Sex, Drugs and Falcons: The Illicit Falconry Trade

“Falconry” or “hawking” can be defined as the art and sport of hunting in a natural state with a trained bird of prey. Since 2010, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recognised falconry as a part of the intangible heritage of mankind. Falconry was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity, alongside, for example, traditional wood-crafting in Madagascar and Vanuatu sand drawings. Intangible cultural heritage includes, in the words of UNESCO, “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

Wild raptors have, for generations, been trapped in the wild for use in falconry, both legally and illegally. Currently the legal wild take of raptors for falconry use occurs in many countries, such as the USA, New Zealand, Ireland, Zimbabwe and South Africa. These wild birds would either be obtained as eyasses from nests or trapped in their first year of life. Haggards (wild breeding adult birds) are traditionally not harvested for falconry use; their removal has the most impact on the population and may also have diseases/learned behaviours that may hinder their training compared to a younger bird.

This legal harvest is a small one; based on a US study (Millsap and Allen, 2006) covering 16 species used in falconry, an average of <2% of the juveniles in a raptor population are harvested by falconers annually. In Ireland, there is an average harvest of 3.8 raptors annually. When the mortality rate of young raptors is considered – generally 70% first year, 90% first five years – this small percentage is generally considered inconsequential.

While this small scale harvest of raptors for the use by individual falconers has been carried out for generations, the widespread commercial trade in wild falcons is of relatively recent origin. Fuelled by the increased wealth of falconers in the Arabian Peninsula, the illegal trapping and smuggling of falcons became an increased threat to wild raptors. In this article, I would like to explore a case study of the Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug), the impact of illegal trade and the role falconers play in combating this illegal trade.

Young Peregrine falcons confiscated on their way to Kazakhstan, with plans to sell them later to Arab sheikhs. Picture: Border Guard Department in Altai region, The Siberian Times.

The Saker’s Problem

Middle Eastern falconry, past and present, depends on wild-caught Sakers. Sakers are used primarily to hunt Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotiusn dulata), Eurasian Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) and Arabian hares (Lepus capensis). Once a upon a time, these falconry activities helped supplement a poor diet in the harsh climate of the Middle East. These falcons were trapped in their first year as they passed through the Gulf during their autumn migration, were used to feed families and were then released back to the wild after one hunting season.

Falconry is no longer practiced out of necessity, but it remains an integral part of the Arab life style.  During the 1980s, wealth began to spread across the Middle East and a middle class arose that was keen on maintaining their ancient heritage. It was then that the demand for falcons surged and the small scale local trapping was no longer enough to satisfy demand. The result was a massive explosion of illegal tapping and smuggling across the breeding grounds of the Saker. Many birds are trapped thousands of miles from their ultimate destination. For instance, The Siberian Times have recorded a number of smugglers trapping falcons in the border regions between Russia, Mongolia and China – most of these birds will not survive the journey to their buyers in the Middle East.

Today the illicit international trade flourishes and one falcon may be sold for US$270,000 or more. The Saker problem is a shocking one – there is a documented rapid population decline for this species and the illegal trade is the key suspect. The annual consumption of Sakers for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates has been estimated at 6,825–8,400. These are mainly juvenile (77%) females, but also adult breeding females (19%). The removal of larger females in favour of smaller males may result in a potential sex bias in the population.

In comparison to the illegal trade in parrots and other non-raptors for the pet trade, the illicit falcon trade has deep roots in corruption and terrorism. The Siberian Times calls these commercial trappers the “bird mafia” and this description is not far from the truth. The 2010 documentary film, Feathered Cocaine, showcases this aspect of the illegal falcon trade – the trapping camps, the elite buyers, the government corruption and the connections to the arms, drugs and sex trades. The trailer for this film can be seen here. In instances where trappers are caught smuggling falcons, either in large or small numbers, these trappers are often only one head on a many headed hydra.

The tools of the trade – confiscated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Buryatia. What you don’t see here is the “bait bird”, often another falcon species of lesser worth such as a Kestrel or Lugger, which would have its eyes sown shut and nooses tied on its body to trap the toes of the larger Saker. The Siberian Times.

