By Robert Kenward

The Saker is the world’s second largest falcon, smaller than the polar Gyr Falcon and larger than the globally distributed Peregrine. All three species are loved by falconers, who managed around 1970 to start breeding them in captivity. These efforts were not merely for falconry but originally to rescue Peregrines after catastrophic population declines caused by organochlorine pesticides in food chains.

Gyr Falcon populations remain healthy and Peregrines have been helped to return not merely to traditional cliff, marsh and tree nest sites but also to spread widely to buildings, electricity pylons and other tall human constructs. Yet the Saker has recently been Red-Listed as Endangered, for the second time in ten years. Last November, Sakers were moved to Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and they are at risk of a trade ban in CITES. Why?

Sakers are a migratory falcon of Eurasian steppes and arid areas. In steppes with abundant rodents, annual broods of 5 are relatively common. Highly productive Saker populations can sustain high losses of young on migration to wintering areas in arid parts of southern Eurasia and Africa. Harvest along migration routes for traditional falconry may have affected 25% of young, but that would have been sustainable from healthy populations. However, brood sizes are lower in agricultural steppe-land, and the worst current problem occurs when adults too are trapped in breeding areas. Local people are poor in these areas and have heard that trained Sakers can be worth several thousand dollars.

Thus Sakers are a species at risk from agricultural intensification in the long term and, as high-value wildlife they are also at risk from over-harvest in the short term. Does that sound familiar? Fortunately the Saker issue has not become as emotive as the killing for horn or ivory of species also at long-term risk from changing land-use. So what is being done?

As well as adopting the IUCN Policy Statement on Sustainable Use, the WCC at Amman in 2000 passed resolution 2.74 on Conserving the Saker Falcon. The resolution [1] congratulated the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA] and the United Arab Emirates [UAE] on their early implementation of national measures for research-based conservation of wildlife; and [2] requested that Saker range states and falconers work with CITES and other international regulatory authorities to develop an internationally recognized system, initially for this species but applicable for other wildlife, that combines wildlife research and modern marking technologies to:
a)    monitor populations and estimate sustainable yields;
b)    regulate procurement and international movements with minimal administrative costs; and
c)    motivate conservation of habitats in natal areas.

The resolution rightly praised UAE for starting research across the global range of the Saker, and KSA for work on raptors trapped on migration along the Red Sea coast. It foresaw that trapping of young birds marked in natal populations could be used to estimates sizes, trends and harvest rates of those populations (addressing a) above), provided that DNA analyses could be used to identify geographic origins of unmarked birds. It also recognised that a licensing system need only bank a DNA sample to be able to check in future if a trained Saker was obtained legally (addressing b), with licence payments to reward trappers for the samples and to local people for marking in natal areas (addressing c), thereby making the birds an economic resource far from the areas where they would be trapped.

Saudi falconers were the key to success for such a system, not only because of their links to trappers for the wild-caught falcons they prefer, but also because UAE was encouraging its falconers to fly only domestic bred falcons. However, planning such a system stalled after the events of 11 September 2001. Uncontrolled trapping has now reduced Saker numbers severely enough in some areas for population estimates to just warrant endangered status overall (provided previous populations in all countries weren’t over-estimated). On the positive side, restocking of depleted Saker populations has started in Kazakhstan and work by UAE and Falcons International in Mongolia has show how Saker populations can be enhanced by provision of artificial nests.

Noting these developments, the CMS CoP in Bergen last November voted measures that would prevent use of wild Sakers from all countries except Mongolia, but with provision for a rolling down-listing where countries restore their Saker populations. The first meeting of a CMS Task Force to develop an international action plan was very encouraging. However, although research and falconry networks are probably adequate for contacting and training local people in Saker breeding areas, it seems that most trappers of Sakers may live in Syria. It is also unclear whether sufficient funding can be available to establish an organisation across countries, perhaps as a Foundation, to implement international monitoring and licensing in cooperation with CMS, CITES and other interests, as foreseen in Amman.

Robert Kenward is Chair of SULi-Europe/ESUSG.

Photo: Saker broods of 5 are common in good habitat, here radio-tagged in 1993 work by UAE. Credit: Robert Kenward.