India Naga tribe pledges to protect falcons

India’s Naga tribespeople have pledged to protect a falcon which they have traditionally hunted for meat.

The Amur falcons are hunted for meat in India's Nagaland state

The Amur falcons are hunted for meat in India’s Nagaland state

Three villages in Wokha district in Nagaland state have signed a resolution to penalise offenders who hunt Amur falcons.

They are located in the Doyang area, which is the main roosting site for the birds during their flight from Siberia to Africa.

Tens of thousands of these falcons have been hunted every year for their meat.

Hunters use fishing nets near a reservoir in Doyang to trap the birds when they come to roost.

The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has signed an agreement with a local non-governmental organisation and leaders of Pangti, Asshaa and Sungro villages to protect the migratory birds.

“This is a significant milestone for conserving these birds who have been threatened because they are hunted in thousands when they pass through Nagaland,” says Sunil Kyarong, regional head of WTI.

Under the agreement, local tribespeople will set up groups to keep a watch on the roosting or foraging sites of the falcon, build watch towers to curb poaching and begin an awareness campaign to protect the birds.

Those who hunt and kill the bird will also be fined up to 5,000 rupees ($80, £48).

A local NGO, Natural Nagas, has also helped over 30 families involved in hunting falcons for a living to set up poultry farms as an alternative source of livelihood.

In a report last year, wildlife NGO Conservation India estimated that 12,000 to 14,000 Amur falcons were being killed in Nagaland every year.

“India is a signatory to the Convention on Migratory Species and is duty bound to prevent this massacre, provide safe passage, as well as draw up appropriate action plans for the long-term conservation of this bird,” the group said.


Falconers exhibit birds of prey performances at Medieval Fair

Craig Bamford holds a saker falcon at the Royal Gauntlet Birds of Prey show at the Medieval Fair Friday, April 5.

Craig Bamford holds a saker falcon at the Royal Gauntlet Birds of Prey show at the Medieval Fair Friday, April 5.

A group of bird rehabilitators impressed and informed audiences with nearly a dozen species of Oklahoma’s avian wildlife at Norman’s Medieval Fair Friday through Sunday.

The Royal Gauntlet Birds of Prey, an organization of licensed falconers and volunteers based in Coweta, Okla., made its 17th trip to Reaves Park to educate fairgoers, collect donations and share their passion for their recuperating raptors, said Bob Aanonsen, Master Falconer.

Aanonsen and his team of volunteers put on a 30-minute show on the Camelot Stage of the fairgrounds three times daily Friday through Sunday. Vested in medieval-themed threads, Aanonsen discussed biology, ecology and conservation while the various species of owl, hawk, and falcon soared across the audience to and from their handlers.

“It’s so much different than seeing them in a zoo because you’re virtually two inches away from this bird,” Aanonsen said. “They all have their personalities, and they’re different, every single one of them.”

Peregrine and saker falcons, sharp-shinned and red-tail hawks and great horned and Eurasian eagle owls were featured in the show, and several other species were kept at the Royal Gauntlet’s tent in the northwest area of the fairgrounds.

The American kestrel, rough-legged hawk, ferruginous hawk, red-shouldered hawk and Northern harrier are also classified as birds of prey by their keen eyesight, hooked beaks and sharp talons, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The team has taken in 23 rescues this year from all over Oklahoma that have sustained injuries from predators, hunters and cars and contracted diseases from insect bites including West Nile virus and even malaria in the past, Aanonsen said.

“It’s kind of a slow year,” Aanonsen said. “Usually we’re probably up to around 90.”

Jessie, a 3-year-old Harris’ hawk, proved the instinctive independence of the raptors during the group’s first show of the weekend. Her name is from a Latin root meaning “to seize,” Aanonsen said.

In one demonstration, Jessie flew well beyond the hooked arm of trainer, Shannon Cole, to perch on a tall tree several hundred feet above and behind the audience of the outdoor stage.

“She has quite the attitude, but we have learned to work with each other,” Cole said. “She makes my life complete along with my husband, although I like her sometimes better than him.”

Within a couple minutes, Aanonsen lured Jessie from the treetop with raw bits of food.

However, it’s always a possibility that the birds don’t return to the trainer’s gauntlet, the Kevlar glove protecting the trainer’s forearm from 200 to 700 pounds of talon pressure depending on the species of raptor, Aanonsen said.

Gaining trust through training is part of the rehabilitation process, Aanonsen said.

