Wings of a scandal: Saudi princes stopped trying to take rare falcons out of Russia

Photo: Reuters / Jumana El-Heloueh
The seizure of 49 rare birds at Russian customs may stir up a diplomatic scandal between Russia and Saudi Arabia, as two members of the Saudi royal family are involved.

­Russia’s environmental protection agency, Rosprirodnadzor, has refused to grant a re-export license to the princes for the export of 49 falcons to their home country.

Prince Mohammed bin Turki bin Saud Al-Kabeer and Prince Saud Bin Bader Bin Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud took part in a falconry demo in Russia's Republic of Kalmykia, near the Caspian Sea. The princes displayed 49 birds – which they owned, an official customs document said.

But according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), some of the birds were brought to Russia in a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The WWF claims that nine of the birds belong to a rare species and had been illegally smuggled from Russia on a prior occasion.

The Saudi princes actually smuggled sixteen birds into Russia, and 49 are now being illegally taken back, Oleg Mitvol of the Green Alliance, an environmentalist group, stated via his Twitter, raising further controversy in the Russian media.

Russian poachers are known to sell falcons for as little as  $1,000, while Saudi price tags for the birds can reach as high as $50,000, Mitvol told Life News.

One of the Saudi nationals involved is actually the country's undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry, Kommersant reports, noting the possibility that his name in the official document was misspelled.

Due to diplomatic immunity, the princes cannot be detained, but Russian custom officers are “trying to prevent the princes from flying off by every means possible,” a Rosprirodnadzor spokesman was quoted as saying by Life News.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has sent a note to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Moscow in connection with the incident, but embassy officials have given no comment on the issue.

The blue-blooded royalty of the Gulf countries are known to be avid lovers of falconry, spending huge sums of money on the rare birds.

Some sides of the falcon trade involve illegal wildlife trafficking. Recently, seven falcons were reportedly seized by Pakistani customs officials as a passenger tried to smuggle them to Bahrain.

Earlier in November, WWF Russia reported an attempt to smuggle 29 falcons to Arab Gulf countries from the Republic of Khakassia, in south-central Siberia.

The smuggled birds, which include rare saker falcons, may be confiscated by a court decision and then either set free or taken to falcon breeding centers, a WWF spokesman said.