The Season of Migration into the Nets - The Route to Smuggling Rare Migrating Falcons from Libya to the Arabian Gulf

At the end of October 2021, and in the heart of the distant Libyan desert, a falcon falls into the hunting net which had been set up a few hours prior, only to be followed by the cheers of hunters who eagerly run towards it, examining the prey whose talons became entangled in the yarn of the net.
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On October 31st, 2021, the same joy was evident as the hunters gathered again to sell their “valuable catch” in a public auction in the Libyan city of Tobruk, 1250km east of the capital Tripoli. The auction closed with the sale of the falcon for 2.25 million LYD (460 thousand USD, according to the exchange rate at the time) to the Libyan trader Mohammad Al-Sa’dawi.
The auction drew the attention of the media which described the winning bid as the “ most expensive in the world.”
After the media coverage faded, the falcon did not remain in the possession of Al-Sa’dawi for long, as it was quickly transferred outside the Libyan borders.
This type of falcon is listed in Appendix 1 of the CITES convention as an endangered species and hence its hunting and trade are strictly prohibited. However, the hunters have little regard for the treaty and each year, during the falcon migration season, set up their hunting nets, known locally as “the scroll,” all along Libya’s eastern front. The situation has been exasperated by the high price of these birds and the absence of the environmental police and the control of the Libyan Ministry of Environment, under the pretense of a lack of resources.
The hunting and trade of falcons are not confined to Libya but rather extend to a network of traders, middlemen, and smugglers in neighboring countries and even farther.
In this investigation, we used resources such as flight databases, GPS and timing tools and social media to track the journey of the Tobruk falcon from Libya through the Egyptian Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria, ending in Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

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A Journey Across Borders

A few hours after the auction, the Tobrukfalcon was transferred across 370 km to the Egyptian city of Marsa Matrouh.
There, the falcon appeared standing on the wrist of an Egyptian trader named Nagy Abu Rabe’a. Shortly after, the falcon, accompanied by Abu Rabe’a, was transferred via airplane as shown in a video he posted on his Facebook page on November 7, 2021.
A number of the trader’s relatives also posted a Facebook video on November 3, 2021, showing them celebrating the arrival of the Tobrukfalcon all the way from Libya.
A comparison between the photo of the falcon in the Libyan auction and the one appearing with Abu Rabe’a was carried out by Mattis Prommer, a researcher at the University of Florida and Director of the Hungarian program for falcon protection. Prommer found that the photos show the same falcon of the same breed, species and gender.
Both photos show a one-year-old female falcon of the peregrine “Shaheen” species.
Imaging Forensics Company said that the video clips gathered by the investigation team were not a montage and that the same falcon appeared in the video clips taken in Libya and Egypt.
Libyan trader Mohammad Al-Sa’dawi states in a Facebook video posted on November 8, 2021, that he himself had “handed the falcon to Abu Rabe’a.”
Al-Sa’dawi provides further details on the photo of Abu Rabe’a with the falcon, stating that the latter received the falcon in Marsa Matrouh and traveled with it via a private plane from Borg El Arab Airport in Alexandria to the UAE.
Abu Rabe’a declined to comment on the photos and videos that show him with the falcon.
The Egyptian merchant posted a video of the falcon inside a private Jet at 12 am on November 7, 2021, with the sun rays shining through the windows on the right side of the airplane, indicating that the plane took off one morning between November 2 and 6, 2021.
Sunrays shine through the right side windows of planes parked in the Borg El-Arab Airport between 7 AM and 12 PM. After takeoff, the plane heads north before turning east towards the UAE, during which the sunrays enter the right side windows of the plane.
The video only showed the inside of the airplane which appeared to be a private jet.
In cooperation with the research department at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), this type of plane was identical to the planes produced by Bombardier, one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers.
Also, an analysis of the internal design of the plane showed that it was manufactured by the Bombardier Global Express Company.
A search in the “Flight Aware” database pertaining to the departure of this kind of aircraft from Egypt showed that the aircraft was a private jet manufactured by Bombardier Global Express and had taken off from Alexandria’s Borg El- Arab Airport at 9 AM on November 3, 2021, and had later landed in Abu Dhabi in the UAE.
The same database shows that this aircraft had originated at dawn from the Al Maktoum Airport in Dubai before reaching Alexandria that same day.
In addition, an examination of this aircraft’s photos in the database (10-BD-700-1A) showed that it was identical to the airplane taken by Abu Rabe’a, as it appears in the photos below.

