Ruhaibeh, Syria – The phone of Ahmad, a falcon hunter, rings. The caller asks him to go straight to a village near his town of Ruhaibeh to check the worth of a falcon caught in the net of one of the hunters.
The area is a known international stock market, setting prices for wild and rare birds smuggled outside Syria after being captured illegally. The bird’s characteristics are displayed over the internet to prospective buyers in Gulf countries. Everyone there hopes to make a “deal of a lifetime.”
Ahmad and a colleague hop on a motorbike and head to the village, but they never reach it because of a road accident that takes their lives. Hence, they could not give the caller the characteristics of a “free bird” that would have changed their life’s worth.
Hunters often turn up as corpses while pursuing birds of prey in the Syrian desert. Such work is illegal but it seems profitable and attracts dozens of hunters yearly. Catching a single bird can turn you into a millionaire, according to Imad al-Khatib, a hunter from Palmyra.
“Frankly, many hunters do not care that their line of work will make these birds extinct in the country. For them, they are nothing but seasonal spoils where many people share the profits. They include government employees who are ignorant of the [birds’] characteristics and would not check for them when being taken out of the country,” adds al-Khatib.
The Syrian government had declared 2012 as the year of the eagle, with the aim of protecting biodiversity. It forbids the export of rare birds, only allowing temporary importation for re-export.
Fraud and Evasion
According to this investigation, which is based on a year-long field survey, the “fraud and evasion” operation is based on replacing old falcons imported from Eastern Europe and Russia into Syria with young birds recently caught in the Syrian skies for re-export.
They are taken out of Syria in an operation known as “replacement smuggling,” made possible by the lack of monitoring and inspection on falcon smuggling at border crossings. The environment ministry lacks the necessary modern equipment to do so. They simply attach a ring to the bird’s leg, which is later checked by customs during re-export.
President of the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA), Dr. Darem Tabbaa, says that Syria is signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But there is no network that links the three sides charged with controlling and organizing trade in falcons: the Administration for Biological Diversity, Directorate of Animal Health, and customs.
This flaw deprives the treasury of custom duties as Syria exports 300 wild birds on average every year to Gulf countries. This goes under the “re-export” line according to documents obtained from the Directorate for Animal Health and the ministry of agriculture. This means that Syria has lost around 3,000 birds in the last decade.
SPANA estimates that the proportion of smuggling birds compared to official trade is almost double, according to Tabbaa. This is around 300 birds of prey every year, a loss of $30,000 yearly — since export customs duties are $100 a bird.
A single falcon can fetch around three million Syrian pounds (SYP) ($60,000) on average. Therefore, total unofficial trade amounts to SYP900 million ($18 million), out of a total of SYP 1.8 billion ($36 million).
A Profession for the Unemployed
Syria has around 4 million hunters, out of which only 300 thousand have official permits, according to Walid al-Attar, a member of the Higher Council for Land Hunting. Those who capture the falcons are actually trading in the symbol of the republic and subjecting it to extinction, according to the official Al-Thawra newspaper on 6 December 2012.
The extent of violations led the government to launch a campaign in all Syrian regions, declaring 2012 as the year of the eagle to protect biodiversity.
Official figures obtained from the Import and Export Department at the Damascus International Airport show that Syria exported around 415 falcons (with $41,000 in duties) compared to 270 falcons last year ($27,000 in duties).
Head of the Department, Firas al-Akhras, says Arab Gulf States are main export destinations. The Directorate of Animal Health provided us with the number of health certificates for falcons exported in 2010 and 2011. They almost concur with customs figures.“Export procedures require that the falcon gets tested and provided with a health certificate. A procedure that takes 21 days. It is required by the quarantine department at the ministry and [the certificate] is part of Syria’s obligations to international treaties,” says Director of Animal Health, Hussein Suleiman.He explains that “the export or import of a falcon also requires the approval of the environment ministry. Each bird brought into Syria has to have this certificate from the originating country.”
