The blue washbasin which smashed over Alan Parrot's back in April, crushing two of his vertebrae, is still lying in a corner of his apartment in Ulan Bator. 'I guess these guys want me to leave,' says Mr Parrot pointing to it with a small smile. 'But I am the one the corrupt guys fear the worst. This is the epicentre of falcon smuggling in the world and I intend to clean it up.' Despite losing six centimetres in height and being paralysed for 18 days, the blue-eyed American still strikes an imposing figure often dressed in white from head to toe. This convert to Sikhism who wears a turban has spent five years trying to smash what he believes is a conspiracy involving corrupt Mongolian officials and Arab smugglers that threatens the survival of many species. Mr Parrot has been involved in falcons since his childhood and began training these birds of prey at the court of the Shah of Iran more than 20 years ago when he was just 18. Like medieval kings, the favourite sport of oil-rich sheikhs and emirs of the Arabian Gulf is to go hunting in the desert with swift falcon on their arms. Wealthy Gulf rulers and their followers fly out each year together with their birds to the deserts of Pakistan to hunt their favourite prey, the Lesser MacQueen's Bustard, whose cooked flesh is said to act as an aphrodisiac. The bustard has been hunted to extinction on the Arabian peninsular. Birds like peregrines or Saker falcons are a coveted status symbol, and the sheikhs look abroad for the fiercest and fastest. Wild birds are most desirable because domestic breed birds are said to lack killer instincts and honed hunting skills. 'They are as valuable as thoroughbred horses. We are talking about feathered cocaine,' Mr Parrot says. Since the fall of communism, sheikhs have competed to buy wild birds captured in the newly independent and often lawless countries of Central Asia. However, many are classed as protected species, and their trade is illegal and lucrative. 'There is a network of criminals involved in smuggling these birds,' says John Sellars, a law enforcement official at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), 'and these people will resort to violence.' Mr Parrot puts it more bluntly. 'People are prepared to commit murder for these birds. This a business worth tens of millions of dollars a year.' In 1994, Mongolia officially became involved. Its Ministry of the Environment signed a rolling 10-year export contract with the son of the Saudi Arabian Minister of the Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdullaziz Al Saud, who agreed to buy 800 non-endangered falcons for US$2 million (about HK$15.5 million). Under CITES, Mongolia, a signatory, is allowed to export falcons which are not on the endangered species list, provided it monitors the health of its wildlife population and ensures it does not decline to dangerous levels. But it appears no one knows what the populations are. The government has issued a number of export licences in recent years, but it is feared many falcons are also being caught and smuggled illegally, including rare species on the endangered list. 'Illegal trade in falcons is one of the main problems for CITES and has been for years,' Mr Sellars says. Each year hundreds if not thousands of birds die during capture or transportation. Through his company, Creme de le Creme, Mr Parrot, who claims a long track record in co-operating with law-enforcement agencies in North America to stop illegal exports, offered the Mongolian government an alternative export plan incorporating long-term conservation of the birds. 'It was a model for a sustainable development of wildlife which would give local people an incentive to protect the wildlife, not to steal it and quickly exhaust it,' explains Washington-based lawyer Bill Garner, who specialises in wildlife legislation. 'It is similar to the ideas tried out in southern Africa to protect wild elephants. There is nothing wrong with trying to make money out of falcons or wildlife. It is how you do it that counts and who gets the proceeds.' Saker falcons are found in a wide arc across most of inner Asia including parts of China and Mongolia during winter. Samdangiin Banzragch, the director of Mongolia's Environmental Protection Agency, says it is up to the Mongolian government to determine if they are endangered. 'It is difficult to survey the migratory birds but international research is now in its second year,' he says. 'Last year we found 3,000 couples of Saker falcons, and it is the most abundant species.' This confidence is not shared by other experts. 'I simply don't believe these figures. Nobody can know. These are migratory birds in a huge area and the numbers are going to vary a lot from year to year,' says Chimed Ochir, the head of the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) office in Mongolia. The Ministry of the Environment rejected Mr Parrot's export and conservation plan. This convinced him there was widespread smuggling aided by corrupt government officials who were taking a cut of illegal profits. During a press conference in 1997, Mr Parrot publicly charged Environment Minister Adiyasuren, and Boyandelger, the head of the Committee for the Protection of Rare and Endangered Animals, with running a smuggling ring. 'He was brave enough to say this openly,' says Professor Narangerel Sodovsuren, who defended Mr Parrot in a libel suit which the two officials brought demanding US$100,000 in compensation. The case dragged on for a year with both sides submitting documents. 'Just prior to the court hearing, they dropped their case. This means they were defeated,' says Professor Sodovsuren. Mr Parrot's case was helped by the 1996 arrest of the Saudi prince's representative in Singapore with three endangered Mongolian birds he was trying to smuggle out. In the meantime, Mr Parrot says, he and his assistants and associates were brutally beaten up and threatened. At one point 20 policemen came to his flat, seized his passport and tried to force him to leave, he says. '[Mr Parrot] has also been offered birds left and right; they have probably been trying to set him up,' says lawyer Mr Garner. The environment minister, Adiyasuren, subsequently lost his job in a government reshuffle and is now acting as an adviser to the ministry. Then came the attack in April, soon after the libel suit was dropped. Mr Parrot was assaulted in his apartment by a group of thugs who came close to killing him. Despite the danger, his campaigning is bringing results. Last year the Mongolian government abandoned the export contract with the Saudi prince and suspended the export of any birds. Many people had become suspicious the year before when the Saudis sent a TriStar jet all the way to Mongolia just to pick up a few falcons. Although the government is resuming the trade this month, Mr Banzragch of the Environmental Protection Agency, says there will be close government supervision. Last month hunters were out catching 40 birds for the Emir of Kuwait, and another 40 for the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates. 'The whole affair is quite legitimate with internal norms,' Mr Banzragch says. 'I can confidently say there is no large-scale smuggling of illegal falcons although there have been attempts.' This summer, Mongolian police arrested two men, one from Pakistan, another from Bahrain, who were caught with 10 falcons. Last month, police also arrested Abdul Rahman, an Iranian carrying a diplomatic passport, for allegedly illegally capturing falcons. In a large country with loosely controlled borders, catching other smugglers is not easy and the police have difficulty in identifying the species of birds. 'Falcon smuggling is increasing every year. With people moving across the long borders with Russia and Kazakhstan, it is very difficult to control,' says WWF's Mr Ochir. Mr Banzragch insists that the government is doing everything it can and is deeply suspicious of Mr Parrot. 'He cannot prove his allegations of bribery. I don't know him personally but he is guided by personal business interests rather than protecting birds. I don't believe anyone tried to harm him.'