the impact on the notoriously shy and sensitive species was catastrophic.
Subsequent attempts to ban the hunting of houbara have led to a thriving black market supplied by illegally trapped birds. "People know that these birds are important for Arabs to train their falcons with," says al Baidani, "but when they trap birds, they trap big numbers. And they keep them in very poor conditions, so that by the time they deliver these birds, they have lost more than 50 per cent and the remaining ones can carry many diseases."
Part of NARC's remit involves quarantining and rehabilitating houbara that have been illegally smuggled into the UAE. "It is still happening and there are economic reasons for that," he says. "There are no proper by-laws in some countries." Promoting awareness, he adds, is key to putting an end to such practices. "We are promoting this so that if the countries concerned protect the houbara population, manage hunting and don't open the door to poachers or illegal hunters, they can preserve the species and benefit from it."
Equally, providing falconers with a supply of captive-bred houbara, will, al Baidani believes, stem demand for illegal birds. "People used to buy wild falcons for high prices on the black market," he says. "The pressure on the wild population was too high. Now there are centres where falcons are bred in captivity and this has decreased the price of wild falcons." That supply starts here at NARC. However, it took several years of painstaking research on wild houbara in Kazakhstan and China before they arrived at the point where they could successfully breed them. "It is a very difficult bird to breed in captivity," says al Baidani. "There are a lot of factors - the temperature, humidity, light. All the information we got from the wild, we put in these buildings. We are providing them with the maximum natural conditions indoors."
The captive-breeding complex is made up of scores of low buildings that house hatching, chick-rearing, later-stage-rearing and breeding units, as well as a live-food unit, where a whole separate ecosystem of meal worms, crickets and mice are bred to feed the houbara. Around 22 species of houbara exist, but NARC breeds only one - the Asian houbara. Two flocks are kept: one for breeding, and the other for release. Taming is an essential part of the breeding process, says al Baidani, in order for artificial insemination, by which all breeding here is carried out, to take place. "If they aren't tame, they will never breed," he says. Chicks intended for breeding are hand-fed, talked to and played music in order to maximise their contact with humans. While those for release are, as soon as they are autonomous and can feed themselves, given limited exposure, in order to facilitate their integration into the wild.
Around 25 eggs are collected each day, of which 60 per cent will hatch. And of the ones that hatch, around 92 per cent will make it to adulthood. "From studies conducted in China, in the wild, out of four chicks, only one will survive," says al Baidani. " So by doing captive breeding, we preserve four chicks instead of one. And we give the mother time to re-clutch, so she can also raise some of the chicks. Therefore, you nearly double the number in the wild."