Russian gyrfalcons released to wild by IFAW

Thursday, November 9, 2006
Moscow, Russia
This October, police confiscated five rare, endangered falcons at a Moscow area airport, during an attempt to smuggle them into Russia. The birds – called gyrfalcons – are native to the Chukotka population in Russia. Gyrfalcons are the largest and strongest of all falcons and have been highly prized as the best possible bird for falconry since the Middle Ages.
Four of the birds were sent by Russia’s environmental watchdog to IFAW’s wildlife rehabilitation center in Moscow. One of the falcons died.

All four gyrfalcons were fully rehabilitated and were released to the wild on the Kamchatka peninsula this week.

Only about 1,000 gyrfalcon pairs remain in the wild in Russia. Their main habitat is above the Polar Circle, from the Kola peninsula to Chukotka. Prior to winter, the birds move south but not far from their main habitat. This year the remaining population of Chukotka gyrfalcons has already migrated to Kamchatka.

“The gyrfalcon is a very rare falcon species, but because of their remarkable hunting skills there is a big demand for these birds among falcon hunters in the Middle East. IFAW’s goal is to protect these wonderful birds from poachers and smugglers, and to return them to their natural habitat to help conserve the rare species of Russia,” says Masha Vorontsova, IFAW’s Russia director.

The gyrfalcon is listed both in the Red Book of endangered species and on the CITES Appendix I list. The latter designation prohibits any commercial use or transportation of the animals mentioned. For scientific purposes or an official exchange between states, a special import-export license is needed. IFAW works within Russia to help the government effectively enforce CITES regulations.

The smuggling of rare birds of prey from or through Russia is a growing problem. Raptors like saker falcons and peregrine falcons, also CITES species, are endangered by illegal smuggling.

In September 2003, customs officials in the Yekaterinburg airport in Russia’s Urals region intercepted an illegal shipment of saker falcons en route to Dubai. In autumn 2004, 30 saker falcons were sent from Mongolia, via Novosibirsk and Moscow, to one of the Gulf states. Although a CITES license was presented to the customs, the birds were temporarily seized by the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow due to the suspicious shipment description. The birds were ultimately allowed to fly to their destination because of shortcomings and contradictions in the Russian customs legislation. Just last year, 11 gyrfalcons were intercepted by police in one of the Moscow airports, but very soon reported dead – a very suspicious case as well. Currently, there are more than 10 gyrfalcons seized by police and being kept in Moscow shelters.

Smugglers prefer female falcons due to their size and outstanding hunting features in comparison to the male birds – a reason for higher prices as well. Such preferences create a critical danger to the populations.

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