The Falconer’s Solution

The Saker is included within Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It is prohibited to import wild caught Sakers across the European Union. Unlicensed wild take is prohibited by national laws in all of the Saker breeding range countries. Among the Arabic falconry nations, the United Arab Emirates has banned the import and use of wild-taken falcons that do not have accompanying CITES documentation.

However, CITES cannot regulate the illegal trade in Sakers. This is clearly seen in the trapping and smuggling that continues to occur on a massive commercial scale. Corruption enables this illegal trade to exist – one only has to see the money and the people involved to realise this. National/regional law enforcement agencies, government bodies, the military and customs inspectors at airports have been implicated in involvement in the illegal falcon trade, notably in countries such as Mongolia.

Active measures to promote Saker conservation include the use of captive-bred falcons as a means of substituting for wild-taken birds in falconry. The promotion of the use of captive-bred falcons instead of wild harvested Sakers may greatly benefit their population recovery.  This shift to captive-bred falcons depends largely on the production of hybrid falcons in order to overcome the negative aspects of captive-bred birds. Falconers in the Middle East would have no or little prior experience with captive-bred birds. Captive-bred raptors require longer, more intensive training compared to a trapped passage Saker.

At present, this method of promoting captive-bred hybrids to decrease the demand for wild harvested Sakers appears to have had some success. For example, a study by Barton (2000) indicated that the number of Sakers used for falconry in the United Arab Emirates declined over the period 1993-98, whilst the use of captive-bred falcons increased.

Examining admission records from another falcon hospital in the Middle East illustrates how the proportion of Sakers has declined over the period 2003–07, while the proportion of captive-bred hybrids has increased over the same period (see Fig. 1) (Dixon, 2012). This shows how falconers and aviculturists can work together with conservationists to bring creative solutions to the fore.

With the use of naturally occurring (e.g. Gyr x Saker) and sterile (e.g. Gyr x Merlin) hybrids, the demand of wild caught Sakers can be reduced without concern over the hybrids escaping and damaging local gene pools. The use of microchips, numbered bands, radio-tracking telemetry and the increasingly popular use of real-time GPS tracking (designed by falconers for falconers) also means that escaped hybrids have a high chance of being returned to their owners.

Another conservation measure implemented by falconers is the Mongolia Artificial Nest Project. This project was undertaken by International Wildlife Consultants UK, a business founded by Dr Nick Fox, the “grandfather of falconry.” Additionally, the School Links Program also arose from this work and is ran from the International Wildlife Consultants main office in Wales. The program aims to connect schools around the globe using falconry as a tool to teach children the importance of conserving these top predators. Again, we have many examples of falconers and conservationists coming together to create active measures to protect Sakers, educate the public and form a sustainable, legal harvest of wild Sakers.

Figure 1: Proportions of five falcon taxa (hybrid, Saker Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon and Barbary Falcon) admitted to a falcon hospital over the period 2003–2007. Dixon, 2012.


Barton, N., 2000. Trapping estimates for Saker and Peregrine Falcons used for falconry in the United Arab Emirates. Journal of Raptor Research. 34: 53–55.

Dixon, A., 2012. Conservation of the Saker Falcon Falco cherrug and the use of hybrids for falconry. Aquila. 119. 9-19.

Millsap, B. A. and Allen, G. T., 2006. Effects of Falconry Harvest on Wild Raptor Populations in the United States: Theoretical Considerations and Management Recommendations. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 34: 1392-1400.

Samour, J., 1999. The Fahad bin Sultan Falcon Centre. Falco. 14: 4-5.

Natasha Murphy
About Natasha Murphy 2 Articles
Natasha found her passion for birds and raptors at a young age, with many childhood bird books dog-eared and filled with notes, observations and quotes from Sir David Attenborough. A career in zoology and, specifically, raptor biology became a dream and eventually a reality, with opportunities to work on Peregrine diet and nesting success, raptor aviculture in the UK, raptor migration counting in Italy, ringing/wing-tagging Red Kites and researching the habitat requirements of the threatened Hen Harrier in Ireland. Falconry was also a life-time ambition and Natasha is a member of the Irish Hawking Club. As both a falconer and an early career raptor biologist, Natasha’s research interests include wildlife management, aviculture, falconry as a conservation tool, predator-prey interactions, raptor conservation, raptor ecology and behaviour, detection rates & monitoring techniques for raptors, tackling wildlife crime and human-wildlife conflicts.
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