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These findings were denied by Abu Rabe’a who seems to ignore the videos he and his relatives posted on Facebook regarding his reception of the Falcon and traveling with it via plane. At the same time, he does not deny working for an official in Abu Dhabi and receiving Emirati guests on hunting trips in Marsa Matrouh.
Abu Rabe’a’s denial led us back to the first buyer of the falcon, Al-Sa’dawi, who confirmed that he handed the falcon over to the former to transport it from Borg El-Arab to the UAE, where a delivery ceremony was to be held.

The Back Doors

Each year, this kind of Falcon commences its migration journey from the North to the South, in an attempt to escape the cold weather in Europe and head to the African continent in search of warmth. The falcons usually take one of two routes: either they take the eastern route parallel to the Nile River, or the western route which stretches from Tunisia, across Libya and Senegal, until it reaches South Africa.
According to Dr. Hilal Al-Harir, lecturer at the Faculty of Natural Resources and Environment Sciences at the Libyan Omar Al-Mukhtar University, there are four to eight kinds of migrating falcons that pass through Libya each year, while four kinds inhabit the country locally.
The falcon in question is of the “Abhriya” species and is locally referred to as the sea falcon since it arrives from the North through the Mediterranean Sea.
Dr. Alastair Franke, head of the research group “The Arctic Raptors” at the University of Alberta in Canada confirms Dr. Prommer’s findings in that the falcon is of the “Shaheen” species and its scientific name is Peregrine Falcon.
A search of this kind of falcon showed that it is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The convention stipulates that “Appendix I includes the world’s most endangered plants and animals and that international commercial trade in these species, or even parts of them, is completely banned, except in rare cases such as scientific research.”
The convention listed some exceptions to be taken into consideration by the specialized authorities before issuing licenses for transfer.

Professor Erica Lyman, Clinical Professor of Law at the Global Alliance for Animals and the Environment at Lewis and Clark Law School in the US states that the CITES allows the trading of the “Shaheen” falcon listed in Appendix I of the convention for non-commercial reasons and only if it comes from breeding centers, not wild life.”

  • The Controversy surrounding the :Shaheen” falcon in the CITES
In 2016, Canada presented a motion to move the “Shaheen” Falcon from Appendix I to Appendix II of the convention.
The reasons included the stability in the number of this kind of falcon worldwide, after the issuance of a ban prohibiting the use of organic pesticides like DDT, which had led to a decline in the number of “Shaheen” falcons after World War II.
The motion was denied by several countries including the European Union in fear of “a rise in the illegal trade” of these species.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals states that the network of the Species Survival plan, which it is a part of, denied the Canadian motion because of the continued illegal trading in the “Shaheen” falcons, indicating a lack of necessary precautionary measures in some countries.

Libya signed the CITES convention in 2003, preceded by Egypt in 1978.
Signing the convention naturally entails the enactment of local legislation that is in line with the stipulations and provisions of the CITES.
Egyptian law criminalizes the hunting and trading of wildlife animals without a license, while Libyan law only prohibits hunting without a license.

  • Article 23 of the Executive Regulations of Egyptian Law Number 4 of 1994
on Promulgating the Environment stipulates that “All methods of hunting, killing or catching the birds and wild animals referred to in Annex 4 are prohibited.”
Paragraph (B) of Annex 4
prohibits hunting, killing or capturing “Any other birds or animals determined in the international conventions to which the Arab Republic of Egypt adheres.”