“What we do first is get them healthy, and sometimes that may take just a few days,” Aanonsen said. “Before we ever release a bird of prey back into the wild, we have to condition it to sit on the glove, accept food from us [and] fly back after a hunt if the hunt is unsuccessful.”

The most rewarding aspect of rehabilitation is a successful release back into the wild, which is why the team hunts with the birds, Aanonsen said.

The volunteers act as the “hound dogs” indicating and retrieving prey for the birds as they hunt, said Cole, who has been a volunteer for four years.

“Once … we think they can manage themselves in the wild on their own, then we can release them, so they can become a productive part of their society in nature,” Cole said.

Although the raptors have evolved into modern society, their roots in medieval times reach back about 12,000 years, Aanonsen said.

“Falconry had its zenith during medieval times because King Henry [VIII] ordained it such,” Aanonsen said.

Falcons indicated nobility in Europe after Marco Polo brought them from his travels in the Middle East, and its heyday was between the 11th and 15th centuries, Aanonsen said.

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Pakistan’s falcon population thriving

There haven’t been many feel-good stories coming out of the tribal regions of Pakistan, which for several years now have served as the front line in the American-led fight against the Taliban and the remnants of al Qaida. The Pakistani army has launched several offensives to dislodge militant groups, the CIA has periodically carried out drone strikes in the area, and since 2008 at least 163,000 families — the actual number is likely much higher — have fled the violence.

But all of this violence and unrest has resulted in an unlikely beneficiary: the local falcon population.

Pakistan’s falcons are thriving, according to an Inter Press Service report. The violence, it seems, has made it too dangerous for hunters and poachers to operate in the area, freeing falcons of their main threat. In 2005, when the birds were labeled an endangered species, there were only 2,000 falcons in the tribal region; by 2008 the population had swelled to 8,000.

Falcons are prized birds in the Arab world, where they are used for hunting, and a prime Pakistani falcon can fetch as much as $100,000. With money like that at stake, it is a testament to the intensity of the violence that hunters and poachers have been largely flushed from the area.

The bitter irony of a brutal civil war creating significant environmental benefits is not something that has environmentalists looking to Pakistan as a model for conservation strategies.

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Battling Birds : Falconer Chases Gulls from Downtown Trash Facility

For commercial operations generating more than a few dumpster loads of trash a week, having a falconer on the payroll has become almost an obligatory fashion statement. Any winery worth its appellation has at least one large raptor it can call on, and franchises like Disneyland and Sea World deploy winged armadas to keep airborne scavengers at bay.

Cottage Hospital uses a raptor to keep its pigeon population in line. And the county’s coastal landfill at Tajiguas famously solved what seemed like an insoluble water contamination problem by hiring a falcon to chase away the gulls who let loose their flying fecal material — on an industrial scale abundance — into nearby creeks.

Falconer Gary Bauer and his Harris’s hawk Gillian keep seagulls at bay for MarBorg.

Falconer Gary Bauer and his Harris’s hawk Gillian keep seagulls at bay for MarBorg.

Little wonder, then, that the airspace above MarBorg’s vast trash warehouse on Santa Barbara’s industrial east side — where millions of tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris are processed each year — are now patrolled by a 14-month-old Harris’s hawk named Gillian.

Gillian and her handler, full-time falconer Gary Bauer, are the one-two punch making the neighborhood a lot less hospitable to seagulls for the past two years. “All birds have an innate fear of raptors,” explained Bauer. When the gulls see Gillian take to the air, it makes them “apprehensive.” Accordingly, he said, “they go someplace else.”

Bauer and his boss — MarBorg executive Brian Borgatello — take pains to stress that Gillian is programmed not to kill the gulls — this is Santa Barbara, after all, where animal welfare is always paramount — just to chase them away. “People sometimes ask, ‘How many birds did it kill today?’” Borgatello said. “Our answer is always the same: ‘It hasn’t killed any today, and it never has.’” The gulls, however, are not aware of the political considerations that cause Gillian to pull her punches. “Once I let her go,” Bauer said of his hawk, “it’s a life-and-death situation, and the gulls take that very seriously.”

The results, according to Borgatello, have been both obvious and immediate. “We’ve see a great reduction in the number of gulls visiting the buffet across the street,” he said, pointing to the C&D plant. While such facilities typically process the remains of old buildings and chopped down trees, it’s not uncommon for food scraps and other comestibles to be tossed into the roll-off boxes that are tipped inside MarBorg’s Quarantina Street plant each day. In the argot of the trash industry, such garbage is known as “putrescibles.”

