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Born to fly: precious falcons rescued

October 05, 2012

ISLAMABAD, Oct 4: An attempt which can only be called bizarre, to smuggle two Saker falcons out of Pakistan was foiled by airport security forces.

The falcons were detected, when an Airport Security Force (ASF) official decided to frisk a Kuwaiti national wearing the traditional Arab dress.

In hindsight it seems like providence was at work because usually Pakistani security forces are in awe of Arab visitors and are reluctant to frisk them.

The smuggler obviously aware of this traditional mindset tried to exploit the situation to his advantage by dressing up in the traditional Arab attire.

During the frisking, the airport official jumped back, when he touched something, fearing it might be some kind of a suicide jacket, only to discover that he was hiding the two birds in his dress. The smuggler was obviously trying to kill two birds with one stone, but luck seemed to have run out on him.

Everyone was horrified to discover that the birds were strapped/tied to the legs of a man roughly 22 to 24 years old, who had swaddled, blindfolded with leather hoods and put the birds of prey in plastic bags.

“The Kuwaiti national almost made it through, if the official had not frisked him,” said an excited District Wildlife Officer Rawalpindi, Khalid Mehmood who was immediately called by the ASF to the airport.

According to wildlife officials, this was the first time they had come across such an unusual way to smuggle birds. In most cases, birds are in cages and put in cargo.

To most wildlife officers, the method of smuggling was brutal, especially for a species as delicate as the Saker falcon or cherrug as called in the local language.

The wildlife official, Khalid Mehmood, said the case was then taken to the court of Magistrate Ahmad Hassan Ranjha, who slapped Rs30,000 fine on Mohammad Amaar Al Ajmi and directed the wildlife department that he would personally release the birds into the wild.

At 3pm on Thursday evening, Ahmad Hassan Ranjha joined the wildlife department where he was thrilled to watch the beautiful slate grey raptors with white dotted chests, fly away to freedom into the skies above Ayub Park Rawalpindi.

This release was the second since the first lot of four falcons were released in March 2012. The birds were in their cages in the cargo section and were being smuggled into Pakistan.

“The export and import of birds with declining population is banned under law. Saker falcons are one of them,” said a Pakistan Wetlands official, Nasir Malik, elaborating on how the migratory falcons were trapped.

“They are very easily trapped across Sindh and Balochistan, when they fly over Pakistan during winters from Siberia and Central Asia,” he said, explaining how the provincial wildlife officers are usually involved in trapping the birds, rather than protecting them.

According to the official, the falcons are smuggled into middle eastern countries where they are sold for high prices and used for hunting endangered birds such as the houbara bustard.

Although the two birds were in good condition, some wildlife officials wondered if they should first be put into rehabilitation to ensure their health before being released into the wild.

Director, Bio-Diversity WWF, Uzma Khan said: “Protocol says that under such circumstances the birds be placed in rehab. But the birds were obviously fine which was why the wildlife department thought it best to let them go.”

Uzma Khan said that falcons were delicate, high altitude flying birds that could suffer tremendously in captivity even for brief periods.

According to the WWF official, Lahore Zoo started losing a falcon (out of the 15 to 20 birds that were rescued earlier this year) almost every week due to disease in captivity or injury while flying in small spaces because the court was taking too long to decide their fate.