  • Article 57 of Law No. 15 of 2003 on the Protection and Improvement of the environment in Libya stipulates that:
No person is allowed to hunt without a license or permit from specialized authorities and in accordance with the conditions stipulated in legislations in force. Hunting is also prohibited at non-permissible times and it is prohibited to use drugs, bacterial substances, germs, or other types of bait that harm wildlife animals. Hunting is also prohibited in protected areas of wild animals and birds except for scientific research purposes and only after obtaining the needed licenses according to legislations in force. Hunting dogs are not to be left in such areas. Protected areas include preserved forests and agricultural experiment stations.

According to environmental lawyer Ahmad Al-Saeedi, Egyptian law authorized the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environmental Affairs division at the Ministry of Environment to issue licenses for the transfer of falcons. In the event of their transfer without a license, the falcons are to be confiscated.
This is what happened one year prior to the trip of the Tobruk falcon when customs authorities in the Borg El- Arab airport foiled an attempt to smuggle eight rare live falcons onboard a plane heading to the UAE.
The Libyan Minister of Environment, Ibrahim Al- Arabi, admits to the importance of updating hunting laws and regulations in Libya but adds that the same should be applied to the trading of falcons as licenses need to be issued before they are transferred outside of Libya. However, the lack of resources and capabilities hinders the presence of control on this trade.
Upon examination of the trade database of the CITES convention which holds records of all licenses issued for falcon transfers, no record of any legal export of falcons from Libya had been recorded since 2015.

  • Libya
Since 1977, Libya has exported 13 falcons
Last record of exported falcon: 2015
  • Egypt
Since 1980, Egypt has exported 387 falcons
Last record of exported falcon: 2011

This means that the falcon in question left Libya for Egypt and then headed to the UAE illegally, a fact confirmed by Al- Sa’dawi, who stated: “All these birds are smuggled out of Libya.”

Swaddled to be Smuggled

We obtained a video and some photos documenting the process of preparing falcons for smuggling. The birds go through two stages: the first is swaddling the falcon, with the exception of its head, in white cloth in order to protect its feathers.
The second stage is injecting the falcon with an immobilizing tranquilizer in order to keep it out of sight and not attract any attention.
These processes are clearly shown in the photos of falcons confiscated by the Egyptian authorities in Borg El- Arab Airport in 2020.
Al- Sa’dawi says that these precautionary measures accompanied by the lengthy trip and weather conditions tire the falcons tremendously, to the extent that some of them die during the journey.
Once all preparations for the smuggling are completed, the falcon begins its journey. The route depends on the smuggler. One says he takes the falcons through the Jaghboub Oasis southeast of Libya, then travels 90 km towards the Egyptian oasis of Siwa, after which the falcons go to either Marsa Matrouh or Cairo.

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This route is not preferred by Sa’dawi who’d rather send the falcons through the Salloum and Musa’ed routes. Despite differences in the chosen routes of smugglers, the final destination for all the Sa’dawi falcons remains the same: “All birds end up in the Arabian Gulf.”

Final Destination

The trade of falcons is a thriving business in the Arabian Gulf and includes auctions, competitions and hunting excursions.
The UAE is the top importer of falcons worldwide. According to the CITES database, during 2021, the UAE imported 20,365 falcons. The country officially reported the import of 9,898 falcons while exporting countries reported selling the UAE another 10,467 birds.
These numbers are part of a total of 32,420 falcon exporting and importing countries reported trading.
Qatar comes in third place and has reported importing 1,622 falcons while exporting countries have reported selling Qatar 1,763 falcons.
Both Qatar and the UAE have signed the CITES Convention and then placed in effect local regulations for importing and exporting falcons that are in line with the provisions of the treaty.

