By Agence France-Presse
The king motions for the white falcon to be brought closer and reaches out to stroke its chest, smiling as the bird blindly swivels its head, a hood covering its eyes.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin this month engaged in some falcon diplomacy on a Middle East tour, gifting prized gyrfalcons to Saudi King Salman and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, a falconry enthusiast.
In Russia, however, Arab interest in falcons has a dark side, with out-of-control poaching and smuggling to the Gulf region, where they find an eager market thanks to deep-rooted hunting traditions.
Gyrfalcons, the largest species of the predator once prized by Russia’s tsars, breed in northern climates and are sought after for their size and intelligence.
Now a massive Kremlin-backed project to breed and export gyrfalcons, or gyrs, has alarmed scientists as a possible future scheme to smuggle wild birds.
Gyrs are not endangered, but trade in the birds and their cross-border shipment require permission from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
They are protected in Russia, where the illegal capture of gyrs can lead to a four-year prison term.
Poachers lure falcons to snares with live bait, then swaddle and hood them.
Smugglers stuff the birds into old radios, car seats, or even down their trousers, before boarding a plane or crossing the border by car, according to official reports.
Many of the birds do not survive the trip to the Gulf. Others die from disease in the desert climate, but enough reach buyers — not at fairs but at invitation-only sales in private homes, says US-based breeder Brad Wood, who sells falcons to Arab clients.
“Wild-trapped gyrs are the forbidden fruit” and fetch up to $100,000 (90,000 euros), he said.
“Most of us breeders know that many young Russian gyrs have been smuggled from Russia to the Middle East” to hunt and breed, often to produce heat-resistant hybrids.
Gyr specialist Yevgeny Lobkov said poaching on an “industrial scale” has gone on for decades in Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka region, where a higher percentage of gyrs are white, fetching higher prices.
Lobkov estimated that hundreds are taken every year from Kamchatka, where he works. Poachers are well-equipped and work out in the open, parking their cars along major roads.
Smuggling cases rarely reach trial. In 2013 a man was caught by Russian customs with 29 birds but disappeared after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) embassy paid his bail, local media reported.