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    On my dawn walks in the desert during the winter months, I often encounter young Arabs crisscrossing the dunes and plains with their four-wheel drives, while they hang half out of their windows to observe the ground. What are they searching for? Bird tracks! The most eagerly wanted track is that of the houbara bustard. Another popular bird is the Stone curlew, locally called 'karwan'. The arrival of these birds on their winter migration heralds the start of the falcon-hunting season, an exciting time for many Arabs. As H.R.P. Dickson wrote in the nineteen fifties: "A season for rejoicing, the rains are close at hand and the houbara have arrived. They are verily like the manna of old, Allah's reward to those who have endured the summer heat".

   Falconry and the hunting of houbara are deeply ingrained in Arab traditions and culture, having been around for at least a thousand years. More than 700 years ago, descriptions of hunting houbara with falcons in Arabia were written by the falconer poet Ousama. Although falconers also hunted hares and karwan, the houbara was by far the most important quarry. It used to be a major source of food for people, especially when each winter the number of bustards increased as the birds migrated into the Arabian Peninsula from Asia . The President, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan told Wilfred Thesiger many years ago that 8 or 9 houbaras would be caught in a day by a good falcon during hunts from camel back. The birds were boiled or roasted and tasted a bit like a cross between a chicken and a duck.

   Nowadays houbara bustards are not hunted for food but for sport, because they provide an excellent challenge.

   "Our hunting trips accustom us to patience and endurance and are a source of satisfaction to us. We regard them as a means of achieving a degree of psychological equilibrium between sedentary urban life and that of the desert. The simple happiness this sport brings us fortifies us against the stresses and strains of our official duties", the President remarked in 1977.

   However this sport is under threat because the quarry is under threat of extinction. To understand what is happening, let us look at the houbara bustard in some more detail:

   The houbara is a member of a group of birds called bustards, belonging to the family Otididae. They are medium sized to very large terrestrial birds, chiefly inhabiting open plains and semi-desert regions of the world. Fossil records indicate that bustards originated in Africa - no bustard species are found in the New World . Of the 23 species and many subspecies of bustard some are still relatively common while others are extremely uncommon.

   A typical bustard has a short beak, a long slender neck, and a stout body with a short tail and stands on long legs with only three toes. They differ from most other birds in a number of ways such as: they have no crop for storing food and no preen gland with which to oil their feathers. Instead they are covered with powder down, which along with dust bathing helps to keep their feathers clean.

   Male bustards are usually larger than females. All bustards use fascinating displays during the mating season with which to attract females. The Kori Bustard (a very large and heavy bird) struts along with its head thrown back, its tail cocked, its wings twisted or drooping and its throat distended. Little Bustards on the other hand perform a jumping display whilst the Black Bustard performs graceful aerial displays in which it leaps and flies into the air and then pirouettes down to the ground. The houbara bustard has its own unique type of display, called a running display, in which the males strut around throwing their heads back along their bodies to reveal white fans of breast feathers.

   The houbara is the most common bustard in the world and has the widest distribution. Of the three major subspecies, the one that occurs in Asia , and therefore in the UAE, is MacQueen's Bustard (Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii). This bustard is mainly migratory, wintering in the region from Pakistan to Arabia and breeding in the northern regions of Turkmenistan , Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan . Some houbara wintering in the UAE travel several thousand kilometers from their breeding grounds. During migration they stop regularly to feed and often walk many kilometers, trotting or walking with the typical bustard gait and leaving distinctive tracks. It is this behaviour that is part of the cause of the decline of their numbers as they are poached during their migration to be used as training birds for falcons, or for food.

   The houbara bustards are well adapted to arid environments and are able to survive for long periods without food or water. They rarely drink in the wild as they gain most of the liquid they require form the dew on plants as well as from the animals that they eat. They are opportunistic herbivores with prey that includes small mammals, reptiles and snakes as well as invertebrates (locusts, beetles, ants, snails, caterpillars, termites and even scorpions) and plant material such as seeds, shoots, leaves and flowers.

   Their mottled feathers give them good camouflage and they are secretive and cautious birds. Although they are strong fliers, they prefer to run or to avoid detection by taking cover under a bush or crouching flat on the ground. On the ground they can reach speeds of up to 40 km per hour while in flight they can go 65 km per hour. Once airborne the houbara tries to avoid being caught by a falcon by twisting and turning at great speed and ejecting a sticky jet of foul-smelling green liquid towards the purser. The poet Ousama, mentioned earlier, wrote in the eleventh century:

   "For when the saker comes near it, it flies down to the ground; and as the saker makes turns around it the bustard receives it with its tail; if it comes near it, it drops its excreta upon it, sprinkles it on its feathers, fills up its two eyes and flies away. But if this action fails, the saker overpowers it." (Translation by G. Potter, 1929)

   The breeding season of the wild houbara is from November to June, depending on the geographical location, and nesting may only take place if conditions are favourable. Rainfall is important for the development of vegetation and food animals, after winters with little or no rain the houbara is less likely to breed. Most breeding occurs in the former Soviet Union . On average a female lays 2-3 eggs, which are incubated for 21-23 days and the young fledge at 35 days, but remain with the parent quite a bit longer. Outside the breeding season the bustards form small flocks that move to where food is available.

