A highly protected species...
Threats to the bird have mounted despite it being classified a protected species in most countries where it occurs. In addition, it is placed in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix I, which means that commercial trade in live or dead animals and animal parts is totally forbidden.
It is also listed in CMS (Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals - known as the Bonn Convention) Appendix II. At the same time, IUCN - The World Conservation Union gives houbara the status of "Near Threatened" - seriously depleted or decreasing due to, among other reasons, over-exploitation, and at risk of becoming endangered, or even extinct, in some places.
The Asian houbara migrates south every winter from its breeding grounds (Central Asia, China and Mongolia), and heads to its wintering habitats (Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, including UAE). At one time, the Arabian Peninsula itself had healthy resident breeding population, but these have been hunted almost to extinction. Only parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman still have regular, though small, breeding populations.
Houbara hunting with falcons is the main threat to the specie's survival. Once an elite sport, it is now affordable and becoming increasingly popular. Also, there have been some undesirable deviations from traditional practice.
Hunting would, at one time, take place from October to March; but currently there is a tendency to extend the hunting season. Then again, hunting would take place mainly in the wintering areas of houbara - Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Arabian Peninsula. Today, more and more Central Asian countries are attracting falconers to hunt.
Huge numbers are trapped (mainly in Pakistan and Iran) for use in training falcons to hunt. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 are lost this way each year for supply to falconers on the Arabian Peninsula alone. Poachers trap these illegally and ship them in appallingly inhumane conditions. More than half die in transit.
In most countries, hunting houbara is illegal, but commonly done. Therefore, no regulations are put in place, since an illegal activity cannot be legally regulated.
The attempt to conserve
Captive breeding of houbara is being undertaken at National Avian Research Centre - NARC (Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency), Abu Dhabi. With a mission to reconcile the tradition of Arab falconry with sustainable use of natural resources throughout the bustards and falcons range, NARC started breeding attempts in 1993 with donated birds. Numbers gradually built up. From 21 chicks reared in 2001, to as many as 400 in the current year, the aim is to raise 600-700 annually. NARC is all set to make a difference.
Local re-introduction and re-stocking depleted populations for hunting or for falcon training are among the objectives. Last year, 15 captive bred houbara - all fitted with transmitters - were released; and this year there have been 50. Tracking their movements reveals that the birds are staying within a 30-50 km radius of a protected area in Al Ruwais, Abu Dhabi.