Seized falcons ready to regain their freedom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2001, 12:00am

Ten endangered female falcons seized from smugglers in Hong Kong last year will be released into the wild in Beijing on Friday - but fears persist about their long-term survival.

They were among 14 injured saker falcons intercepted at Chek Lap Kok airport in a shipment from Shanghai en-route to the Middle East last November. The birds have been receiving treatment and training at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden. Ten are now fit for release.

They will be the largest batch of saker falcons ever to be released back into their natural habitat from the SAR. Eight falcons were intercepted by Customs officers in 1998 and were all subsequently set free.

The birds will be released at the Pine Wood Nature Reserve in Beijing, from where they will fly back to their dry habitat in north and northwestern China.

Gary Ades, executive director of the farm, said that despite the risk of the birds being caught again, it was in their interests to set them free.

'There is no guarantee that they will not be caught again. What is important is that they are breeding birds and they could bring the numbers up,' he said.

Mr Ades said the birds were most often hunted in traps - usually nets or holes dug in the ground laced with fresh meat and live animals to lure them.

He believes the Chinese authorities have stepped up enforcement, but the smugglers and hunters have their own ways of countering the crackdown.

'To enforce the law in the huge Gobi desert is difficult. But we have seen that the Chinese authorities have stopped shipments,' he said.

Rupert Griffiths, senior conservation officer of the farm, said micro-chips were tagged on the falcons so Customs or animal welfare officers would know they had been caught before if they were smuggled out again.

He said falcons were a popular pet in the Middle East, where they had been used in hunting sports for more than 3,000 years. As a symbol of nobility, the falcons are popular with the wealthy and can fetch $150,000 or more on the black market.

Although there are 35,000 to 40,000 of the birds still left in the wild, their numbers have declined in recent years because of the demand from the Middle East.