ZARQA GOVERNORATE, Jordan; ERBIL, Iraq; QAMISHLI, Syria — In the darkness of a small, windowless room, half a dozen falcons were perched on low wooden stools, their eyes covered with leather hoods. Crouching on the sand-covered floor, their caretaker gently unhooded some of the birds, which stretched their wings cautiously.
For most of them, free flight was a distant memory.
Most of the falcons had recently been rescued from traffickers by Jordanian authorities and placed in the care of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), the main conservation NGO in Jordan, which runs a raptor rehabilitation center in the desert. The RSCN closely controls access to the center, and Mongabay is withholding its exact location to minimize the risk of someone targeting the birds.
“The center is very remote, and we’ve had cases where people show up there with guns in the middle of the night,” Nashat Hamidan, a conservationist with the RSCN who helped establish the rehabilitation center, told Mongabay from his office at the RSCN’s Amman headquarters in May. “Some owners will do anything in their power to get them back,” he added, referring to the falcons, some of which can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
When Mongabay visited the center in March 2022, it held around half a dozen raptors. Most had been seized at borders or airports, either from visiting falconers who were bringing them to Jordan to hunt but didn’t have the right documentation, or from traffickers trying to smuggle the birds through the country.
Falcons seized by customs often stay in the RSCN’s care for several months or years until a court issues a decision to either return them to their owners or hand them over to the RSCN permanently.
The latter decision usually marks the start of a long and risky rehabilitation process. For weeks, RSCN staff teach the falcon to forget the human hand that recently fed it. Then comes the release into the wild.
“When we do a falcon release, it’s like being on a CIA mission,” Hamidan said. “We head out to the release site at dawn, making sure no one knows where we are going, even our own staff. We do all this so that no one knows where the falcons are released, so people don’t try to recapture them.”
Falcons are in high demand in wealthy Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Falconry, the practice of hunting with falcons, has long been a popular sport there. Wild-caught peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and saker (F. cherrug) falcons are especially sought after by falconers, who prize them for their hunting skills.
But wild falcon populations have declined in many parts of the world over the past century due to various factors, including pesticide use, habitat degradation and overhunting. Saker falcons are now globally endangered according to the IUCN Red List, and sooty falcons (F. concolor) and red-footed falcons (F. vespertinus) are critically endangered around the Mediterranean. Fueled by rising oil wealth in the Gulf since the 1980s, falcon trapping undoubtedly plays a role in the birds’ demise: a 2022 IUCN report found that trapping and hunting threatened more than 40 species of raptors nesting around the Mediterranean, making it the most common threat to birds of prey in the region.
To counter this decline, the international trade in wild falcons has long been restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Falconers can buy captive-bred birds instead, but many still seek out wild-caught falcons, which are seen as better hunters. And despite international efforts to protect them, trafficking remains prevalent in the Middle East and notably in Syria, where 12 years of war and economic crisis have made the falcon business more lucrative than ever.
The capital of falcons
Falcon trapping developed on a large scale in Syria in the 1980s due to rising demand from the Gulf. Local trappers based in Syria’s northeast, a flat and semiarid region particularly suitable for hunting falcons, told Mongabay their business emerged out of interactions with falconers from the Gulf, who taught them how to catch the birds.
This knowledge quickly spread, and within a few decades Syria had become a regional hub of the falcon business, despite being a party to CITES. By 2009, the Syrian city of al-Rahiba, known locally as the “capital of falcons,” hosted at least 170 people involved in falconry or falcon trading. Catching wild falcons is illegal in Syria, as well as other countries in the region, but penalties were weak and poorly enforced. Legal loopholes meant traders were allowed to deal birds in the open for the domestic market, although exporting them was officially outlawed.
Ornithologists who worked in Syria in the 2000s recall that hunting was already very popular by then. “Everyone in the countryside was involved in falconry — either in trapping, training or smuggling falcons,” said Hamidan as he recalled his visit to Sabkhat al-Jabbul Nature Reserve, a Ramsar site. “In one village, we saw a group of 40 hunters on motorcycles following a falcon! Once, we even had to prevent our guide in the reserve, a conservation guide, from tipping off his friends when he spotted one.”
This hunting frenzy was driven by the high price people were willing to pay for falcons. The trade was so lucrative that some Syrian trappers even started hunting abroad, following the birds to their nesting grounds in Central Asia. To this day, gyrfalcon (F. rusticolus) poachers are still nicknamed “Syrians” in Russia, a reference to the prevalence of Syrian trappers who pioneered the practice in the country.
When the Syrian civil war started in 2011, it affected the local falcon industry along with the rest of society. In certain parts of Syria, hunters could no longer travel to their preferred hunting grounds. Some areas became too dangerous due to the presence of various militias; others were heavily mined.
“The crisis affected everyone, hunters included. Trappers couldn’t go to areas where there was fighting and security issues,” Fayez al-Hassouni, a bird trader based in northeastern Syria, told Mongabay in April. Trafficking networks were also disrupted: Rahiba, the falcon capital, is still controlled by the Syrian government, while many hunting grounds are in areas controlled by non-state groups, and trade between these zones is treacherous and requires expensive bribes to navigate.
