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Flight of the falcon

December 02, 2012

Bhagwandas explores illegal bird trade

Last week the customs officials seized seven falcons of an endangered species that were to be smuggled to Bahrain through Karachi airport. They said the same number of falcons had been brought into the country from Bahrain a day before by the passenger and he was taking them back the very next day, which raised suspicions. Later, when the measurements were taken they were found different from the ones taken at the time of their arrival. These birds also did not match the photographs of the birds taken on their arrival a day earlier.

Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative but outlawed businesses around the globe. In Pakistan, smuggling is carried out both to and from the country with two kinds of smugglers involved. First, those who want to make a quick buck by using doctored government documents as well as of international organisations monitoring the trans-boundary movement of wildlife species. Second, the blue blooded royalty of the Gulf countries who take out rare and endangered wildlife species for sport — their objective is not to earn money, rather they spend huge amounts on their hobby.

A couple of years ago, a wildlife trafficker sold two lions brought in from Indonesia to the Lahore zoo, without the mandatory import permit from the federal government. The lions were later confiscated by the customs. Around a year back a wildlife trafficker brought in lions from Europe with the help of PIA, without proper documentation. These too were confiscated by customs and sent to the Karachi zoo, while PIA was fined. However, in both instances action was only taken when the issue was highlighted by the media.

Who doesn’t know that the Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif’s son Salman Sharif got an import permit, in relaxation of a ban from the federal government and imported a Siberian tiger to be kept at the family’s Raiwind residence. When the issue became public knowledge, it was donated to the government.

Export of houbara bustard and falcons is banned under Pakistan’s conservation laws, but the Arab passion for falconry has wiped out entire populations of houbara. As houbara bustards descend on the country’s desert and arid regions, they are trapped in large numbers and smuggled out to the Gulf States to be trained for falconry.

Similarly, migratory peregrine and saker species of falcons are also trapped and smuggled out to the Gulf for astronomical amounts. In the past, the Gulf hunters used to purchase young falcons every year but as the falcons grow older, they become useless for hunting and need to be replaced with younger birds.

To conserve the falcon population, the government issues re-export permits to the hunters, so that they can bring in their own falcons and take them back after hunting. But what actually happens is that the old ones are left here and young ones taken instead. The customs officials have no knowledge of wildlife identification; besides, the royal hunters travel with state level protocol so the customs and immigration officials are obliged to process their documentation smoothly. Microchipping falcons can ensure that the same bird is being taken out but the facility is yet to be adopted.

A few years back a UAE hunting party landed at the Peshawar airport and wanted to travel by road to lower Punjab for hunting. The wildlife department, suspicious of their intention as one of the major falcon markets is located in Peshawar, insisted that the falcons could only go by road after being microchipped, but the hunters disagreed and took away their birds by air.

In another incident, a Saudi hunter brought his falcons to Karachi and travelled back and forth to western Balochistan by road and after a couple of days flew back to Saudi Arabia to avoid customs hassles. The only logical explanation seems to be that the falcons had travelled here to refresh the stock.

With close coordination between the customs and the wildlife departments, animal trafficking can be checked. Wildlife experts posted at major entry and exit points can identify the species and tally permits.