Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 August 2019

Saker falcons making a return in Bulgaria thanks to Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi funding

Since 2015, nearly 40 young birds have been released by Green Balkans, a federation of non-governmental Bulgarian nature conservation organisations.
Saker chicks in Bulgaria are part of a recovery aided by EAD and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Courtesy Green Balkans
Saker chicks in Bulgaria are part of a recovery aided by EAD and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Courtesy Green Balkans

With the help of UAE funding, conservationists are increasing Saker falcon numbers in Bulgaria.

The species was once abundant in the southeastern European country but is now almost extinct. The bird is also important to the UAE’s heritage and was in the past commonly trapped by hunters in the autumn and released in spring.

Since 2015, nearly 40 young birds have been released by Green Balkans, a federation of non-governmental Bulgarian nature conservation organisations.

The birds were raised at the group’s facility in the town of Stara Zagora, with expert help from International Wildlife Consultants (IWC), a British company.

Specialising in falcon breeding and research, IWC has long-standing links with falconers in the UAE. Since 2006, it also worked on a global programme to preserve Sakers, funded by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD).

While some of the work took place in Mongolia and China, the programme also focused on the European Saker falcon, which was threatened by changes in agriculture practices and poaching.

“This was especially true in Bulgaria, where the species disappeared in the late 1990s at the time of [political] transition,” said Dr Andrew Dixon, head of research at IWC. “At that time there was essentially very little law enforcement and the people were taking the falcons to sell and they drove the bird towards extinction.”

More recently, changes in agriculture practices have made the problem worse, said Ivaylo Klisurov, manager of the Wildlife Rehabilitation and Breeding Centre at Green Balkans.

This is the case because the increased reliance on monoculture - a growing pattern in which large blocks of land are dedicated to a single crop - has destroyed habitats for the European ground squirrel, a rodent that is аcommon food source for Saker falcons.

This has added more pressure on Saker populations and while the occasional bird may still seen in the country, there are very few, if any, breeding pairs.

“If they even exist, they can never create a viable population again,” said Mr Klisurov.

This prompted the start of restocking activities funded by EAD. The programme was supposed to help release 100 birds over five years, starting in 2015 when 19 young birds were released in a protected area near Stara Zagora.

In the spring of last year, 20 juveniles were introduced into so-called hack cages, a preliminary step before full release. However, the funding stopped due to budget cuts across UAE government agencies.

When asked, EAD said that the programme’s research component had achieved its objectives.

This is when the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund stepped in with a grant of £10,350 (Dh47,000), which helped to complete the releases and sustain the remaining captive population.

“The Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund provides financial support to species conservation projects across the world and is particularly interested in supporting projects that focus on endangered species,” said the fund.

Since 2009, it has allocated more than US$15 million (Dh55.1m) to more than 1,500 projects. Of those, more than US$400,000 have been given to project focusing on birds of prey, the fund said.

The Bulgaria Saker falcon programme has other donors such as Armeec Insurance, a local insurance company. The work will continue but more funding is needed, said Dr Dixon.

“There is a baseline cost of doing the absolute minimum of breeding the birds and releasing them each year. Then there are other costs depending on how we release them and how much survey work we do and whether we put up artificial nests to encourage them in a particular area,” he said.

“We are really interested in Arab falconers putting something back into conservation of Saker falcons to show that the falconry is not exploitation of wild birds ... that there is something put back into the system.”

Meanwhile, Mr Klisurov said he is optimistic the programme can help bring the species back to Bulgaria.

The released birds are still too young to start breeding but the scientists have some data showing they are so far surviving in the wild. Ultimately, the future of this species also depends on implementing more sustainable agriculture practices in Bulgaria, said Mr Klisurov.

newsdesk@thenational.ae

Updated: February 7, 2017 04:00 AM

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