Despite these challenges, falcon poaching continued throughout the war, and even increased.
“The price of birds vastly increased, so a lot of new people entered this field and started trapping,” al-Hassouni said. War and international sanctions have plunged the country into deep economic crisis. One U.S. dollar, worth 50 Syrian pounds before the war, now trades on the black market for 12,000 pounds as of July 2023.
Since falcons are bought in dollars by the final buyers in the Gulf, their value skyrocketed in recent years. According to Abu Saddam, a hunter from northeastern Syria with 20 years of experience catching falcons, this has led to an unprecedented surge in trapping. “Over the past four years, the number of people trapping falcons really increased due to good prices,” he told Mongabay, requesting we use only his given name due to security concerns. “Even people who don’t know anything about hunting started to go out and try their luck.”
When Mongabay met Abu Saddam in April in his native village of al-Tash, he showed us a young peregrine falcon caught a few days prior. He said he expected the bird would sell for around $10,000. In this remote village, where most families live in modest mud-brick houses and make a meager living from farming and herding, each catch is an unexpected blessing for the entire community. Trappers usually hunt in groups of five to 10 or more, splitting hunting expenses as well as profits.
The price of a bird varies widely depending on its size, age and species, but it usually represents a fortune locally. Ali, another hunter based in the south of the country who requested Mongabay use only his given name citing security concerns, told Mongabay that 14 falcons were caught last fall in his village. Each sold for a good price, ranging from $1,600 to $30,000.
But it’s not just about money. Over the years, what started as a lucrative business has become an integral part of the region’s heritage, a passion transmitted from father to son that falcon hunters see as a way to reconnect with nature. The activity is also intimately linked to a certain vision of masculinity, associated with resilience and the ability to survive in the desert.
“It’s an addiction that runs deep in our veins,” Abu Saddam said. “Even if the birds didn’t sell for a good price, I would still hunt them.”
A regional problem
As trapping intensifies, trading networks across Syria have reconfigured to adapt. Hunters and traders told Mongabay most of the falcons are still sent to Rahiba, although they must now cross multiple checkpoints to enter government-controlled areas. From Rahiba, they’re sent by plane to the Gulf via Lebanon or smuggled through neighboring Iraq and Jordan. Alternative routes have also emerged: some traders based in northeastern Syria send the birds directly to neighboring Iraq and then on to the Gulf.
Rampant trafficking in Syria has regional implications, since Jordan and Iraq are both overland transit routes for Syrian-caught falcons. But they’re also trapping hubs themselves, and the two countries struggle to control poaching in their own territory.
Jordanian trappers mostly hunt in the country’s eastern Jaffar Desert, where authorities have a limited reach. “There is no police in these areas, there are no rangers,” Fares Khoury, the founder and president of Jordan BirdWatch, told Mongabay. “These areas are known for having a lot of trapping going on, but no one goes and talks to these people.”
Khoury spent several weeks in the Jordanian desert with trappers to study their hunting practices. He said poaching has taken a noticeable toll on falcons and other raptors, as he reported in a 2020 paper based on his time with the trappers.
“It’s totally uncontrolled. We don’t even have accurate numbers on how many are being trapped in Jordan and in the region,” Khoury said. “And it’s also encouraging people to trap other birds. The lanner [F. biarmicus] and barbary [F. peregrinus pelegrinoides] falcon. And these are becoming very rare, or even extinct in Jordan.”
In Iraq, falcon trading is a booming business taking place almost in the open. In cities like Baghdad and the northern provincial capitals of Duhok and Sulaymaniyah, protected wildlife is sold in open-air markets, including raptor chicks and endangered Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), which inexperienced hunters sometimes confuse with falcons.
Like Syria, divided by 12 years of conflict, Iraq is reeling from decades of war and political instability. Wildlife protection is hardly a priority, and the logistical challenges of controlling remote corners of the country, where local elites wield more power than the central government, are immense.
But with trappers in Iraq and Syria willing to edge into minefields to catch falcons, better law enforcement likely won’t be enough to keep poachers in check. As large chunks of the region’s population spiral into poverty, the only realistic way to tackle trafficking in the coming years may be on the demand side: cracking down on wealthy falconers who, for the love of these birds, are willing to risk driving them to extinction.
Khoury, F., Makarevicz, C., Al-Hmoud, A.-R., & Mithin, S. (2020) The illegal trapping of large falcons in Jordan. Sandgrouse, 42(2), 239-247. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353841157_The_illegal_trapping_of_large_falcons_in_Jordan
Westrip, J. R. S., Burfield, I. J., Allen, D. J., & Numa, C. (2022). The Conservation Status of Breeding Raptors in the Mediterranean. IUCN, Málaga, Spain. Retrieved from https://www.iucn.org/sites/default/files/2022-11/raptors-mediterranean-2022_compressed.pdf
This article by Lyse Mauvais was first published by Mongabay.com on 10 August 2023. Lead Image: A rescued falcon, likely a peregrine (Falco peregrinus) or a captive-bred hybrid thereof, at the RSCN raptor rehabilitation center in Jordan in March 2022. Image by Lyse Mauvais for Mongabay.
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