From Mongolia to Wales, the Pride of Genghis Khan Flies On

By John Pomfret, Washington Post, Monday 4 September 2000; Page A17

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia—In the rolling green grasslands outside this sleepy North Asian capital, Eugene Popov clutched a majestic raptor with bulging gray eyes. It was a saker falcon, pride of Middle East sheiks, adored by Genghis Khan.

A herdsman just walked over and gave it to us, Popov said, slightly nonplussed, as he handled the bird with an expert’s touch, his hands encased in kid gloves.

The herdsman had found the right man. Popov is a well-known ornithologist, and for the past few years he and other scientists have been working on a plan to save this majestic bird from extinction. The saker falcon, which in ancient times ranged from the forests of East Asia to the Carpathian Mountains of Hungary, has vanished from Europe and most of Russia and is now found only in Mongolia, China and parts of Siberia.

Popov and his colleagues from around the world have come to this verdant valley in Mongolia, where eagles nest in hillside forests and wolves prowl ravines, to ponder the result of their efforts. It looks like they’ve succeeded.

Good management, good science and a lot of help from the saker falcons have conspired to save this regal bird of prey. Today, Nick Fox, a well-known falcon breeder based half a world away from Mongolia, can confidently say: There’s no way they are under the peril of extinction.

Falcons, prized for their hunting skills, have been an obsession of Asian and Middle Eastern men for centuries. In the 13th century, Mongolia’s great ruler, Genghis Khan, kept 800 falcons and 800 attendants for them. Last year, a sheik from Bahrain was caught trying to smuggle 19 falcons through Cairo’s airport.

Moneyed Persian Gulf businessmen jet out with their favorite birds to the deserts of Pakistan each year to snare their preferred prey, the lesser MacQueen’s bustard. Its cooked flesh is said to be an aphrodisiac, and the bird has been hunted to extinction on the Arabian Peninsula.

Just a few years ago, a fine saker cost upwards of $20,000 on the black market, prompting the nickname feathered cocaine.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species bans the trade of gyr and peregrine falcons and severely restricts the export of sakers. Under the convention, Mongolia will export 61 falcons this year for $2,760 each. Separately, Mongolia signed a 10-year export contract with a Saudi prince in 1994 to buy 800 non-endangered falcons for $2 million.

Meanwhile, in the Welsh countryside, Fox, backed by funds from Middle Eastern bird lovers looking for a cheaper saker, started breeding them in captivity.

It has worked. In the wild, 75 percent of sakers die in their first autumn or winter. But in rural Wales, life isn’t so harsh. Fox has had a roaring success at his National Avian Research Center Falcon Facility in the town of Carmarthen and, it turns out, sakers bred in captivity can hunt just as well as those from the wild. In some cases, Fox said, they’re even better.

We are hatching some tremendous birds, Fox said. We’ve gotten some of our Middle Eastern friends to donate some amazing birds. We have the luxury of cross-breeding.

The Welsh institute is so successful that the price of a hot-rod saker has tumbled to less than $750—a mere 3.7 percent of the top black market price. This is bound to affect Mongolia’s export system, because they sell permits for more than $2,000, and it could also squash the black market trade.

Mongolia’s trade in exotic animals might take a little bit of a beating, Fox said, but it’s the saker that’s going to win in the end.