  • Conditions for importing falcons in the UAE:
Issuing a CITES export or re-export certificate from the exporting country
Issuing a CITES export certificate from the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment
Issuing a health certificate that verifies the falcon is free from any disease
Confirming the presence of a sealed metal ring around the falcon’s leg

  • Conditions for importing falcons in Qatar:
A statement of approval issued by the Protection and Wildlife Department for some species
Lab results for species that require testing, issued by the exporting countries

In Qatar, trade auctions are held publicly in the Qatari “Waqef Market.”
The Qatari Al- Rayyan TV channel aired the 2015 and 2017 auction events, showing the sale of three Libyan falcons.
The first of these falcons was auctioned as a Libyan “Shaheen” species and was sold in the 2015 auction for 80 thousand QAR (22 thousand USD).
Saleh Al- Shalwi, Director of Al-Haya Organization for the Protection of Wildlife and Marine Organisms, identifies that falcon as a European Shaheen falcon with a “bold” (white) head, which makes it rather rare.
When these falcons are transferred legally, they are registered in the CITES database. However, no data currently lists Qatar as ever having imported any falcons from Libya.
This is in addition to the denial of Ibrahim Al- Arabi, the Libyan Minister of Environment to having issued any falcon travel permits during the past few years.
Yet, Al- Arabi does not deny his knowledge of the illegal falcon trade market between Libya and the Gulf countries and says that the absence of an effective role for the environmental police is highly unfortunate.
On the other hand, Khaled Bin Sufian, head of the falcon auctions division at Abu Dhabi’s International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition, admits that the migrating Shaheen falcons are smuggled from Libya to the UAE through Egypt because Libya had signed the CITES treaty which prohibits the export of falcons.
Bin Sufian adds that traders in the UAE buy migrating falcons from Libya and use them for hunting.

Black Market Recovery

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, places the illegal trade in wildlife, volume-wise, in the fourth place after arms trade, drugs and human trafficking.
The UN Environmental Project estimates that the volume of illegal trade in wildlife reaches 7–23 Billion USD annually, while Interpol estimates the annual trade volume to be around 20 billion USD annually. These figures that have been estimated by international entities in the Libyan market are reasonable, as the different species of falcons were traded for huge sums of money in the various auctions that we observed during the autumn season of 2021 and 2022.
Interpol has drawn a map of the wildlife smuggling routes, and places the Middle East region as the main crossing point for the illegal trade of wildlife and the main source of trade in rare birds.
We observed media groups of falcon trade and hunting enthusiasts, and followed, in 2021, over 20 auctions, where Al-Sa’dawi showed a strong presence, buying eight falcons at a total of about 2,750,000 LYD (approximately 525 thousand USD according to the currency exchange rate at the time.)
In the autumn of 2022, the number of auctions doubled and we managed to observe over 50 auctions at the time.
The volume of trade in falcons exceeded 50 million LYD (10 million USD, according to the currency exchange rate during the autumn season.)
Prices in falcon trade rose during the 2022 season. On October 25, one of the falcons sold for 4,700,000 LYD (940 thousand USD, according to the official exchange rate at the time.)
The mentioned falcon was sold to Libyan trader Hatem Al- Qata’ni who announced that he was going to gift it to brigade 20/20, led by Admiral Saddam Haftar, son of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
We tracked the falcon until it ended up three days after being sold in the hands of Mohammad Al- Sa’dawi. It was a young female Shaheen falcon who had migrated from northern Europe.
Hence, the falcon was an endangered species, the sale and trade of which was prohibited by the CITES convention without a proper license, according to Mattias Prommer, Researcher in the Faculty of Natural Resources and Environment, at the University of Florida.
The Falcon may have met with the same fate as the one before it, since Al- Sa’dawi confirms that he received the bird to transfer it on a plane from a Libyan Airport to the UAE.

by Maher Al-Sha’eri and Ahmed Ashour, supported by ARIJ Network

Find the original article here:

  • Princess

    16 w

    Efforts to protect these species and their habitats are crucial.

    • Rukia Ahmed Abdi

      17 w

      The involvement of Interpol and the UN in monitoring and combating illegal wildlife trade is highlighted, indicating the international recognition of the severity of the issue.

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