Scottish falcons are stolen by order of Arab sheikhs: Investigation

By Tychyna TetianaMar 12, 2024 10:24 AMNews
Scottish falcons are stolen by order of Arab sheikhs: Investigation
The falcon is a status bird. Source:

Recently, the results of Operation Tantallon, a major criminal investigation into wildlife that uncovered evidence of international trade in illegally caught birds, were announced. It involved officers from the UK's National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU).

The criminals were stealing to order for sheikh clients, many of whom live in the incredibly oil-rich deserts of Arabia, where falconry is gaining popularity. However, falconry has quickly turned into a lucrative global enterprise that has exposed Scottish wild peregrine falcons to ruthless exploitation on the black market, DailyMail reports.

In elite Arab circles, the best specimens are in demand not only because of their speed but also as the ultimate status symbol. This eventually led to the spread of bird smuggling and the flourishing of the black market. Often, birds caught in the wild were smuggled and sold within a few years. It has been emphasized that many birds stolen from the wild are now involved in racing in Dubai.

Thus, it is easy to see why organized crime might be interested in peregrine eggs. In Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, top identities are worth more than their weight in gold. In October 2022, a record price of almost 780 thousand pounds was set for a falcon.

At the same time, the bird's purebred appearance can be as valuable as its speed. The UAE is now holding peregrine falcon "beauty contests" with six-figure prizes for the winners. In the vast air-conditioned shopping malls of Dubai and Doha, the capital of Qatar, designer falconry shops sell not only tethered birds but also the latest fashion accessories and potions to enhance their plumage and increase their strength.

Birds can be brought in for a simple checkup or microchipping, but there are surgical rooms ready to handle injuries sustained in the race, including broken bones, using identical equipment as in human hospitals and the same medications you'd find in a pharmacy. In addition, more cosmetic work takes place in the "impingement" room, a beauty salon for falcons, where beaks are polished, claws are trimmed, and damaged feathers are replaced from a large "feather bank" where tens of thousands of feathers are sorted by color, pattern, and size.

Moreover, experts consider captive-bred birds, which can be legally traded, to be slower because they are hand-fed from birth and do not have to hunt. Wild birds are more desirable: they are considered stronger, fiercer, and faster, and Scottish specimens, which are genetically larger than Mediterranean specimens, are particularly prized in the Middle East.

Despite a recent resurgence, peregrine falcons are still considered rare, with around 1,600 wild pairs nesting across the UK - about a third of them in Scotland -  thanks to the work of conservationists and vigilant volunteer groups. There are also numerous legal captive breeding projects.

The Al Thani royal family from Qatar has owned one of them near Bonchester Bridge in Roxburghshire for exclusive private use for more than a decade and hires the best local breeders to achieve results. At the same time, according to police and animal welfare charities, the legal trade in captive-bred eggs is being abused by large operators to launder stolen birds.

The laundering process begins when a wild bird is seized: a false declaration is filled out stating that the falcon was legally bred from captive adults, and then shipped abroad as soon as possible. According to Police Scotland, the number of peregrine export permits in the UK increased by 4,500 percent between 2007 and 2022, and it is unknown how many were illegally caught.

Researchers say that Operation Tantallon has shown that many more people are involved in the illegal business. "The problem is that we just don't know the scale of the problem, we don't know if it's a loss of 20-30 birds a year or more than 100. I suspect it's more likely to be more than 100, but we don't really know that," the conclusions say.

If you are interested in what to visit while travelling to Dubai, read the article from TravelWise.

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