x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Four Emiratis arrested for hunting in Iran

The falconers were arrested for not having permits while allegedly hunting the endangered houbara bustards.

ABU DHABI // Four Emiratis have been arrested in Iran for hunting the endangered houbara bustard without a permit.

A report from Iran's Press TV said the arrests were made on Monday in the country's western Ilam province. Officials from Iran's Environment Protection Organisation said they caught the men with 10 of the rare birds, which are prized by Arabs hunting with falcons.

Authorities found a shotgun, a falcon-tracking device, a walkie-talkie, falcon blinders and "other evidence" indicating that the men had been hunting, the report said.

The houbara bustard has suffered large declines in numbers in the past two decades. Experts estimate that in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, populations are down by a quarter, while in Central Asia the decline is estimated to be as much as 40 per cent. Hunting and destruction of its habitat are believed to be the main reasons behind the declines.

It is forbidden to hunt in Iran without a permit from the office of the president, said an Iranian diplomatic source. However, he called the incident "a simple case", expressing his belief that it would be resolved quickly.

"These things happen a lot but they get solved quickly," the source said.

"Things happen that are not on purpose, whether it is hunting or boats crossing borders while fishing, and they get solved quickly just by telephone or by a letter from the foreign ministry."

He said hunters in Iran could not target certain types of bustard, falcons and other birds, although important Gulf officials visiting Iran were often given hunting permits.

Hunting houbara bustards with falcons is an ancient UAE tradition, older even than camel racing, said Dr Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai.

"It is a very prestigious sport but it is very difficult for falconers to catch a houbara because it is a big bird and it is quite fast," he said.

Because of the decline of the birds in the Emirates, wealthy falconers go abroad - to Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Morocco and Algeria - to hunt.

Nigel Collar, an expert from BirdLife International, said that while the tradition of falconry was much respected, modern technology had changed the sport, significantly increasing its environmental impact.

He said that from a scenario usually involving "one man with a falcon on a camel" it had evolved to "many people travelling long distances in the desert in desert-adapted vehicles".

"The houbara does not really stand a chance now," Dr Collar added.

"There is a serious concern that there is a great deal of over-hunting … the problem is quite a serious one and it is quite a difficult one to do anything about."

One solution has been to breed the birds in captivity and then release them to supplement wild populations.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have their own breeding centres, while in Saudi Arabia there is a research and breeding centre in Taif. The UAE also supports breeding programmes in several countries, including Morocco.

Dr Collar said that while the practice was valuable it was not the ultimate solution in keeping the bird from extinction.

Captive breeding programmes "are not necessarily a bad thing but science has not developed enough to show this is the most appropriate way", he said.

The results of breeding programmes depend on the ability of the released birds to integrate in the wild.

Also, there is concern that if released in large numbers, they would compete for food with other wild birds. "Captive breeding is valuable but the question is at what scale," Dr Collar said.

vtodorova@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Kareem Shaheen and Bloomberg