Millennium falcons: how Mongolian birds end up in Arabian countries
Choikhand Janchivlamdan from our Department of Geography was in Abu Dhabi last week for the 2nd International Falconry Conference, held as part of the week-long 3rd International Festival of Falconry.
Choikhand’s paper on ‘Developing a sustainable trade of Mongolian Saker Falcons’, which relates to her PhD work here in Leicester, was presented as part of the conference’s ‘Legal Controls on Falconry’ section. Other topics considered over the three-day event included ‘Raptor Health, First Aid and Re-habilitation’, ‘Falconry and Pest Control’, ‘Raptor Conservation Projects’ and ‘Managing the Public Image of Falconry’.
Although falconry in the UK is very much a minority hobby, it’s big business in some parts of the world with 78 countries represented at the conference. UNESCO recognises falconry as a ‘living cultural heritage’ and there is a great challenge in balancing the traditions and culture of falconry with biological and ecological factors, regulated through trade controls and other legislation. All of this was discussed at the Abu Dhabi conference.
Choikhand’s particular interest is the Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug), a popular hunting species, related to the Lanner, Lagger and Gyrfalcons. The wild population of Sakers ranges from Eastern Europe right across to China and was estimated (by Birdlife International in 2010) at between 9,600 and 17,000 breeding pairs – down from 13,000-27,000 pairs in 1990. Of these, somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 pairs were estimated to live in Mongolia with Russia, China and Kazakhstan accounting for most of the rest of the population.
The international Saker trade
Although Saker falcons can breed in captivity, Arabian falconers consider wild-sourced birds, captured as juveniles, to be superior and there is an export trade in the species from Mongolia to five countries: Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, UEA and Saudi Arabia.
Mongolian falcon trappers require a Government-issued permit to catch and export the birds and there is an annual quota which in recent years has dropped from 300 to 240 individuals. The international trade is overseen by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Earlier this year Choikhand prepared a paper on the topic for CITES which is available online as a PDF.
The best wild-caught birds can sell for anything up to US$10,000 so this is an important source of income for Mongolian trappers but obviously it is important to maintain a stable population within the country. Choikhand works for the Mongolian Government’s Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism (MNET) which undertook a detailed national survey of Sakers in June 2010 and found 8,000 birds suggesting that the national population is relatively stable.
MNET closely monitors Saker harvesting and export, checking on aspects such as trapping techniques and bird health as well as numbers. The Ministry has recently introduced an artificial nests project which allows juvenile birds to be harvested without affecting the main population.
Know your falcons: the Saker (Falco cherrug)
Female Sakers are 52-59cm long with a wingspan of about 39-42cm with males slightly smaller (42-52cm long, wing 35-39cm) as is common in birds of prey. The female birds reach sexual maturity after two years and lay 3-6 eggs.
In Mongolia the birds are found across a wide range of semi-desert and semi-forest areas, preying mostly on small mammals. Ironically, Sakers actually benefit from overgrazing as this boosts the population of one of their main prey species, Brandt’s Vole.