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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

How illegal bird hunting in the Arab world could drive species to extinction

Report released at international gathering in Abu Dhabi singles out Egypt, Syria and Lebanon plus Italy as culprits

<p>Hunters aim at a flock of birds in the Lebanese village of Shlifa. More than a 15 million bidrs are estimated to e killed annually in&nbsp;Lebanon, Italy, Egypt and Syria.Joseph Barrak / AFP</p>
<p>Hunters aim at a flock of birds in the Lebanese village of Shlifa. More than a 15 million bidrs are estimated to e killed annually in&nbsp;Lebanon, Italy, Egypt and Syria.Joseph Barrak / AFP</p>

Almost a quarter of the world’s migratory birds are at risk and could eventually face extinction, a new report has revealed.

And mankind is to blame, according the State of the World’s Birds survey, which points the finger at illegal hunting, loss of vital feeding and breeding grounds to agriculture, pesticides and poor environmental practices.

Illegal hunting takes the lives of between 12 and 38 million birds every year.

The major culprits were Italy, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, where more than 15 million birds are estimated to be killed annually.

“The magic of birds has been astounding humanity over hundreds of years,” said Patricia Zurita, the chief executive of BirdLife International, which commissioned the study.

“But we are making it very difficult for them. The trends are extremely concerning.”

The report was released on the first day of the Global Summit for the Flyways, a major international gathering in Abu Dhabi that will examine in detail the challenges facing birds and offer possible solutions for protecting populations.

Flyways are the paths used by migratory birds as they fly thousands of miles and across continents with the changing of the seasons.

Flyways exist on every continent, with some species passing the entire length of north and south America and from Siberia down to the southernmost tip of Africa. Migrations typically take place in the spring and autumn, with numbers in the billions.

One of the most famous is the Arctic Tern, which breeds in the Arctic but winters in the Antarctic, with some individuals travelling over 80,000 kilometres in a single year.

The UAE and the Arabian Peninsula is an important stage in several flyways, with birds passing en-route from countries like India and Russia to Africa.

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The UAE is also home to a number of migratory birds, as part of the Asian-East African flyway, which spans 64 countries and over 300 species.

They include the greater flamingo, which arrives from Centra Asia and Iran and sometimes breeds in the UAE, and the hoopoe. which ranges across Europe and northern Asia but likes to winter in the tropics

Tris Allinson, the editor in chief of the report and senior global science officer at BirdLife, said industrial farming is wiping out hedges and small groups of trees essential to thriving bird populations, while some modern pesticides can disrupt migratory birds' ability to navigate.

“Increasingly, we are even seeing birds that not long ago were familiar and widespread becoming at risk.” Mr Allinson said.

Nearly 1,500 species could now be considered at risk, he added, representing one in eight in the world.

In other places, coastal wetlands, which provide food for wading birds, were being lost to development while even clean energy projects like wind turbines were killing birds as they attempted to fly past them.

“There are a multitude of causes,” Mr Allinson said. “But unfortunately all are the result of humanity’s making.”

BirdLife International brings together around 120 organisations from all over the world with an interest in protecting birds.

UAE - Abu Dhabi - Mar 05 - 2012: A houbara bird is released in the wild by UAE rangers and members of the National Avian Research cente. ( Jaime Puebla - The National Newspaper )
A houbara bird is released in the wild by UAE rangers and members of the National Avian Research centre. Jaime Puebla for The National

The four day conference will examine in detail all the challenges, and aims to produce a declaration of intent to protect birds worldwide at its conclusion.

As well as providing a sanctuary for many species of wild birds, the UAE has led efforts to protect the houbara, a member of the bustard family traditionally hunted with falcons, but whose numbers had dramatically fallen in many of its native countries.

Efforts to save the houbara began with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan in the 1970s, said Al Al Shamsi, a senior specialist at the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, which is based in Abu Dhabi.

Since they had established breeding programmes in Abu Dhabi, Morocco and Kazakstan for both the Asian and North African houbara.

More than 59,000 houbara have now been released back into the wild in 14 countries.

This success could be a model for similar programmes for other species elsewhere, said Mr Al Shamsi.

“We can give all of our knowledge on the houbara projects,” he said. “This is our big chance to pass on our message to all people.”

Khaled Irani, the chairman of BirdLife and president of The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan, said protecting wild birds could bring economic benefits to countries.

The Jordan Rift Valley was an important flyway from Turkey to Africa, he said, and attracted a growing number of eco-tourists and bird watchers looking for upmarket hotels and local guides. “In most protected areas they are the largest employers,” he said.

The Flyway Summit is a “huge opportunity” for conservationists and concerned organisations to agree on a common approach, said Ms Zurita.

It was also a chance to tell the world that birds were in danger. “People don’t realise,” she said. “The biggest part of the problem is a lack of awareness.”