x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Nations seek pact to save birds of prey

Experts from 46 countries began negotiating an agreement for the protection of migratory birds of prey while they are in the UAE and other countries.

ABU DHABI // Experts from 46 countries began negotiating an agreement yesterday for the protection of migratory birds of prey while they are in the UAE and other countries. The large Saker falcon that breeds from eastern Europe to Manchuria, but winters in Ethiopia and the Arabian Gulf as well as parts of Asia, and the larger osprey, a fish-eating bird sometimes called sea hawk, are among the 72 species that could benefit from the project.

Experts from Europe, Asia and Africa began work in Abu Dhabi yesterday on proposals for an agreement on worldwide co-operation for the protection of the birds. The meeting was organised by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi with the Britain's Department of Food and Agriculture and the UN Environment Programme's Convention on Migratory Species. Officials said an agreement would be "an important milestone in our journey to save migratory birds of prey".

The UN convention seeks to protect birds which travel thousands of kilometres around the world, as well as migratory sea and land creatures, by encouraging states to co-operate through measures ranging from legally binding treaties to less formal memoranda of understanding. The UAE has yet to sign up to the convention, but Dr Rashid bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water, announced yesterday that the country would add its name to the birds of prey agreement and was willing to host and fund the initiative's secretariat in the capital.

Signatures of at least eight states are needed to ratify a non-binding memorandum of understanding to make it take effect. "Birds of prey, being at the top of the food chain, are exposed to threats from changing land use practices affecting food availability, pollution and lack of suitable breeding areas," Dr Fahad said. "Long-distance migrants are particularly vulnerable to additional pressures of hunting, collision with power lines and lack of suitable stopover sites, as they stop to refuel along their migration paths."

He said 52 species of birds of prey were under threat in Africa and Eurasia. "Today, we need urgent and affirmative action not only to safeguard these globally threatened birds of prey but also to improve the conservation status of many other migratory birds of prey, which are not listed as threatened at the moment but have poor conservation status." "I am very hopeful that over the next three days you will give a final shape to the agreement, adopt it and open it for signing so that we can move forward."

An official from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said he hoped more countries would subscribe to the agreement. "This is a very big initiative which includes a large number of countries and a large number of species," said Francisco Rilla, information and capacity building officer at UNEP. The UAE is an important stopover for many species of migratory birds, sea mammals, bats and insects, but although it is pushing for the birds of prey conservation agreement, the country is not among the 108 signatories to the Convention on Migratory Species.

Mr Rilla said endorsement by the UAE "could be very important for the convention". Some Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia had already signed, he said. Signing the Convention would enable the UAE to co-operate with other countries to find conservation and management solutions to problems within an internationally-recognised framework, he said. Endangered species that travel through the UAE include the blue whale, fin whale and humpback whale. Animals that have unfavourable conservation status include the Mountain gazelle, the finless porpoise, the Pacific hump-backed dolphin and the dugong.

Rare birds that visit the country include the greater spotted eagle, the Egyptian vulture and the osprey. About 70 pairs of ospreys are breeding on islands in the Emirates' waters. The UAE is also a vital link in efforts to conserve many species of falcons, due to is its position along their migratory route and its falconry tradition. The Saker falcon, listed as an endangered species, has seen a very rapid population decline in central Asia where it breeds. BirdLife International estimates that unsustainable capture for the falconry trade is one of the main reasons for this.

The BirdLife website mentions that around 4,000 Saker falcons are trapped each year for the Saudi Arabia market, 1,000 for Qatar and between 500 and 1,000 each for Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE. In 2002, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species imposed a trade ban on the UAE. There are 442 species of birds in the UAE, of which 46 are birds of prey. vtodorova@thenational.ae