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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Clip Wings of Falcon Smugglers

Four Syrian men and a Russian accomplice will soon stand trial in a Siberian court charged with trying to smuggle crates of rare falcons out of the country with the intention of selling them to wealthy buyers in the Middle East.

The men were detained last August at Novosibirsk's airport after the local organized crime unit received a tip-off that rare birds were about to be smuggled out of Russia on a flight to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. In an early morning raid, with backup from 13 crack riot police, detectives found boxes containing 47 Sakar falcons, an endangered species, which in some cases can fetch up to $80,000 on the black market.

"Every year there are several incidences of smuggling these birds, but this case is significant because of the large number of birds involved," said Alexander Damshinsky, chief spokesman for the Novosibirsk region Interior Ministry.

With its loose border controls, inadequate legislation and underpaid workers keen to supplement their income by poaching, Russia has become a fertile ground for smugglers of expensive rare birds.

Alexei Weissman, Russian director of the organization Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce, or TRAFFIC, said that ornithologists estimate some 400 to 500 Sakar falcons are smuggled out of Russia each year. The biggest market for them is in the Persian Gulf states, where some are used for hunting, but as often as not, they are simply kept as trophies.

"In some Arab countries such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, people boast about their birds like they would boast about a car," said Mikhail Kreindlin, an inspector at the State Committee for the Environment.

The Sakar falcon, which is the second largest of 60 species of falcons, is one of 269 animals registered in Russia's red book of endangered species. They inhabit the barren grasslands and mountains of Russia and Central Asia. Scientists say it is impossible to ascertain how many are left in the wild.

If convicted by the Novosibirsk court, four of the five men face up to seven years in prison. The group's Syrian ringleader, who is also charged with using violence against a policeman, faces up to 12 years in prison. No trial date has been set.

During a yearlong enquiry, investigators established that the four Syrian men had spent the summer of 1997 pursuing the birds around the Gorno-Altai region of southern Siberia with the help of two Niva four-wheel drive cars and a detailed map of the area.

The four Syrians, one of whom is a professional birdcatcher, had business visas issued through a local Syrian-Russian joint venture. The Syrian Embassy in Moscow could not be reached for comment this week. The Syrians worked in conjunction with a Russian accomplice who worked as a pilot on the Sibir airline. He was promised $100 for the safe and discreet delivery of each of the 47 birds to the Gulf. Investigators say the Syrians purchased seven of the birds from a local shepherd for $500 a bird.

After seizing the contraband, police delivered the falcons to the Novosibirsk zoo. Ryacheslav Sholin, director of the zoo, said six of the birds were of the coveted, black variety. Most were released into the wild last autumn. A further eight died before they could be delivered to the zoo.

The Sakar falcon is believed to have the longest history of continuous use by man, according to a report published by the Sinai Wildlife Project. The birds are used both to aid hunters and to hunt the large, flightless bustard bird which can weigh up to 40 kilograms.

Hunters in the Gulf States have practiced falconry for some 2,000 years but with falcons becoming increasingly rare, the sport has become the domain of the seriously wealthy.

On the black market, Sakar falcons cost an average of $5,000. Rarer specimens such as albinos and falcons, which have black coloring because of an excess of the melatonin pigment, can fetch up to $80,000, Weissman said.

In the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it is estimated that 90 percent of Sakar falcon nests have been destroyed by poachers, Weissman said.

Another target for smugglers is the Gorno-Altai region, near Russia's border with Mongolia, where particularly sought-after varieties of the bird have their habitat. It is thought that 150 Sakar Falcons are smuggled from Gorny Altai each year.

Russian environmental police are spread thinly throughout the country's national parks and have been unable to curtail the poaching of both nests and adult birds. Meager state wages also render park rangers vulnerable to poaching themselves.

Police spokesman Damshinsky said the only other arrest for Sakar Falcon smuggling last year involved a small group of men from Azerbaijan. They were caught attempting to smuggle 10 birds via Novosibirsk airport to the Middle East. The case has not yet come to court.