MarBorg’s raptor patrol is now two years old. For all but six months of that, Bauer has been the walking the seagull sentry, leashed hawk prominently perched on his protective falconer’s glove. For Bauer, a onetime pet shop owner and farmer from Lompoc, it’s been the conversion of a hobby into a career. Where others went hunting with guns or bows, he’d take the woods armed with a bird.

Although he now owns four raptors, he’s quick to point out they should never be confused for pets. “These are not social birds like some parrots,” he explained. Bauer bought Gillian when she was about five months old. Prior to that, the hawk, he said, had been “chamber raised,” meaning it grew up with its extended family. After three months of training, he said, he could “fly” the bird. After another three or four, Gillian was prepared for patrol. Compared to peregrine falcons, Harris’s hawks are incredibly slow, zooming through the air at a paltry 50-60 miles an hour as opposed to the peregrine’s fabled descents of 200 mph. Unlike peregrines — which easily achieve heights of 1,000 feet — Harris’s hawks will find the top of a telephone pole or tall tree on which to perch. The good news is that they’re not prone to the peregrine’s great sweeping flights, meaning they tend not get as distracted or lost along the way.

Gillian may be top of the aeronautic food chain, but there are still challenges and threats. Other birds of prey, like red-tailed hawks, are common to these parts. And trucks and telephone wires can do more than merely clip a bird’s wings. And not all seagulls are willing to go quietly into Gillian’s good night; some alpha gulls are known to put up resistance.

This time of year is relatively quiet. It’s mating season for the seagulls, so much of the population is now happily distracted by the business of propagating the species relatively far away on Santa Cruz Island. But, as Bauer noted, there are many subspecies to the gull population, and it’s his business to know difference between migratory gulls just passing through and the local population for whom Santa Barbara has been home for many millennia.

Bauer noted that the gulls study him and Gillian as avidly as he studies the gulls. They track his whereabouts and his patterns, he said, and react accordingly. Bauer isn’t brimming over with kind words about the gulls. But, he added, “They’re a lot smarter than people think.”

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Falcons Love the Taliban

Falcons begin arriving in Pakistan from Siberia, China, Russia and Afghanistan during the months of August and September and either take up residence in desert landscapes, or nest in the foothills of arid regions

Falcons begin arriving in Pakistan from Siberia, China, Russia and Afghanistan during the months of August and September and either take up residence in desert landscapes, or nest in the foothills of arid regions

PESHAWAR, – While the Taliban’s military activities continue to plague Pakistan’s northern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the incessant violence has been a blessing in disguise for one creature: the falcon.
Declared endangered by the Union for the Conservation of Nature, this bird of prey suffered for years at the hands of poachers and hunters, whose unfettered access to FATA and the adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province guaranteed the birds a short life span in the wild, with most destined to be trapped, killed or sold.

But “continued militancy has kept the poachers (and hunters) away,” Khalid Shah, an official at the KP Wildlife Department, told IPS, adding that the survival rate of falcons and some other migratory birds has “increased tremendously”.

In 2005 only 2,000 falcons lived in these northern territories, but by 2008 wildlife officials had recorded an increase of up to 8,000 birds.

Experts trace this population growth to the beginning of the insurgency here, which began after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the government in Kabul and sent scores of Taliban and Al Qaeda members across the border into Pakistan’s sprawling mountainous terrain.

Being the U.S. ’s ally in the so-called “war on terror”, the Pakistan army has engaged in a military offensive to root out the insurgents, believed to be scattered across all seven districts that comprise FATA.

Under fire from both sides, civilian residents say militancy has made daily activities – among them hunting and poaching — impossible.

Hunting, trapping, poaching

Falcons begin arriving in Pakistan from Siberia, China, Russia and Afghanistan during the months of August and September and either take up residence in desert landscapes, or nest in the foothills of arid regions.

In FATA the birds find a ready supply of food in the form of “reptiles, mammals, insects and small birds”, while thickly-forested parts of the tribal areas offer a safe and natural habitat, wild conservationist Ali Murad told IPS.

Besides playing host to migratory guests, the region is also home to several indigenous falcon species. In total, Pakistan boasts 10 falcon species at the height of the migration season.

Falcons are monogamous creatures with a slow reproduction rate, placing them in popular demand as rare trophies, Murad added. The female lays just two eggs annually; usually, only one chick survives and takes five years to reach adulthood.

