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Falcons Can’t Fly Without Passports in the United Arab Emirates

ID documents are helping stamp out smuggling for the prized birds

This man living in Dubai would need proper documentation if his bird is to fly — on an airplane, that is (Tuul & Bruno Morandi/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In the United Arab Emirates, even falcons have passports. Actually, they're required to do so if they want to fly on a plane, reports Dawn Bradley for The News Hub. This practice isn’t just "providing a status symbol" for rich falcon owners, she writes: It's aimed at preventing falcon smuggling. 

Trained falcons are a coveted commodity. Jer Falcons or Icelandic Falcons are considered to be "flawless and genetically pure," writes Chris Peak for The Huffington Post, a status that can command prices of up to $1 million per bird. That kind of money has led to a black market for the birds. The Saker falcon of Mongolia has an estimated black market value of £2.6 million ($4 million), according to Tom Parfitt at The Telegraph. Prices like these are threatening the survival of rare species like the Saker. Smugglers are even transporting falcon eggs.

Falconry, the sport of hunting for game with trained raptors, has been a traditional part of Bedouin culture in the Middle East for centuries. However, as the birds’ populations have declined around the world, the practice has changed to one popular with the wealthy. 

That’s why these falcon passports exist. They help officials track the movement of falcons through the UAE, Bradely explains at The News Hub. She writes that each falcon is issued a three-year passport with a unique ID number that matches up with an ID ring on the bird's leg.

The UAE is a major source of the demand for falcons, and the first to adopt the passport system. Last year, a handful of other countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia — also agreed to set up passport programs for falcons, reports Ella Morton for Atlas Obscura

Yet, other countries and regions also participate in falconry. And birds hidden from sight, to the danger of their health, aren’t necessarily protected by passports — border guards can’t demand documentation for something they don’t know is there. Still, the passport is an intriguing novelty that just might be helping the birds survive.

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