Middle East
8 Sep 2016

Kuwaiti coast guards foil bid to smuggle at-risk bustards for falconry trade

Asian Houbara © The International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC)
Asian Houbara © The International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC)
By Majd Abu Zaghlan

Earlier this month, coast guards in Kuwait intercepted a ship attempting to smuggle 100 Asian Houbara Chlamydotis macqueenii, a bustard recognized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The species is threatened by hunting and trapping throughout its range, particularly in its wintering habitat of Pakistan and Iran. The bird is in high demand in the region for use as live prey in falconry training.

In a press statement issued by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior, the Public Relations and Security Media Department explained that the Coast Guard Department was inspecting foreign ships that were heading to Doha Port, when they discovered the Iranian ship with its load of birds. Also discovered on board were 16 falcons of various species, mostly the Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus.

Kuwait Environment Protection Society (KEPS– BirdLife International’s Kuwaiti partner) investigated the case and confirmed that all the birds on board had been poached from the wild and were being transported without any legal documents. The offenders are currently in custody and will be dealt with according to Kuwaiti law. Commenting on the issue, Wejdan Al-Oqab, KEPS Secretary General, says “There are hundreds of birds, including Houbara and eagles, illegally killed every year”.

“We are working hard to protect threatened animal populations and work closely with law enforcement agencies to protect biodiversity and enforce national and international wildlife laws to ensure that the trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival”.

Numbers of Asian Houbara have fallen dramatically in recent decades. The species is threatened by a number of factors, including the degradation of their vegetation habitat by livestock grazing, but hunting remains the biggest threat to its future.

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Asian houbara  © Sergey Yeliseev

The species is protected under international wildlife treaties. The Asian Houbara bustard is roughly the same size as a turkey and typically has a large, speckled sandy brown upper body, a creamy white underside and long legs, a slender neck and a wingspan that can reach 1.5 meters. Its colouring acts as camouflage in the desert and sandy plains, providing a challenge for hunters and their falcons.

The Houbara Bustard is the game bird of choice for Arab falconers, because it is a good match for the falcons. There is such strong demand for the bird in the region that some hunters are willing to use illicit means to acquire them.

 “We need to raise awareness to change attitudes towards endangered species and to control the channels of social media in which this illegal trade is now thriving” says Al-Oqab.

The overexploitation of Asian Houbaras has been a constant concern for bird conservationists for the past 30 years”, said Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International. “BirdLife itself has a project on the species in Uzbekistan which is producing important new evidence on the stresses the species faces but also on what needs to be done to save it. Hunters will have to bind themselves to quotas so that their traditional sport can become sustainable and be managed on a scientific basis. This is actually a win-win opportunity that hunters and conservationists should seize urgently.”