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The rare Saker falcon from Russia illegally caught and sold in Pakistan

31 october 2018
How WWF Russia and WWF-Pakistan were saving the rare bird: the story of investigation and poachers’ prosecution

A Saker Falcon fitted with a satellite tracking device by WWF Russia for research purposes was caught by trappers and sold out to the wildlife traffickers in October. The ornithologists have been following the bird since summer when the falcon was tagged with GPS/GSM-transmitter in Siberia, Russia.

The bird was a part of the unique project of Altai-Sayan Programme of WWF Russia and Russian Raptors Research and Conservation Network to restore the population of the Altai falcon (Falco cherrug altaicus) in Russia. The Altai falcons have been almost caught out by poachers due to the outstanding exterior and dark morph (colour) that have a high reputation among Central Asian falconers. 

Igor Karyakin, Russian Raptors Research and Conservation Network, Sibecocentre NGO:

Illegal catching and trafficking of the Saker falcon we’ve following through the tracker proves that the fortune of the Russian Saker falcons will remain tragic as long as the hunting with falcons stays popular in Arabic countries and the illegal wildlife market will bring enormous profits to its traders. Today about 90% of all Saker falcons poached in the wild are bought by falconers from Arab states such as the Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia where the hunting with falcons is very popular. The market is insatiable as the Arabs have the tradition to release the birds in the wild every year but according to the GPS research most all birds die of stress.

The Saker falcon poached in Pakistan was tagged in Siberia in summer and received the number 181149. It was the part of the Saker falcon restoration project that have been implemented by WWF Russia and partners since 2017. The ornithologist raise the Saker falcon hatched in captivity in the nests of the wild Saker falcons. 

The Saker falcon lost in Pakistan while tagging in summer in Siberia
The ornithologist tagging the falcon
The falcon brought back to the nest after tagging
The falcon on the nest with his brothers and sisters.
The Saker falcon tagged in Siberia
(c) Igor Karyakin, Elvira Nikolenko
We tracked that our falcon migrated to Pakistan in October and the later the tracker showed the awkward movement of the bird as if it was kept in the same place. Experience enough we realized that the bird was obviously caught and kept. Unfortunately, Pakistan where Russian falcons migrate is famous for its poaching on raptors and illegal trafficking of the birds. This black business thrives in almost every Asian country and in Russia as well. The falcons are poached and sold to the Arab states as the sheikhs are ready to pay any price for the bird. It stimulates the offer in the poor countries among local people, says Igor Karyakin, Russian Raptors Research and Conservation Network, Sibecocentre NGO.
The place where the saker falcon was kept
(c) Igor Karyakin

As soon as WWF Russia experts received the information they immediately contacted the colleagues from WWF-Pakistan and the WWF partners informed their colleagues. 

It was important to track, locate and release the bird before the battery of the tracker was low. We’ve been in constant contact with WWF colleagues from Pakistan. Several days the tracker sent the signal from one and the same place near Loralai village. The Google maps helped to locate the spot and it seemed that the bird was kept in some kind of a shed but later moved to Zkhob, says Alexander Karnaukhov, the Senior Coordinator of WWF Altai-Sayan Programme.
We immediately contacted our colleagues in WWF’s regional offices and government provincial wildlife departmentspartners in law enforcement, governmental bodies and partners. Thanks to the tracker we managed to track the bird’s location. The latest coordinates showed that the bird might bewas taken to Dera Ismail Khan place where the illegal wildlife market is located but later it turned out that the falcon was taken to Kulachi area.

Several days past the first news after investigation, common monitoring and joint working of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department and WWF-Pakistan, the parties got the information. Unfortunately, it became clear that the tracker was removed from the falcon and the bird sold to the Arab traffickers at the black market at the price of several thousand US dollars. 

The tracker removed form the falcon, the device confiscated from the traffickers
(c) WWF-Pakistan
In fact, any falconer can absolutely legally buy the falcon in breeding centers at the price several times lower. In Russia there are minimum two falcon nurseries. Unfortunately, Arab falconers keep on believing the wild falcons are better hunters and buy the illegally poached birds at the crazy price. However, it is clear that, for instance, our Saker falcon they caught and bought is the bird from captivity and not a wild bird. He was supposed to roam freely but now became the toy for Arab sheikh. And at the same time the bird was easily be bought from the breeding center. We thank the colleagues from WWF Russia, WWF-Pakistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department and government of Pakistan for cooperation.

The returning of Saker falcons (with English subtitles):

The Saker is a large falcon which inhabits the open expanses of Eurasia. The Saker is a favorite hunting bird of Eastern falconers. For centuries falconry connoisseurs have been inspired by the beauty of the Saker’s attacks on large birds – capable of high speeds, the falcon takes off at an acute angle, flies upwards a few metres before plummeting sharply, almost vertically, and striking its victim with all claws thrust in front of its strained legs. Falconers usually set Sakers loose on bustards which are several times larger than the Saker itself, but in the wild Sakers catch larges types of ground squirrel and pika.

The Altai Saker falcon restoration project in Russia has been implemented since 2017 by Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network and Sibecocentre NGO in partnership with Altai-Sayan Programme of WWF Russia, World Around Foundation of Siberian Corporation, Ubsunurskaya Kotlovina Nature Reserve, Sailugemsky National Park, Khakassky Nature Reserve, Vitapshere and Altai-falcon rare birds’ nurseries, The Altai Project/Earth Island Institute, Ecotone и Herman Ottó Institute (Hungary).

The project tested the method of raising the chicks hatched in captivity in nurseries in the nests of the wild pairs of Saker falcons. The chicks are carefully brought from the nurseries and put into the nests of the birds that have their native chicks. The parents do not distinguish the chicks from their own native ones despite the difference in color and size, feed and raise them. For two years 39 chicks have been successfully placed into the nests and raised by wild birds. The loss of the “foster” chicks is comparable with the same of native chicks that proves that the chicks from captivity easily adapt to the wild and the restoration method is effective.

In 2018 the ornithologist with WWF support assessed the number of Sacker falcons in Altai-Sayan ecoregion and monitored 1185 (895–1475) nesting pairs which showed the decline in numbers by 12,6% for the last 10 years in Russia. In Russia the main threats for Saker falcons remain: poaching and wildlife trafficking, electrocution and shrinking of habitats. 

For additional information please contact
Altai-Sayan ecoregional press-officer
Senior Project Coordinator