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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 August 2007, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Kazakhs use eagle to save rare falcon
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Almaty, Kazakhstan

For centuries, the people of Central Asia have used eagles and falcons to hunt for food, but now their ancient tradition is dying.

Saker falcon
There is a thriving black market for saker falcons
Eagle hunting is simply no longer profitable, while poaching has put the saker falcon, a large migratory bird that can be found mostly in Central Asia, on the verge of extinction.

Well, there is one place in Kazakhstan that is trying to fix both problems, and it has been using one bird to help the other to survive.

A bird of prey in a cage is not a happy sight, but the owners of a falcon farm in the mountains outside Almaty say that captivity gives the rare saker falcon its only chance of survival.

Central Asia has always been the most important breeding ground for these large, stunning birds, who are now disappearing, cursed, it seems, by their own impeccable hunting skills.

These falcons are in high demand, especially across the Arab world, where falcon hunting is a popular pastime.

Stricter rules needed

Every since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Arab Emirates has been the main destination for thousands of falcons caught and sold illegally for hefty sums at the black market. Kazakhstan is estimated to lose up to 1,000 saker falcons per year.

Kazakh falconer with golden eagle
The government wants to revive the ancient tradition of eagle hunting
Although this breeding farm was not exactly set up to change that - the country's only legal falconry was initially created to make money.

But it could not compete with the black market and the sales figures were low - the birds in the meantime kept breeding, and so the owners began releasing them into the wild.

This year, they managed to get the government to sponsor a release of 60 falcons, the largest so far.

They hope this number could double next year, but in order to make a real difference to the bird population, the state, they say, has to impose stricter regulations on poachers and commit to a breeding project several years long.

"It's very good news that these falcons were released. But it's a drop in the ocean, and unless more is done to fight poaching the breed will continue to disappear," says Sergey Sklyarenko, conservation and science director at the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan.

In the meantime, and in order to yield the profit that the falcons have failed to provide, the Falcon Centre has become a tourist destination, and it is not just the falcons that make the place popular.

Entertaining the rich

It seems that the farm's major attraction is the golden eagle - a huge, proud-looking, dark brown bird that is the country's official national symbol. There is no shortage of golden eagles in Kazakhstan, but the ancient tradition of eagle hunting is dying.

In the old days, no Kazakh man was a true man if he did not have a horse, a hunting dog and an eagle, says Ashot Anzorov, the director of the Falcon Centre.

"Now things have changed, but we are proud of the tradition and should do our best to preserve it," he added.

Mr Anzorov is working with the government on drafting a state programme that would support a handful of veteran eagle hunters left in the country, and to try to promote the idea among young people.

The Falcon Centre already offers a whole array of services - from eagle-hunting lessons, to hunting trips, to corporate show parties. The idea, Mr Anzorov says, is going down well with the wealthy Kazakhstan elite.

Entertaining the rich, the owners say, enables them to preserve the ancient tradition and to pay for breeding the falcons.

Kazakhstan's eagle-hunters
16 Dec 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Kazakhstan
26 Oct 04 |  Country profiles


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