Rare Falcons Confiscated at Moscow Airport

Monday, 22 November, 2010
Moscow, Russia
Customs officials seized eight rare and endangered falcons yesterday at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport from a passenger who attempted to smuggle them out of Russia, according to IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare - www.ifaw.org).

The birds – called gyrfalcons – were discovered in two cartons being loaded with luggage into the hold of a plane bound for the Middle East. They were swaddled in cloth, hooded, and packed four to a box. The woman who checked the cartons as luggage was removed from the plane and detained. She has been released pending a court appearance.

“It is illegal to kill, capture or trade in these very endangered birds,” said Masha Vorontsova, IFAW’s Russia Director. “But at least 100 wild gyrfalcons are smuggled out of Russia each year, primarily driven by demand from the growing popularity of falconry in the Middle East.”

A wild gyrfalcon can be sold for as much as USD $50,000 on the black market.

Officials believe that the eight gyrfalcons were captured from the wild in the Russian Far East and then transported by plane to Moscow, passing undetected through two security checkpoints and a customs inspection. The birds were discovered while being loaded into the baggage hold of a plane departing for Damascus, Syria.

The birds have been sent to IFAW’s raptor rehabilitation center in Moscow and will be cared for until they are strong enough to be returned to the wild. IFAW ornithologist and bird rehabilitator Sergei Ganusevich said he expects all eight birds to survive; they will likely be transported back to Kamchatka for release sometime next month. IFAW has rehabilitated and released several dozen gyrfalcons and other endangered birds of prey over the past decade; most were victims of illegal trade.

“IFAW’s goal is to protect these rare birds from poachers and smugglers, and to return them to their natural habitat,” said Vorontsova.

Gyrfalcons are native to the Russian Far East. They are the largest and strongest of all falcons and have been highly prized for falconry since the Middle Ages. About 1,000 gyrfalcon pairs remain in the wild in Russia, living mostly around the Polar Circle, from the Kola Peninsula to Chukotka and Kamchatka. Prior to winter, the birds migrate somewhat south to Kamchatka.

The gyrfalcon is listed both in the IUCN Red Book of endangered species and on the CITES Appendix I. The latter designation prohibits any international commercial trade of these birds. 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, which endangers many raptor species such as saker falcons and peregrine falcons.

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