Abu Dhabi: More than 28,000 falcons have been issued with passports since 2002, a senior official said on Monday.

The Ministry of Environment and Water’s Falcon Passport Programme was launched to combat the illegal trade in falcons in the region, Mohammad Al Bowardi, managing director of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD), said.

He was delivering the opening speech at a three-day international meeting in Abu Dhabi on the conservation of Saker falcons.

Al Bowardi said the passport scheme helps maintain sustainable falconry practices. It documents the bird’s country of origin, permit number and the date of its last export or import. It lets falcons travel abroad without the need for a permit from Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Cites is an international agreement between governments, which aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Over the past 20 years the Saker falcon has sadly suffered major population declines, reducing the number of breeding pairs by almost 50 per cent due to various threats such as habitat loss and degradation, as well as other human threats, the official said.

“We are left today with the Saker falcon being classified as globally ‘endangered’ by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) and up-listed to Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species in 2011,” he said.

The Saker falcon’s importance is not limited to its biodiversity or cultural values, but also to the role it plays in falconry — a cultural sport with deep roots that is deeply respected and still practised by many today, Al Bowardi said.

Cultural heritage

With falconry being recognised by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage, falconry is seen as contributing to fostering and enhancing cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue worldwide.

For over two decades now, the UAE has led efforts and engaged in a range of innovative initiatives here and abroad to promote the conservation of this precious species and sustainable falconry, Al Bowardi said.

Since 1995, the EAD’s Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has been managing the long-running Shaikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme, which uses cutting-edge technology to ensure that Saker and Peregrine falcons are at the forefront of conservation efforts. Since the programme’s inception, more than 1,500 falcons have been released back into the wild in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and China, he said.

“Additionally, in 2010, the EAD — on behalf of the UAE government — signed an agreement with the government of Mongolia that would see us together build 5,000 artificial nests in the Mongolian steppes in a bid to increase the number of breeding Saker falcons.”

The Saker Falcon Task Force’s mission is to conserve and manage a species throughout its migratory range that spans over 70 countries, he said.