   In the mid-eighties it became clear that the number of houbara bustards in the UAE and elsewhere were declining rapidly. This led to the establishment of the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) in Abu Dhabi . At fist the Centre concentrated on finding out more about the "private life" of houbara bustards. But soon it became apparent that research was needed on what happened to the houbara outside the UAE. Since Kazakhstan hosts the majority of the breeding houbara in Asia and is used as a stopover by all houbara migrating to breeding grounds further east, it is a key country in the biological cycle of the Asian houbara. Therefore NARC started to monitor trends in the houbara population of Kazakhstan . A constant and important decline in this population was measured between autumn 1998 and spring 2001. The relative density of breeding birds dropped by 48% and 49% respectively. An estimate was made of the hunting and poaching pressure on the migration route by using satellite radio-tracking of birds that had been fitted with micro-transmitters. Between 1994 and 2001 41 satellite-tracked birds were followed. They had traveled all over the distribution range of the species. The total mortality rate of adult-sized birds was 29.3% per year, and three quarters of this could be explained by hunting and poaching. It was estimated that in order to maintain a viable population of the birds no more than 7.2% of the adults could be lost to hunting. However, currently as much as 20.8% is taken. This calculation indicates that the actual level of hunting and poaching is leading to the disappearance of houbara in the wild in the near future. "Worst case" scenario predicts extinction in the wild by 2015! Large numbers of houbara are trapped for use in training the falcons to hunt (mainly in Pakistan and Iran ) and an estimated 6000 to 7000 birds are lost this way every year.

   The various sources used by NARC to compute this estimate (population monitoring in Kazakhstan and population dynamics derived from satellite-tracking as well a study of the breeding successes) strongly agree in this prediction. This situation is not compatible with the continuation of falconry as it is practised now. If the art of Arab falconry is to continue in the future, concerted efforts for conservation must be made by various governments and organisations.

What is being proposed to achieve this conservation?

NARC has drawn up some proposals for consideration. Here are few of them:

-     The Range States (countries where houbara occur, both hunting and non-hunting countries) must implement a monitoring system for houbara population and habitat.

-      Range states should review their national legislation concerning the species and align it with the conservation practices in place.

-      Range states should establish and implement a management plan for their houbara population and its habitat and coordinate the management of the hunting areas and activities.

-      Hunting area and hunting periods should be restricted to non-breeding areas and non-breeding season.

-      Conservation plans should be managed through international agreements.

-      Falconers should be organised into associations that are responsible and ready to participate openly in conservation efforts.

-      Falconers need to provide information about their activities.

-      Falconers should refrain from using wild-caught houbara for falcon training purposes and help fight the illegal trade in houbara. (Just a day before this article was written, some 18 houbara were confiscated in Ras al Khaimah, having been brought in illegally from Oman . They were sent to NARC's breeding station at Sweihan to recover from their ordeal and be treated for disease, before they will be returned to the wild later in the season.)

How can these objectives be reached?

   Conservation needs to be aimed both at protecting the birds in the wild and by breeding birds in captivity. The latter activity will provide birds for training and hunting as well as for restocking of the wild population. Breeding areas and breeding populations should be strictly protected and hunting should be restricted to hunting in a limited way with falcons only. Managed hunting should only be done during the months October through January. The rest of the year the birds should be able to spend their migration and breeding periods in peace. Protecting the habitat means also protecting the prey species. Both the hare and the 'karwan' populations are declining mainly due to habitat loss and over-hunting. Alternative prey should be provided for training falcons, such as ducks, pigeons and gulls. Special research should be carried out in the various countries where houbara occur:  China and Kazakhstan should study the breeding biology, migration patterns, and distribution as well as population dynamics. The countries through which the birds migrate ( Kazakhstan , Pakistan , Iran ) should monitor the impact of trapping and hunting as well as the illegal trade in houbara. In the wintering grouds ( Saudi Arabia , Oman , Yemen and the UAE) distribution, migration and trends in the population should be monitored. Several rehabilitation centres should be set up in each of these countries for confiscated houbara. Some of these proposals have already found implementation. Others still need to be carried out.

   In Sweihan NARC experts are breeding the houbara successfully, and in various other places throughout the country more breeding centres are being set up. Education campaigns of falconers are being carried out by organisations such as ERWDA (the Environment Research and Wildlife Development Agency). The crackdown on the illegal trade in houbara and falcons is paying off, although in some instances the trade is still going on "underground".

   It will be gratifying to see both, houbara and karwan, leaving their distinctive tracks again in the desert, to see them strutting around observing their surroundings with their keen eyes to find their insect prey. The continuation of the ancient Arab art of falconry can be assured through this massive program of breeding in captivity, research, international cooperation, protection from illegal trade and poaching as well as habitat conservation.

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