Environmentalists get claws into plans for Qatari-funded falcon-breeding centre in China

Concerns raised that the US$15 million scheme in Xinjiang will be run simply to meet lucrative demand for the birds of prey among hunters in the Middle East

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 6:21pm

Environmental activists in China have got their claws into plans for a costly breeding centre for falcons in Xinjiang, sponsored by a Qatari organisation, mainland media reported today.

The US$15 million centre, which is still being built in Aletai, in the far-west of Xinjiang, is using funds provided by a Qatari ecological and bird conservation association.

News of the plans in Xinjiang has sparked heated debate on the mainland. Environmentalists and wildlife conservationists fear the breeding centre for saker falcons – seen as a status symbol for wealthy Arabs – will be run simply to meet the demand of hunters in the Middle East.

“We don’t want to build a hunting field for rich Qataris,” one Sina Weibo microblogger wrote.

We don’t want to build a hunting field for rich Qataris
Weibo microblogger

Falconry is big business throughout the Gulf states, which include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and the most popular sport in Qatar. As a result there is huge demand to buy large, powerful birds of prey, such as rare saker falcons.

The price of a falcon in Qatar last year was more than US$275,000, the website arabianbusiness.com reported.

The first phrase of the Xinjiang centre is expected to be complete in 2016. Up to 200 falcons, together with 1,500 MacQueen’s Bustards – the favourite prey of falconers – will be raised at the centre, the Xinjiang provincial department of forestry said on its website.

The bustards, which have long been hunted by falconers in the Middle East and India, are also highly valued and can often cost thousands of dollars each.

Half the falcons will be released in Qatar, and the rest in Xinjiang, while the bustards will be released into wild in Xinjiang, the department said, without giving any further details.

We don’t want the saker falcons to become another [endangered species like the] panda
Weibo microblogger

Thepaper.cn, a news website owned by Shanghai United Media Group, published a lengthy report today about centre in Xinjiang the first of its kind in China.

Environmental activists told thepaper.cn they fear the centre is being set up only as a way to stamp out illegal hunting in the area and encourage trade in saker falcons.

Zhang Shuai, an expert at a wildlife conservation centre in Beijing, told thepaper.cn that ecologists have traced only four wild falcons between 2010 and 2012 in a large conservation area stretching over nearly 47,000 square kilometres at the Altun Mountains Nature Reserve.

Liu Huili, director of the Wild Birds and Animal Office of Nature University, an animal welfare NGO, is strongly opposed to the Xinjiang falcon centre plans.

“The programme must be suspended if the local government fails to take a firm grip over illegal hunting in the region,” Liu told thepaper.cn.

The worldwide population of the falcons, which are prized by falconers throughout the Arab world, has suffered because of the poaching of young birds.

Saker falcons already breed naturally in remote, mountainous parts of northern China and southeastern Siberia, including Xinjiang, where falcon hunting is traditionally popular. However, the birds have become increasingly rare.

The programme must be suspended if the local government fails to take a firm grip over illegal hunting in the region
Liu Huili, director of a Chinese animal welfare NGO

Each year the falcons migrate from the region to Africa after the summer.Some critics have also expressed fears that the artificial breeding of falcons at the centre, will put the birds at greater risk from poachers.

“In all, we don’t want the saker falcons to become another [endangered species like the] panda,” a microblogger wrote on the Xinjiang Forestry Bureau’s Weibo webpage.

However, some supporters of the plans argue that Xinjiang – a remote and underdeveloped region – will benefit from the sponsorship, which will help to bring falcon breeding falcons techniques to China.

“At least the local government is aware of wildlife conservation now,” said Dr Zeng Yan, assistant director of China’s Endangered Species Scientific Commission.

“Besides there are other successful falcon breeding programmes in the United States and the United Kingdom,” she said.

The Forestry Department could not be reached for comment.

However, supporters and critics of the plans are in agreement that the local government needs to publish more detailed information about the breeding centre, including where the falcons will obtained, and how wild saker falcons can be trained.