x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Houbaras face extinction

Scientists in Abu Dhabi say they are in a race against time to save the houbara bustard from extinction due to over-hunting.

The houbara bustard lives in remote, empty expanses of desert and semi-desert plains and steppes.
The houbara bustard lives in remote, empty expanses of desert and semi-desert plains and steppes.

Scientists in Abu Dhabi say they are in a race against time to save the houbara bustard from extinction due to over-hunting. The National Avian Research Center (NARC), which has bred and released 200 of the rare birds since 2004, hopes to have increased that number to 5,000 by 2013. However, Dr Olivier Combreau, the centre's director, said despite their success in captive breeding, studies show that the species could be extinct in the wild by 2035.

The Asian population has already suffered a decline of 63 per cent in 10 years, and populations in the Arabian Peninsula, along with those in Iran and Pakistan, are particularly at risk he said. "In the past, [houbaras] were arriving here in their thousands," said Dr Combreau. "Now they have almost vanished." While the destruction of their habitats has claimed many of the birds, hunting and poaching are responsible for three quarters of all houbara bustard deaths, according to Dr Combreau.

The large sand-coloured speckled bird has a white belly and is about 60cm long with a wingspan of up to 1.4 metres. It breeds in the desert and the male is known for his flamboyant mating display, raising the white feathers of his head and throat. Generations of Bedouins hunted the birds with falcons as a source of meat. But with the arrival of oil wealth in the 1960s and 1970s, hunting became a sport.

And, while a falconer would previously only keep a falcon during the hunting season, he can now keep them in air-conditioned buildings and travel to the best hunting sites, said William Lawrence, an ecologist at the centre. The net result is that the houbara have nearly vanished. The increased release of captive-bred birds will coincide with regulations for hunters. However, officials at the centre said they were not looking to ban falconry. For many Emiratis, the sport is the only way to keep a link with the way of life of their fathers and grandfathers, said Mr Lawrence.

"Our goal is to try to find solutions so that Arab falconry becomes sustainable," said Dr Combreau. "We don't want these birds to be hunted as soon as they are released." "There will definitely be a need to regulate where hunting can take place, according to when and where houbaras are released." Many of those released have settled in an area close to Al Ain where the survival rate appears to be highest, at around 70 per cent, and some have had chicks of their own.

But the centre needs to spread its wings beyond UAE borders, said Dr Combreau, if it is to have a real effect on the species' survival. Houbaras that winter in the UAE come from places as diverse as China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Iran, data obtained from tagged birds show. As the centre becomes more aware of the complex migratory patterns of the birds, decision-makers are more willing to support cross-border initiatives.

"This map has been very important in making our stakeholders understand the link between the UAE's conservation efforts and global ones," said Dr Combreau. "Relatively speaking, the UAE is a very small country and the houbara is migrating across many countries between breeding grounds and wintering grounds," he added. "There needs to be international collaboration." The UAE does collaborate with some governments. The Emirates Centre for Wildlife Propagation in Morocco is funded by the Government.

In April this year, the centre released 5,000 North African houbara bustards and the release effort was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. The centre is capable of breeding 8,000 North African houbaras. Dr Combreau is hoping that similar collaboration efforts will help NARC reach a goal of breading 50,000 birds in 15 years' time. Despite all these efforts, Mr Combreau admitted that a lot more needs to be done and the Abu Dhabi scientists are still "far away" from their goal of making falconry sustainable.

"With this breeding success, population growth should be eight per cent per year," said Mr Combreau. "There is a lot to do in education, breeding of birds. "The most important thing is to prevent extinction." As all other bustards, the houbara has long legs and feet with only three toes, adapted for walking. Its plumage is sandy in colour with grey-black lines and speckles. During flight, wings show a bright white patch. The eyes are yellow to orange in colour. A male houbara can weigh up to 2kg, while females are lighter - ranging from 0.9kg to 1.5kg.

The houbara lives in remote, empty expanses of desert and semi-desert plains and steppes. It is an opportunistic feeder - eating a variety of plants, seeds and berries as well as ants, locusts, spiders and scorpions. Houbara bustards also eat small lizards, mice and the young chicks of some other birds. @Email:vtodorova@thenational.ae