A trader who asked to remain anonymous maintains that “prices recorded during formal export are not real and are made to look like they have the same worth as falcons imported for re-export.”
International Stock Exchange
This is the village of Ruhaibeh, 60km north of the Syrian capital Damascus.
Dr. Tabbaa classifies the town as an international stock market that prices free birds and rare birds of prey, and announces them to the world.
The villagers have limitless passion for this occupation. When one of them captures a bird, hunters start relaying the news which spreads like wildfire. Capturing birds is very popular since its characteristics are similar to those living in the Gulf, according to birdwatcher Ahmed Khaled al-Abdallah, from the National Committee for the Development of Al-Badia.
He says that most residents start capturing birds during the falcon’s yearly migration season, from the forests of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, towards the equator between September and December. The price of one bird can feed a family for a whole year.
Wildlife enthusiasts whom we met claim that falconers treat the birds very well. They are even careful not to damage their feathers during capture so as not to affect the price or make customers hesitant. A single feather can fetch up to SYR150,000 ($3,000).
Electronic Brokerage and Commissions
During a visit to Ruhaibeh, brokers’ and dealers’ shops were everywhere, under various guises: pet shops, real estate offices, contracting, general trade… They are the brokers among the hunters of the region. When the deal goes through, the office or the broker receives a commission based on the price of the individual falcon.
The commission is no less than SYR100,000 ($2,000), while the price of a single falcon can fetch between SYR3 million and 12 million ($60,000 to $240,000), according to more than one expert we spoke to.
Falcon expert and enthusiast Walid Shaker says that the most expensive bird was sold in 1992 for SYR 11 million ($220,000). It was a white Gernas downed in the Badia of al-Bukamal on the eastern Syrian border with Iraq.
Al-Attar believes the falcons are cheaper compared to other countries, while quantities are high due to market inflation and demand from Gulf nationals.
According to a report by CITES monitors, published on the internet in 2001, around 4,000 free birds are bought in Saudi Arabia and 1,000 in Qatar. The UAE and Kuwait purchase between 500 and 1,000. The birds are sold in Syria, Iran, Pakistan, China, Mongolia, and Afghanistan.
Government Paralysis and Legal Decline
The Syrian government forbids falcon hunting and has set a fine of between SYR50 to 250 ($1 to $5), in addition to a jail sentence ranging between 10 days and two months, according to anti-hunting law No.152 of 1970.
But the law cannot be applied, according to environmental monitor Abdul Hadi al-Najjar. “Only a few people care about monitoring falcons and migrant birds to protect them from being captured. In Syria, they are only two working with the ministry of environment to identify and monitor the falcons’ journey over the country,” he says.
Ministry experts are working jointly with customs personnel to monitor the re-export of imported falcons and chase “replacement smuggling” operations. The ministry insists that it lacks the necessary technology.
According to the Director of Biodiversity, Lands, and Nature Reserves in the ministry, Bilal al-Hayek, it intends to start using a new technology soon. Birds of prey will be injected with electronic chips which include information on the creature and its characteristics, whether entering or leaving the country. They can be read by a special scanner.
According to a source at the Energy Ministry, they hope that this technology will be implemented this year. He confirms that even though the ministry is late in adopting such technology, it has already taken important steps to develop the performance of personnel who monitor unofficial trade.
Since 2003, around 300 employees have been trained, in collaboration with customs, on monitoring border crossings and applying the technology. The source indicates that the ministry has never given any permits to export falcons captured in Syrian skies. All the permits given were for birds that were imported for re-export.
The source acknowledges that the ministry is unable to stop people from working as falcon hunters. It seeks to organize the issue through the creation of farms and the increase of breeding under the ministry’s supervision.
Meanwhile, former Director of Customs at the Damascus airport, Radwan Yehia, confirms that smuggling can happen through replacement. “The job of customs is to check the papers related to the bird (the falcon) being readied for export, such as the health certificate, the quarantine certificate, and others. Usually, the birds are allowed into Syria temporarily to be later exported,” he says.