Arab nationals use the birds – particularly the females — for falconry, especially for hunting houbara bustard in Pakistan and other countries.

“Dignitaries from Arab countries visit the KP and FATA to purchase the falcon of their choice from a market fed by hundreds of trappers,” Fareed Khan, a falcon dealer, told IPS.

Falcon trappers attach balls of nylon and feathers to the feet of smaller birds like kestrels, Laggar Falcons and white-eyed buzzard. Mistaking these contraptions for prey, larger falcons sink their talons into the “bait”, causing both birds to tumble to the ground and into the hands of the waiting trappers, Khan elaborated.

Sometimes, small birds like doves, pigeons and quails are placed as bait underneath nets on the ground. When the falcons swoop down on their prey they become entangled in the nets and are easily captured.

The large-scale trapping, hunting and dealing of falcons was in full swing when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) declared the bird an endangered species in 2005, prompting the government to place a complete ban on issuance of licences to those who would interrupt the bird’s natural life.

Those licences had brought the government about 12,000 dollars annually.

Prior to the advent of terrorism, “hunters continued illegal poaching in KP and earned thousands of dollars from the sale of falcons to well-heeled Arabs”, Murad said.

“Now,” according to KP official Khalid Shah, “military activity, gunfire, the use of tanks and other kinds of warfare” have made FATA and the KP virtually too dangerous to enter.

For wildlife enthusiasts and environmentalists who have long fought against the relentless killing and capture of the birds, this is a bittersweet victory, as it comes at the expense of peace in Pakistan ’s tribal areas.

Birds still at risk

Wildlife officials, in “collaboration with the KP Forest Department, are working on habitat improvement for falcons to further encourage” population growth, Shah said.

The government is also working to implement its ban by imposing harsh penalties on those who violate the law.

“The government has issued over 450 challans (orders for payment of fines) in the last five years, bringing in revenue worth roughly 3,000 dollars,” Wildlife Department Spokesperson Kashifullah Shah told IPS.

In March alone, seven falcons have been confiscated and released. An additional 20 falcons were confiscated in January and February of 2013 and released into the wild, he said.

Kashifullah Shah says a shortage of staff and a dearth of adequate facilities have hampered efforts to bring about the desired results.

The population could be raised much more if stronger measures are taken, he stressed.

With a going rate of between one and ten million rupees (10,000 and 100,000 dollars), falcons are prized trophies, and neither militancy nor a government ban will be sufficient to keep hunters and trappers at bay forever.

“Only 450 field workers are not enough to stop illegal hunting and smuggling of falcons in the province, (especially) since each of the workers is required to monitor an area of 200 square kilometres on foot, while the trappers have (modern equipment) and vehicles.”

“We need to deploy more staff with vehicles in potential hunting areas where hundreds of trappers are active, like Swat, Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan to conserve the species,” he said.

“We should also involve local communities by establishing village conservation committees to keep an eye on the hunters. This strategy has worked well in the past.”

This programme also helps scale up public awareness about the endangered creature and the importance of preserving its natural habitat.

Eggs-iting surprise from rare birds of prey

Peregrine falcon laying egg at nesting spot at St George's Church, Sheffield.

Peregrine falcon laying egg at nesting spot at St George’s Church, Sheffield.

EASTER has come early for a couple of rare birds who set up home in Sheffield.

There was an eggs-iting development at St George’s Church in Broad Lane as Yorkshire’s first pair of peregrine falcons showed successful signs of breeding for a second year running.

Bird of prey Mildred, mating partner of George, overcame the winter weather conditions to lay her first egg of the season at the Sheffield University-owned building.

Remarkable scenes featuring its incubation were captured on a camera set up by the university.

The pair successfully reared two chicks last year despite harsh weather conditions and it is hoped they will lay three or four eggs in total over the coming days.

Professor David Wood, chairman of the Sheffield Bird Study Group, said: “It’s really exciting to see that the Peregrines have laid their first egg, within days of what we’d anticipated as a likely date.

“They clearly find the nest platform erected and maintained by the university to their liking.

“They’re a few days later than some other pairs monitored by webcams elsewhere, but given the weather that’s no bad thing. Late snow is seriously bad news for birds that have got the breeding season underway early.”

Peregrine falcons have been endangered because of factors including pesticide use and being a target for egg collectors. Their population has steadily increased since the 1970s.

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