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26 Nov, 2009 05:45

WWF struggles against Russian falcon black market

The Gyrfalcon – the largest of all falcon species and a status symbol for royal Arab families – continues to be a popular item for poachers trying to smuggle the noble creature out of Russia.

Annually, at least 40 Gyrfalcons are prevented from being illegally taken out of Russia. The smugglers usually attempt to export the bird to the Middle East, where its superb hunting abilities are put to use in the desert. Falconry has great importance in Arab culture, where sheikhs are obliged by their status to have hunting birds.

According to Russian law, undeclared goods worth over $10,000 entail a criminal charge. Since there are no exceptions or separate laws regarding wild animals, Gyrfalcons are worth enough to get a smuggler a criminal record.

Authorities work jointly with research and wildlife conservation organizations to curtail the practice.

We put a lot of effort in educating customs workers on how to tackle the problem of contraband wild animals. There is even a special course in the customs academy. We give lectures to them,” says Aleksay Vaysman at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Birds that are removed by the customs officials are then handed over to the All-Russian Research Institute for Nature Protection. There the birds have time to recuperate.

The birds are transported in special masks covering their eyes so they do not panic during the trip. We have to keep them on them for a while because they are still in shock. Our main goal is to make sure the birds are healthy before they are released back into the wild. Many birds caught by poachers arrive here dead or do not survive quarantine,” explains Aleksandr Sorokin, scientist at the Research Institute.

Falcons have weak immune systems, so despite the concerted efforts to preserve the birds, only a few make it to maturity. The only natural predators for Gyrfalcon are the Golden Eagles, but even they rarely engage with the falcons. Thus, humankind remains the key threat to this endangered species.