This means that customs will only check the bird’s papers (a passport with a picture of the bird and its type and a health bill from the originating country indicating that it is not sick). They do not focus on the characteristics, which allows visitors to Syria to replace sick or elderly birds with better ones and send them out of the country, according to SPANA.
Director of biodiversity in the ministry, Akram Darwish, asserts that they are “seeking to train national expert cadres to work at border points and airports, monitoring the import and export of endangered wildlife.”
Dr. Tabbaa believes that the growing number of hunters resulted in diverting the path that seasonal migratory birds take. The birds started to avoid Syria. This has caused major environmental effects, especially related to biodiversity and the equilibrium of the ecosystem.
Some species increased in numbers at the expense of others. Diseases have spread, in addition to agricultural problems related to this environmental imbalance, such as the extinction of some of the species that falcons prey on.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in London has classified the “free bird” falcon under the threat of extinction especially in its mating grounds in Central Asia.
In 2007, the Canadian Waterloo University, in collaboration with Birdlife International and the General Authority for Environmental Affairs in Syria conducted a field survey of the birds in Sabkhat al-Juboul in Aleppo and the Aleppo, Baath, and Tishreen Lakes.
The study monitored birds, including falcons, and counted them. It showed that illegal hunting is widespread and poses a direct danger to birds, namely falcons. In the long term, the threat will be the pressure and wide expansion of agriculture.
“The spread of green areas and trees restricts the falcons’ ability to see their prey. They usually avoid passing over such areas during migration seasons, preferring to fly over barren deserts where open spaces make it easier to spot their prey,” Dr. Tabbaa explains.
Import and Export Procedures
According to memo (No. 2941) issued on 14 July 2002, the Syrian government allows the export of falcons according to the quantity and type of imported birds, without other criteria. It did not consider the falcons as part of Syria’s ecosystem and thus they do not impact it, since they are for trade purposes (imported from the Gulf, Turkey, and other countries for re-export).
Importing birds is based on the following conditions: Import licenses and proof of purchase are waived for imported falcons, but require the approval of the agriculture ministry. The numbers of imported birds are not set at any particular figure. Customs for each falcon is $100. The originating country must be free of bird flu and the imported falcons must be accompanied with an international health certificate indicating that they are disease-free.
Dealers Above the Law
Those who purchase falcons in Syria are not ordinary people. They are merchants with links to customers in the Arab Gulf and Europe. Some travel to European countries and Russia to purchase falcons and smuggle them into Syria, to later re-export them to the Gulf after replacing them with Syrian falcons.
This is due to the unlimited demand for falcons captured in Syria because of various characteristics — their fierceness, low price, reputation, and hunting abilities. This was confirmed by a report published by Reuter
s on 27 October 2007, where the prosecutors’ uncovered wooden boxes containing 127 rare falcons on the runway at Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan ready to board a plane headed to Syria, with a total value of $1 million.
On the issue, Dr. Tabbaa says that greed and strong economic interests motivate the occupation of capturing falcons. This has prompted many hunters to use illegal ways to travel to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. There, they purchase the birds on the black market and smuggle them into the Gulf through Syria.
The village of Ruhaibeh has a population of around 50,000 (2010). The literacy rate exceeds 90% of the population.
It is famous for trade in free birds (falcons), since it is a main transit route during their migration due to its mountains (the Qalamoun mountain range) and adjacent to al-Badia.
The village forms a crossroad. On one hand it is a breeding ground for wild birds. On the other, it is a contact point for prospective agents and bedouins who hunt with falcons.
Its residents inherited the vocation of falcon hunting and trade, attracting s professionals from all over Syria, the Arab Gulf countries, and others.
It is called Ruhaibeh in Arabic due to its wide and extended lands. The more common story is that it is named so due to its people’s hospitality.
This report was completed under the supervision and support of the ARIJ Network (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism). Journalist May Abido participated in collecting stories for the report under the supervision of Ibrahim Yakhour.