x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Bustard breeding network takes wing

Houbara bustards, prime prey for falcons, are being released in larger numbers as experts ask how to reduce the toll taken by poachers.

A houbara bustard chick, the first one for this year's breeding season, was born at The National Avian Research Center February 12.
A houbara bustard chick, the first one for this year's breeding season, was born at The National Avian Research Center February 12.

ABU DHABI // The emirate will further step up its efforts to protect populations of the endangered houbara bustard at home and abroad, a senior official said yesterday.

Thousands of the birds are already being bred in captivity in Sweihan in the UAE, in Morocco and in Kazakhstan, under the umbrella of the Abu Dhabi-based International Fund for Houbara Conservation.

Now the fund plans to open two new centres this year while searching for locations for several more, said Mohammed al Baidani, Director General of the Fund.

The new Sheikh Khalifa Houbara Breeding Centre is due to open in October, expanding on the production capacity of the National Avian Research Center in Sweihan just 10 minutes away.

A month later another breeding centre, also to be named after the UAE President, is to open in the Shymkent region of southern Khazakhstan. It will replace a temporary facility that opened in 2008 said Mr al Baidani.

The Khazakhstan steppes are one of the most important of the houbara bustard breeding areas in Central Asia.

China is also due for a breeding centre, after an agreement between the UAE and China was reached last year. The Fund has also submitted a proposal to the government of Turkmenistan for a centre there.

A bird with sandy plumage and distinctive white spots on its wings, the houbara bustard lives in grassy areas in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Large declines in its numbers in the past two decades are attributed to hunting and to the destruction of its habitat.

The fund aims to restore some of those wild populations by breeding the birds in large numbers and releasing them into the wild.

The ultimate goal of the Fund's efforts is to produce a total of as many as 50,000 chicks a year from the various centres, according to Mr al Baidani. It is hoped 10,000 birds a year can be produced within the UAE by 2014, he said.

The programme's existing centres have already produced thousands of birds.

Some 1,866 were hatched at the National Avian Research Centre in Sweihan, while the Emirates Centre for Wildlife Propagation in Morocco raised 2,030 of the Asian and 15,000 North African variety of the houbara bustards.

Established in 1995, the Moroccan centre has bred more than 50,000 birds in total, with more than 40,000 released.

The breeding programme involves artificially inseminating captive populations, with the resulting chicks released when they are about eight months old.

In Morocco, about 65 per cent of the birds released have survived. In the UAE between 55 and 60 per cent do so.

The birds released in the UAE are now breeding on their own, with scientists this week discovering the first houbara nest of the year.

Nigel Collar, an expert from the UK-based conservation organisation BirdLife International, said the success of the breeding programmes depended on a number of factors.

They include the extent to which the released birds interact and integrate with the wild populations and on how and where they are released.

One issue captive breeding does not address is that the grassy semi-deserts the houbara bustard inhabits are being overgrazed by sheep and other livestock.

"These are issues which it will be interesting to discuss publicly in future," Mr Collar said.

However for now, it is the continued poaching of live birds for the wildlife trade that appears to be the biggest challenge, said Mr al Baidani.

For example, in a West Kazakhstan experiment in September 2009, out of seven birds released only one ended up escaping poachers, he said.

Live houbara are often sold to falconers to train their birds of prey.

Mr al Baidani said that in future, the fund could consider offering houbara bustards bred in captivity to falconers, as a way of discouraging poachers.

"The poaching of the birds alive is the most critical thing we need to address," he said.

Another technique at work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, using advanced genetic engineering, was showcased last week during the First International Symposium on Conservation and Propagation of Endangered Species of Birds, at the Emirates Palace hotel in the capital.

Such cutting-edge methods are still in their early stages of development, however, and so far have not been able to produce enough birds to be useful in the scale of operations the Fund undertakes.




50,000 chicks will be born per year as part of the fund’s strategy

1,866 birds have hatched at the National Avian Research Centre in Sweihan

65 per cent of the birds born in Morocco and released have survived

1/7 of the birds released in an experiment in West Kazakhstan in 2009 evaded poachers