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Twenty Years of ‘Flying High’ for Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme
June 04, 2014
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With the release of 117 iconic birds of prey in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Abu Dhabi is celebrating twenty consecutive years of one of its programmes to restore falcons to the wild. The first release took place in 1995 under the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme (SZFRP). Since then a total of 1,671 of the culturally significant species have been returned to the wild. To reflect the significance of the anniversary, this is the greatest-ever single-year release in the history of the programme, which is supervised by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi....

With the release of 117 iconic birds of prey in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Abu Dhabi is celebrating twenty consecutive years of one of its programmes to restore falcons to the wild. The first release took place in 1995 under the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme (SZFRP). Since then a total of 1,671 of the culturally significant species have been returned to the wild. To reflect the significance of the anniversary, this is the greatest-ever single-year release in the history of the programme, which is supervised by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD). 

Commenting on the anniversary, H.E. Mohamed Al Bowardi, Managing Director of EAD, who has led the programme since its inception, said: “It was his passion for the natural world which inspired the late Sheikh Zayed to establish Abu Dhabi’s falcon release and captive breeding programme. That we are able to honour his legacy with this twentieth anniversary is due to the patronage and commitment of H.H. Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, H.H. Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of EAD. Their commitment means the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme continues to fly high, both in terms of conservation and in the continued preservation of our cultural identity.”

H.E. Al Bowardi was on hand to witness the release along with H.E. Dr. Mugheer Al Khaili, Chairman of the Health Authority – Abu Dhabi and Board Member of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC), H.E. Majid Al Mansouri, Board Member of IFHC, Brigadier (Rtd.) Mukhtar Ahmed, President of Falcon Foundation International from Pakistan and Dr. Margit Muller, Director of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. They were joined by a delegation from Kazakhstan including the Governor of Kurchum, the Governor and Deputy Governor of Ust-Kamenogorsk, the Chairman of the Forestry and Hunting Reserve Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, the Head of Natural Resources within the Office of the Governor of East Kazakhstan and the Deputy Akym of the Mangystau Province.   

Brigadier (Rtd.) Mukhtar, who was present at the first falcon release in 1995, commented on the occasion by saying: “This is a very special anniversary and I am as delighted to be present now as I was twenty years ago to witness the release of these special birds.”

Of the 117 birds released in Kazakhstan this year, 99 were Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) and 18 were Saker falcons (Falco cherrug). All the peregrines were released in the west of Kazakhstan near the Caspian Sea, while the Saker falcons were set free in the east of Kazakhstan on the southern edge of the Altai Mountains. Releases over the past twenty years have not been limited to this Central Asian country. Under the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme, birds have also been released in Pakistan, Iran and Kyrgyzstan. However, as a result of many years of monitoring, Kazakhstan has been identified as providing the best environment for the falcons to survive after their release. The country is an ideal location to release falcons because its mountains and plains are situated within the falcons’ migration range and host prey essential for falcons to breed and prosper.  

The falcons, which were donated to the programme throughout the past year by local falconers or had been confiscated by authorities due to violations of laws and regulations, undergo complete medical testing and extensive training before being released. In addition to scientifically measuring wings, feathers and feet, all falcons were tagged with microchips at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, which was established by EAD in 1999 and is charged with medical oversight of the programme. Seventy-three of the falcons were donated by H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. All the birds received a final physical examination on the morning of their release. All the birds were tagged with identification rings, and four peregrine falcons and five saker falcons were fitted with solar-powered satellite transmitters to monitor their flight paths and to monitor their survival. The programme uses cutting-edge technology to study the migration patterns of falcons and inform continually ensure survival.

Previous studies have demonstrated that some falcons travel thousands of kilometres as part of their annual migration. One peregrine traveled over 14,243 km in less than seven months. Upon release, it headed north to the Arctic Circle before returning south as the weather became colder. One Saker falcon is still being monitored three years after it was first released. So far it has been recorded travelling more than 21,000 km. In addition, the programme recorded a female Saker falcon for more than five years and three months. 

Data from monitoring also indicates that survival rates of rehabilitated falcons at least matches the survival rates of those falcons born in the wild. Survival rates of wild-born falcons are low, with mortality especially high in the first few months after hatching.

The falcons were released in line with traditional hunting practices. For centuries, local falconers captured wild falcons in the Arabian Peninsula during their autumn migration southward between breeding grounds in Central Asia and wintering grounds mainly in Africa. Historically, these wild-caught falcons were trained and used during winter months to hunt Houbara, Stone curlew and hare, the preferred quarry species wintering in Arabia. In spring, when quarry species became scarcer, and started to migrate back to their breeding sites, falcons were returned to the wild. In respect of this tradition, local falconers keep releasing some falcons every spring within the framework of SZFRP. 

Residents of Arabia were once dependent upon falconry to provide a vital supply of meat during the winter months. Beyond this simple tool for existence, falconry became the sport of emperors, kings and nobles. Today, falconry is practiced locally by those who are fuelled by a passion to maintain their heritage.

The importance of falconry was globally recognised in 2010 when it was listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage to Humanity. Commenting on its place in local culture, H.E. Al Bowardi said: “Traditional falconry is an essential element of our cultural heritage. Through its teachings, generations of falconers have learnt to respect nature, value conservation, and it strengthens their relationship to our country and its vast desert environment. The programme proves that preserving culture and promoting conservation go hand-in-hand forming a partnership of mutual benefit. Today most falconers are conservationists, following in the footsteps of the man who is our inspiration, Sheikh Zayed.” 

The Shiekh Zayed Falcon Release Programme is an example of organisations working together to deliver positive outcomes on behalf of the environment - a key feature of Abu Dhabi’s approach to conservation. In this case, EAD supervised the development of SZFRP; ADFH provided medical supervision and expertise; logistical, ecological and technical support for the release was provided by IFHC, which also oversees conservation of one of the falconers’ most-prized preys: the Houbara bustard. Commenting on this, H.E. Al Bowardi said: “Abu Dhabi is leading the way in conservation of falcons and the tradition of falconry; our pioneering approach is producing tangible success and providing a strong foundation for the future preservation of species in the wild.”

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