x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Saker Falcon numbers given an extra lift by barrels on poles

A breeding programme on the steppes of Mongolia has created a habitat for the endangered saker falcon.

An artificial nesting programme in Mongolia aims to increase the wild Saker falcon population. WAM
An artificial nesting programme in Mongolia aims to increase the wild Saker falcon population. WAM

ABU DHABI // The founders of the UAE and Mongolia had something in common. Both Sheikh Zayed and Genghis Khan adored the Saker Falcon.

A collection of metal barrels on poles overlooking Mongolia's steppes will ensure that this creature and other birds of prey get the chance they deserve.

Scientists have crossed the steppes of Mongolia to make the first survey of 5,250 artificial nests built as part of a Dh8.6 million breeding programme for birds of prey established by the UAE and Mongolian governments.

The five-year programme, implemented by the Environmental Agency - Abu Dhabi, the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre (WSCC) and International Wildlife Consultants (IWC), will benefit falcon enthusiasts across the continent.

Results from the first year are promising. Scientist found that 201 pairs of Saker Falcons (Falco cherrug), 177 Upland Buzzards (Buteo hemilasius), 171 Ravens (Corvus corax) and 83 Common Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) have bred in the first season in 5,000 artificial nests that overlook flatlands, where natural nests are scarce due to a lack of trees but where rodents, their favourite food, are found in ample supply.

"This is a great start," said Dr Nick Fox, the director of IWC. "Two hundred and one new pairs of sakers is almost equivalent to the entire population of this species breeding in the European Union and we predict that this figure will double over the next few years. Constructive management efforts are much more positive than legal controls that have been unenforceable."

Scientists will microchip and breed Saker Falcons that can be exported to the UAE and the Gulf under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Revenue from the sale of falcons will go to the Mongolian government to be reinvested in local communities.

The artificial nests will also benefit school projects and tourism. The nests are being built over an area of 25,000 square kilometres, and will become home to 500 pairs of Saker Falcons that will produce at least 1,500 chicks by 2015.

"Local herdsmen are delighted that the birds of prey are eating the rodents that can destroy grazing lands," said Gankhuyag Purev-Ochir, the project leader of the WSCC Mongolian team. "We are working closely with district leaders so that they can begin to take ownership of the project and gain local benefits."

Saker Falcon populations have struggled in Central Asian countries where they are threatened by habitat degradation, electrocution and trapping. Trafficked falcons, smuggled by gangs from Central Asia, can fetch enormous prices in the Gulf where they are prized for their ability to adapt to the desert's harsh climate.

Though Mongolia's Saker Falcon population is relatively stable, microchipping will help its preservation in Central Asian countries where border monitoring is difficult.

"The high occupancy levels indicate that there is a large population of non-breeding sakers in central Mongolia which had no nest sites and are now able to breed," said Dr Andrew Dixon, the head of research for IWC.

"It is unlikely that many of these birds have relocated from existing nesting sites elsewhere."

azacharias@thenational.ae