Houbara Bustards In The UAE

on March 04, 2014

The Houbara bustard of the arabian gulf has long synonymously been associated with the arabian falconry tradition but in recent years their numbers have dwindled significantly due to unsustainable hunting practices and the rapid human population growth of their native lands and oil and gas exploration. 

No question they have been hunted in unsustainable numbers in particular in the last 20 years with the advent of powerful SUV's to go deeper into the desert and the use of gyrs and gyr hybrids that are much larger, stronger and faster than the more traditional saker and peregrines that were historically used to hunt them. Here in the UAE in particular, most hunting has been banned, particularly of large mammals and most bird species. This being said worse than hunting has been the poaching of houbara. 

One not so well known fact is that here in the UAE in particular there are huge conservation measures being taken and houbara breeding projects are one such measure. They were initiated by the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan some 30 years ago. Since then much research and considerable expense has been expended on understanding the houbara, its migration and the breeding of them in captivity. GPS tracking have shown that they migrate from China and into Mongolia, Pakistan, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  

There are now extensive and various conservation and breeding projects in place that were created for many of the numerous indigenous species of birds and both small and large mammals. Specifically with the tricky to breed and sensitive houbara, this has been a huge success and more recently they are successfully breeding over 50,000 houbara annually and are releasing them in various places not least within the UAE but also in Morocco and neighbouring countries. It is reported of those 50,000 bred that 35,000 are the Asian Houbara and 15,000 are the North African Houbaras. Qatar and Kuwait have since also created similar conservation efforts. 

Just recently they released several hundred houbara just east of Dubai and I happened to come across a few in the desert that I managed to photograph before they totally dispersed. Survival rate is proclaimed to be about 65-70% but sadly field experience reports that this might be too optimistic as many if not most die following a release. Some from starvation and poor adaptation but the majority of the naive and inexperienced farm bred houbara will fall victim to predators like desert foxes and large wild raptors like bonelli eagles and other eagle species. Of course no doubt some will fall prey to enthusiastic falconers who are often alerted by the desert living bedouin people who in turn are rewarded generously for finding a houbara for a falconer to fly his falcon at. In early season a wild freshly migrated houbara could fetch as much as fifteen or twenty thousand dirhams ($5500) if found by the bedouin people following a call to some of their wealthy falconer contacts. However farm bred birds found out in the desert in hawkable situations will sell for much less, maybe 3000 dirhams in late season. Fortunately some will make it through a season to survive and hopefully breed in the wild, ... but the odds are stacked heavily against them.

Meanwhile in recent years a captive bred houbara can be bought for as little as 1000 dirhams (heavily subsidized from the actual cost to breed one), from the various government breeding establishments. To some extent this has helped thwart the poaching efforts elsewhere in places like Pakistan where they steal houbara from the wild and ship to gulf countries for tidy sums. Often these farm captive bred birds are to be used as "baggies" to enter an inexperienced young falcon and particularly by falconers of the sheikhs in preparation for an out of country hunt in Pakistan or Neighbouring "Stan" countries when they will hunt their wild and very much stronger and fitter cousins. My observations to date has shown that the captive bred houbara do not fly as strong as the wild ...much like I've witnessed with most captive bred and released game birds anywhere else in the world.

Myself, I find them quite fascinating and prefer to photograph them instead. They have an incredible flamboyant courtship display that I'd someday like to capture.

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