x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Falconers try to help houbara survival

Importance of the bustard in culture, heritage and the environment is also spelt out by primary school pupils in a play at the exhibition.

Visitors check the prices of falcons on the second day of the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition yesterday at Adnec.
Visitors check the prices of falcons on the second day of the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition yesterday at Adnec.

ABU DHABI // Saeed Al Amri thinks he knows what it's like to be a houbara.

For the past two days, he has portrayed a hunted houbara bustard in a play with his schoolmates at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex).

Saeed, 10, is too young to carry a falcon or a rifle but is a veteran of hunting trips with his family.

"And I will advise my family that they will not shoot the houbara," said the Year 5 pupil from Al Yaher Private School.

Now he dreams of a new prize - seeing the houbara in the wild.

Saeed's chances have just improved. The International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC) bred more than 13,000 Asian Houbara chicks in this year's season, it announced yesterday.

A total of 5,373 chicks hatched at the new Sheikh Khalifa Houbara Breeding Centre at Saih Al Salem, and 7,732 at the National Avian Research Centre.

That means 13,105 young houbara that will be kept for breeding or released to help the wild population.

It is a big leap from the 2,726 chicks bred last year, thanks to the transfer of 5,000 houbara, including 3,000 breeding birds, from the IFHC centre in Morocco.

The organisation's global target is 50,000 chicks a season at the two UAE centres and those in Morocco and Kazakhstan.

The Moroccan centre bred 17,262 North African houbara this year, up from 14,734 last year. In Kazakhstan, those numbers rose to 303 chicks from 77.

But conservationists warn that falconry is under threat from poachers and non-traditional practices.

The houbara, which weighs between 1.2 and 2.2 kilograms, is not natural prey for most falcons, who prefer small birds or large rodents. Falcons must be trained to hunt houbara.

The sport has grown as bird prices have dropped and the prestige of ownership remains high. If it is to survive, falconers must stick to sustainable practices.

"The price of falcons has dropped a lot and the number of falconers has increased, but unfortunately we don't have the same mentality of the number of falconers that we did traditionally," said Mohamed Saleh Al Baidani, director general of the IFHC.

"Now you see that everything is unbalanced. If falconry was practised the same way it was before we would not have a problem."

But falconers will play a part in the houbara's survival. They were asked to complete an IFHC survey that will give a realistic number of houbara needed to meet the demands of the local falconry market.

This will hopefully mean houbara will not be taken from the wild to train falcons.

"Actually, the hunting exhibition is the best place to help us be in contact as much as we can with falconers, and this gives us a very good indication of the hunting pressure and the problems these birds are facing," said Mr Al Baidani.

The survey will indicate how many wild birds are trapped and which areas require the reintroduction programme.

"We believe that some people are overhunting in some places, that some people are not using the traditional method of hunting and [are] using shotguns," said Mr Al Baidani.

"We need to develop a strategy of how to work for these people so it's very important to know what they have in mind."

The survey will give clues to past houbara behaviour. Written records of houbara in the UAE are scarce but knowledge is kept through the oral history of falconers.

The best conservation plan would be to "kill" the black market for houbara, said Mr Baidani.

"I will accept and push to provide falconers birds officially for training, rather than they go into the black market," he said. "We don't know who is trapping them or who are the buyers."

Yousef Al Dossaey, a former falconer from Bahrain and Saudi, and his friend who is an avid hunter, were among those who lined up to complete the survey.

"I used to be a falconer," said Mr Al Dossaey, 56. "I was too young when I started. I changed my mind."

The houbara was his inspiration.

"Oh, he's beautiful," said Mr Al Dossaey.

"That's why I changed my mind. I felt I was doing something bad. He's very smart. And you know, it's not very good to eat."

azacharias@thenational.ae